Desperate for defensive line help in the 1974 NFL draft, Big Red personnel director George Boone shocked everyone when he selected tight end James Victor Cain with the 7th overall pick in the draft.
“We didn’t feel we could pass up a guy like that,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the Cardinals picked the Colorado All-American.
The Big Red already had a pretty good tight end in future Hall of Famer Jackie Smith, so they worked Cain out at both tight end and wide receiver during his first training camp. And it didn’t take long for the tall, rangy Houston native to make an impression with his new teammates in St. Louis.
J.V. Cain caught 76 passes for 1014 yards and 9 touchdowns in four seasons with the Cardinals.
“You seldom see a wide receiver hit people all over the field the way J.V. does,” reserve quarterback Bill Bynum said. “He’s so big and strong that he can get down into the pattern quickly and doesn’t have to worry about having trouble releasing from the linebacker.”
“Cain is just super,” head coach Don Coryell said. “He catches everything. That’s what I like about him. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
However, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Cain struggled learning the nuances of both positions.
“It was mind-blowing the first week,” Cain told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It was kind of confusing, but I’ve got it down now. I’m just learning now to read the defenses to where I’m reacting, not thinking.”
Cain played sparingly the first half of the season as the Cardinals won their first seven games. He backed up Smith at tight end and split time with wide receiver Earl Thomas.
But his time arrived a couple of weeks later against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. On a third down play, quarterback Jim Hart threw a perfect strike to Cain, who shed two tackles and streaked 40 yards for his first National Football League touchdown.
“It was the biggest thrill of my life,” Cain said after the game. “National TV. Monday Night Football. It was like a dream come true.”
J.V. was named the Big Red’s rookie of the year in 1974 and would go on to have other big games during his brief four-year career with the Cardinals.
Cain played a big role in the “Phantom Catch” win over the Redskins in 1975, scoring a touchdown and diving for a clutch third down catch on the game winning drive in overtime.
He also scored on a late 25-yard touchdown pass in the Cards 30-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams in 1976 and scored again a couple of weeks later in an upset victory over the Baltimore Colts at Busch Stadium.
Cain’s most memorable catch came in the 1977 home opener against the Chicago Bears. Leading 6-3 just before halftime, Jim Hart marched the Big Red down field in the 2-minute offense. From the Bears 17 yard line Hart threw a high pass to Cain at the front corner of the end zone.
“I think the defender thought I gave up on the ball,” Cain told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “so he gave up on it, too. But I knew I had a shot at it.”
Cain, who had five inches on Bears cornerback Craig Clemons, leaped and made a remarkable one-handed catch for the touchdown.
“When I threw the ball,” said Hart, “I wanted J.V. to be the only one who could catch it. If he couldn’t get it was going to go out of bounds.”
Cain added, “Jim put it in the perfect place. We don’t practice the play, but Jim can throw it right where it’s supposed to be.”
Cain made another similar one-handed catch for a touchdown against the Redskins a few weeks later. He ended up finishing second in Pro Bowl voting, and with Jackie Smith’s retirement and the departure of wide receiver Ike Harris to New Orleans, J.V. figured to be a big part of the Cardinals passing attack in 1978. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition.
Cain ruptured his Achilles’ tendon while running a pass pattern early in training camp. He would miss the entire season.
“It’s a shock now thinking about not playing again this year,” the big tight end told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Now I must pray to God that I will have a complete rehabilitation and I’ll be able to be All-Pro next year. That was my plan for this year, you know.”
“I just wish to God that they (the Cardinals) have all the luck in the world without me,” Cain added. “There was a lot riding on my shoulders this year and I thought I was ready to handle it. I thought I’d be coming through.”
Doctors said there were no guarantees that Cain would fully recover from the Achilles’ injury and that rehabilitation would take a year. But Cain worked hard and completed rehab ahead of schedule. He started running a little over five months after surgery and was ready to go for training camp in 1979.
TRAGEDY AT LINDENWOOD
By all accounts, Cain’s ankle was strong when Big Red veterans reported to camp at Lindenwood College on July 19, 1979. However, two days later, on his 28th birthday, J.V. Cain collapsed on the 20 yard line after running a pass pattern during a light practice. Team doctors and trainers immediately performed CPR on Cain who was momentarily revived. He was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Charles where he died less than two hours later.
“I am shocked beyond description,” said Cards owner Bill Bidwill, who was among a few club officials who went to the hospital. “He was a wonderful gentleman and a superb athlete. It’s a terrible tragedy. He was a man we will all miss, more than anything as a person.”
“I have eight brothers and he’s closer to me than any of them,” defensive tackle Charlie Davis told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I had dinner with him the last time he had dinner. I talked to him about his birthday. It’s just a lot of little things that we talked about that you remember.”
Rookie tight end Jerry Holloway recalled the horrible scene when his friend fell to the turf. “All of a sudden I hear a big thump,” he said. “Everybody thought he had just passed out. It was a dark situation. Everybody wanted to know why the ambulance took so long to come. Why this and why that. Nobody knew what to do, except pray.”
Cardinals vice president of operations Joe Sullivan said: “The players are in a state of shock. Talking to them they seem pretty far away, and they have to come back. J.V. was one of the things we looked forward to. He was a leader from the first practice until he couldn’t lead anymore.”
Team spokesman Steve Curran said fans and players were stunned by what happened.
“When they (players) saw that CPR was started, it just got dead silent,” Curran said. “A lot of people on the sidelines bowed their heads in prayer. At one point, Coach Bud Wilkinson had the players on a line in prayer. They kept yelling, ‘Come on J.V., come on J.V.’ There were tears. It was very emotional.”
Almost two months after Cain’s death, doctors ruled the cause of death as “mural coronary arterial circulation,” a rare congenital condition that affects those engaged in strenuous exercise. There were only eight known cases at the time and the condition was undetectable except for autopsy. Cain was a fitness buff and had just completed a thorough physical a few days before and showed no symptoms of any heart condition.
Bill Bidwill generously paid out the reminder of J.V.’s contract to his wife Eugenia “Jean” Cain. They had only been married for just over 6 months at the time of his death.
In a 1993 interview, Jean Cain told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that J.V. had called her just after midnight on Sunday morning. “He was singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to himself,” she said. He later called Jean to tell her that he loved her. It would be the last time they spoke to one another.
Later that evening Bud Wilkinson called with the news that J.V. had suffered a “heart attack” during practice and had been taken to the hospital. The Cardinals sent Charlie Davis on a chartered flight to Houston to bring her back to St. Louis.
“Nobody said a thing,” Cain said. (Davis) “couldn’t even look at me. I didn’t say anything. But I knew (that he was dead). It was the longest plane ride.”
J.V. Cain’s memorial service in Houston drew 200 people, including Bidwill, Wilkinson, and a host of other Cardinals. A memorial fund was set up to help youngsters at the St. Louis Association for Retarded Citizens and the Cardinals players wore black armbands during the 1979 season.
“The good Lord let him do what he enjoyed doing the most,” Jean Cain said. “Football’s what he loved. The relief I had was that he died doing what he enjoyed doing and that he was on a football field.”