“Best of luck to him,” Cardinals director of operations Joe Sullivan told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after star running back Terry Metcalf announced he was taking his talents to the Canadian Football League in March of 1978. “Money is a great thing to have in life when you’re young.”
Metcalf signed a seven-year, $1.4 million contract with the Toronto Argonauts after turning down a 3-year, $240,000 offer from the Cardinals and curiously similar proposals from other NFL teams. Metcalf was looking for a reported $300,000 yearly contract.
“I wouldn’t have made as much in five years in St. Louis as I’ll make in one year in Toronto,” Metcalf told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the deal was announced. “I laid in bed all Saturday night thinking about it. There were a lot of doubts in my mind, but I have to do what’s right for me.”
Metcalf added, “I thought I would still be in the NFL, but nobody seemed willing to want to talk. So I had to look elsewhere.”
The 26 year old Metcalf was known as “The Franchise” in St. Louis. He was the Cards third round draft choice in 1973 out of Long Beach State and quickly became one of the greatest all-purpose backs the game had ever seen.
In 1974, Metcalf became the first NFL player to average 30 yards per kick return and 10 yards per punt return in the same season. The following year he set an NFL record with 2462 combined yards and became one of only four players to account for touchdowns by rushing, receiving, kick return, punt return, and passing in a season.
“He did everything for us except drive the bus to the stadium,” Dan Dierdorf said of Metcalf in a 2018 interview on KFNS radio.
Metcalf signed a long term contract with the Cardinals after his record breaking season, but things took a turn for the worse in 1976. First, he was arrested at the airport for supposedly threatening to blow up an airplane with a 1-inch firecracker. “I was laughing when I said it,” Metcalf said. “But they made it like I was ready to blow up everything in sight.”
Then he was sued for allegedly damaging a bully’s nose in a pickup basketball game. Eyewitnesses said that the man was provoking Metcalf the entire game and undercut him on a layup that sent Terry crashing to the floor.
Like many of his teammates, Metcalf also discovered he was grossly underpaid. He claimed that he would no longer return kicks or punts unless the Cardinals agreed to pay him more. He later backed off that stand, but he ended up having his worst season in St. Louis and led the league with 15 fumbles.
“It’s not been a good year as far as publicity is concerned,” Metcalf told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “But it’s got to get better because it can’t get worse. I’m not the bad apple people are making me out to be.
To the Cardinals credit, a compromise was reached in 1977. Management tore up Metcalf’s long term contract and Terry agreed to take a 20% pay cut. In essence, he bought his freedom for a chance to test his value in the NFL marketplace.
“I think this thing (the new contract) will benefit me a lot,” Metcalf said after reporting to training camp. “Now, I can play with a free mind.”
“If Terry lets go and becomes the Terry of old, it will make a lot of difference to us,” said Joe Sullivan. “I think we’re going to have a football player who is concentrating totally on football.”
Metcalf certainly rebounded in 1977. He once again combined for over 2000 all-purpose yards, led the team in rushing, and had a solid 5.0 yards per carry. But the season ended on a sour note for the Cardinals and Metcalf as the Big Red dropped their last four games and failed to make the playoffs.
The Big Red were officially eliminated on a cold late afternoon December game against the Redskins. The game was a microcosm of Terry’s St. Louis career. HeDid combined for over 200 rushing/receiving yards, but his fourth quarter fumble led to Washington’s game winning touchdown and the fans let him have it. After the game, a frustrated Metcalf said he was “tired of St. Louis fans” and that he wouldn’t be back in 1978.
“God didn’t make me perfect,” Metcalf said. “If they (the fans) think they can do better, I wish they’d get out there and try. I don’t know where I’ll be (next year), but I know the fans don’t want me here.”
The Cardinals attempted to trade Metcalf to New Orleans with Conrad Dobler and Ike Harris in early 1978, but the Saints balked at his contract demands.
He became a free agent on February 1, 1978 and the Toronto Argonauts were the first team to contact his agent Richard Bennett. But talks quickly broke off as Toronto’s initial offer fell far below Metcalf’s expectations.
Metcalf told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that he “never thought any more” about Toronto’s offer. “I thought I’d probably end up playing in Baltimore.”
However, things changed a few weeks later. Bennett received an offer from Argonauts’ owner Bill Hodgson on March 3. Metcalf flew to Toronto on March 4, and an agreement was reached the following day.
Metcalf said he was impressed with Hodgson.
“This guy wants the Grey Cup and he’s not going stop until he gets it. We sat down and talked about everything. I’m going to have promotional chances here that I never would have had in St. Louis.”
Metcalf also said that he was leaving the Big Red with some regrets.
“When I first came to St. Louis, I would have died for the Cardinals,” Metcalf said. “It’s going to be awfully hard to say good-bye to some of the friends I’ve made there. But my feelings toward the organization changed the first time I went to the Pro Bowl and found out what some of the other players were getting.”
Metcalf’s CFL career started off with a bang. He rushed for 163 yards, almost 300 all-purpose yards and scored 2 touchdowns in the Argos 34-22 season opening win over Hamilton. But the team wasn’t good. Injuries on the offensive line and questionable coaching resulted in a 4-12 record. Metcalf struggled with “turf toe” and also played with an injured knee. He scored only one more touchdown the rest of the season.
While he was a division all-star in 1979, Metcalf’s three year career with Toronto was viewed as underwhelming. He returned to the NFL in 1981 and played for his old backfield coach Joe Gibbs in Washington where he returned kicks caught 48 passes for 595 yards. However he was among the last cuts in 1983 after failing to overcome and offseason injury. He retired from football shortly after.
“I had a feeling this was going to happen,” Metcalf told the Associated Press after his release. “I just couldn’t perform the way I wanted to, and I could see Joe was really concerned about it.”
“I respect Terry so much,” Gibbs said. “It was very hard. If he hadn’t had the offseason injury, it would have been a different result for him here.”
There was no other player in the 1970s more electrifying and versatile than Terry Metcalf. He finished his Cardinals career with a club record 9,040 all-purpose yards, most kickoff return yards (2,804), and most yards on punt returns (921). He played in three Pro Bowls and it’s a shame that something couldn’t have been worked out between Terry and the Cardinals after the ’77 season.