(EDITOR’S NOTE: Former St. Louis Globe Democrat and Sporting News writer Dennis Dillon recently caught up with Pat Tilley and is kind enough to share his story here in The Big Red Zone)
Pat Tilley described the catch as “incredible.”
No, the former Cardinals wide receiver was not talking about his one-handed, backhanded grab for a touchdown against the Baltimore Colts in 1980, arguably the most memorable of his 468 receptions during an 11-season career with the Big Red. He was referring to the 120-pound striped marlin he and his wife, Susie, reeled in recently while fishing the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Certainly, it will make for a much more pleasant memory than Tilley’s visit to Cabo three years ago. Back then, he woke up one morning and couldn’t speak. He had suffered a stroke.
Tilley was taken to a four-room hospital in Cabo, where it was discovered that fluid had seeped into his lungs and he had pneumonia. Eventually, he was flown to a hospital in Houston, where he lives, and had open-heart surgery to repair a valve. Also, his speech was compromised, requiring two years of speech therapy.
“Now, I’m speaking pretty well … and just enjoying life,” Tilley, 67, said during a recent phone conversation. “I work out a lot, go to the movies a lot, and eat out a lot. And spend time with my daughters.
Tilley has three daughters from a previous marriage: April, who lives in Shreveport, La.; Lee Ann, who lives in Houston; and Joni, who lives in Frisco, Texas. He also has six grandkids.
Although he has been retired from football since 1986, Tilley still ranks seventh on the Chicago-St. Louis-Arizona Cardinals all-time list in receptions. He finished his career with 7,005 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns.
Drafted by the Cardinals in the fourth round in 1976, following a four-year career at Louisiana Tech, where he was an All-Southland Conference selection as both a junior and senior, Tilley was a co-recipient (along with defensive tackle Mike Dawson) of the Cardinals’Rookie of the Year Award. He led the Cardinals in receptions for five consecutive years (1978-82). His best season was 1980, when he had 68 catches for 966 yards and six TDs, despite missing the final two games with a groin injury. His teammates voted Tilley as the Cardinals’ Most Valuable Player that season; he also was selected to the Pro Bowl but was unable to play because of the injury.
Tilley played under four head coaches in St. Louis (not counting Larry Wilson, an interim head coach for the final three games in 1979): Don Coryell (1976-77), Bud Wilkinson (1978-79), Jim Hanifan (1980-85) and Gene Stallings (1986).
He said Hanifan was “my favorite coach. He trusted me.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s one of my all-time favorite players,” Hanifan said of Tilley. “He gave it everything he had. Pat was a consummate professional. He wanted to be the very, very best.”
“I remember at nut-cutting time, where we needed a first down, or needed a score, the guy I would go to was Patty. That’s not putting down our other great receiver, Roy Green, who was very gifted, but I don’t know how many times I called Patty’s number. And he came through. And a couple of times it was unbelievable.”
Hanifan recalled a game against the Redskins, when Tilley was running a crossing pattern, with one of the Redskins defenders trailing him. One of the other DBs saw that Tilley was open, so he dropped his coverage and headed toward Tilley.
“I saw it coming,” says Hanifan. “I’m yelling, ‘Patty! Patty! Watch out!’ But he didn’t hear me. The guy frickin’ drilled Patty. I don’t know how he did it, but he held on to the ball. It was for a first down, it kept the drive going and we win the game.”
Most Big Red fans remember the one-handed reception Tilley made against the Colts on Oct. 26, 1980 in Baltimore. He ran a crossing pattern, left to right, reached high with his right hand and snagged the front end of Jim Hart’s pass backhanded for a 10-yard touchdown.
There was speculation that Tilley had some Stick-um on his glove that aided him in making the catch.
“Me?” Tilley asks, incredulously. “You know I did.”
Tilley arrived in St. Louis near the end of the “Cardiac Cards” run under Coryell. The Cardinals went to the playoffs in 1974 and ’75, but barely missed the postseason in ’76 despite a 10-4 record. After going 7-7 in ’77 (Coryell’s final season), they suffered through four consecutive losing seasons. After the 1981 season, in which Tilley was miffed because veteran Jim Hart was benched and replaced at quarterback by Neil Lomax, Tilley wanted out of St. Louis.
“When I got home to Shreveport (after the season), I called (Cowboys coach) Tom Landry and asked him for a trade,” Tilley said. “He said he’d love to have me.” But the Cardinals refused to trade him.
Tilley returned to the Cardinals in 1982 and played five more years before hurting his back in the opening game of the 1986 season against the Rams. The Cardinals placed him on the injured-reserve list a few days later, and he eventually had surgery to remove part of a disk that was rubbing against his spinal nerve.
Did he think about trying to make a comeback and play again in 1987?
“No,” he says. “I decided 11 years was a long time.”
After his retirement, Tilley continued to stay involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He also had a brief coaching career at Louisiana Tech (1989-92) as a receivers coach and offensive coordinator, and with the Arena League’s Bossier City, La., Battle Wings (2001-02) as the head coach.
A few years ago, Tilley said, he caught the tattoo bug. On one arm, he has the initials of his three daughters. On his right upper arm, there is a picture of the Cardinal and the number 83, the uniform he wore for the Cardinals.
How does he hope Big Red fans remember him?
“I just hope they remember me as a good receiver,” he said.