Remembering Big Red Special Teams Star Chuck Latourette

Charles Pierre Latourette’s childhood dream was to someday become a surgeon.

“I’d like to think that some day I can do just in part for other people what Dr. (Fred) Reynolds (The Cardinals team physician) did for me,” Latourette told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1970.

Latourette was a football star at Jonesboro (AR) High School and played college ball at Rice University where he was an All-Southwest Conference safety. In 1965, Latourette returned a kick that helped the Owls, who were four touchdown underdogs, upset Texas 20-17.

Latourette made it clear to pro football scouts that he planned to study medicine after graduation. “Forget me in the draft,” he warned. As a result, he was not selected by a professional team in the 1967 NFL Draft. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t wanted.

The Denver Broncos and Cardinals both offered him rookie contracts in 1967, so he thought it over and decided to give pro ball a try before entering med school. He chose to play for the Cardinals.

“Even though Denver offered more outright, I figured I might as well go all out and try to play with the best,” the 6-foot, 190-pounder told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1967.

TRIPLE THREAT

“Frenchy” immediately impressed the Cardinals in his first training camp. He worked out at free safety and punter and ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.65 seconds.

“He’s a good prospect, an eager kid and better than some we’ve had in recent years trying for a defensive backfield spot,” Cards defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis said. “He could also have a chance as a punter.”

Latourette averaged over 40 yards a kick in college and the Cardinals were desperate for consistency in the punting game. Jim Bakken and Jackie Smith combined for an average of only 35 yards per punt in 1966.

Frenchy had no problem winning the punting job and averaged 40.8 yards per kick his rookie season. He also played some free safety for the injury riddled Cardinals defense and shared rookie of the year honors with wide receiver Dave Williams.

After putting off his studies for a year, Latourette enrolled at the University of Tennessee medical school in Memphis where he needed to complete six terms for his degree. He would miss most of training camp in 1968.

“He can keep up his punting practice at school,” Big Red head coach Charley Winner said, “but his absence will hurt from the standpoint of practice in the defensive backfield.”

Latourette arrived at Big Red camp in August and immediately resumed his punting duties. He also took over the kick and punt return duties from Johnny Roland who was coming off of knee surgery.

FRENCHY STARS IN NEW ORLEANS

On September 29, 1968 Frenchy would have his greatest NFL game and may have saved Charley Winner’s job at the same time. With the Cardinals trailing the New Orleans Saints 17-0 halfway through the fourth quarter, Latourette broke loose for an 86 yard punt return which would spark the Big Red to a 21-20 victory.

“When we got that runback, everybody on the bench knew we were going to get two more touchdowns,” the embattled Winner told reporters after the game.

“When I reached the 20, I looked around to see if anybody was near, but all I could see were red shirts,” Latourette said after the game.

Frenchy broke Roland’s NFL single-game record for average yards on punt returns (47.7). He totaled 143 yards on three returns.

Up to that point Latourette had been one of the Cardinals “weekend” players. He had just driven back to St. Louis a couple of days before the New Orleans game after completing his final exams in Memphis.

But school work did not hurt Latourette’s performance in 1968. He became a fearless return man and led the NFL with a 12.3 yard punt return average and also led the league in number of kick and punt returns and return yardage. He also finished fourth in punting with a 41.6 yard average and started two games at safety for an injured Mike Barnes.

The Cardinals had high hopes entering the 1969 season. They only lost one of their last 10 games in ’68 and missed the playoffs by a half game. But injuries on the defensive side of the ball contributed to a 4-9-1 record.

Latourette didn’t even make it out of preseason before suffering a knee injury in the Governor’s Cup game.

Tired of hearing boos from the home crowd after downing a couple of booming Jan Stenerud kicks in the end zone, Frenchy grew impatient and decided to return the next one.

“So I went against instructions,” he told Bob Broeg in a 1970 column in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “More than a couple of yards deep in the end zone, we’re supposed to take the ball at the 20 as an automatic touchback, but this one was five or six yards deep, and I brought it out.”

“Around the 40, I hit a pileup and tried to hurdle it. When I did and my rood foot came down, one of the Chiefs rammed into the knee. I knew it was gone.”

Frenchy suffered a torn knee ligament and was out for the year. Doctors were pessimistic that Latourette would ever play football again, but he returned in 1970 with a clean bill of health. However, he wasn’t sold on returning kickoffs.

“If I had my choice, I’d rather not return kickoffs,” he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “But, I’d like to continue to bring back punts and, of course, I’d like to play more in the defensive backfield. “I know this,” he said smiling, “No matter how often or much the fans boo, if I’m back there and not supposed to return a kick, I’m not going to bring the ball out.”

Charley Winner listened to Frenchy and mainly used him to return punts. However, he only averaged 5.7 yards per return. He started three games at safety and returned a fumble for a touchdown in the season finale in Washington. He also averaged 40.9 yards per punt.

Chuck Latourette in action at Yankee Stadium in 1970.

Latourette struggled in 1971 averaging only 38.5 yards per punt, although he attributed that to a season long ankle injury. He offered to take a fifty percent pay cut in 1972 and punt on weekends, but the front office wasn’t interested, so Latourette retired.

There were other reasons Frenchy called it quits as well. Latourette fumbled a snap from center in a 37-20 loss to Philadelphia in 1971. The Eagles recovered the ball at the Cardinals 10 yard line and scored three plays later.

“Coach Hollway wouldn’t let anyone use handwarmers,” Latourette told Jeff Meyers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “and as everyone knows I’m most sensitive to the cold. In a meeting that next Tuesday, the coach told me to get up and apologize to the team. I thought that was inexcusable.”

Latourette finished his medical degree after leaving the Cardinals and played a few games for the Houston Texans of the World Football League in 1974, before concentrating on his radiology practice in Houston.

TRAGEDY

Latourette passed away on December 22, 1982 in Houston, Texas. He was found in his bedroom with a gunshot wound to his left eye. A few weeks later, Latourette’s wife of 11 months, Patricia, was charged with murder.

Police said that Mrs. Latourette shot her husband during an argument in the couple’s bedroom, in which she reportedly lost a tooth. The defense claimed the couple heard a noise outside and Mr. Latourette shot himself while retrieving the gun from a box.

During the trial, a tape recording of a phone call made two weeks prior to the incident revealed that Mrs. Latourette had accused him of having a girlfriend and that she was going to kill him “with your own gun.”

Some 14 months after the shooting, the judge threw the case out claiming the prosecution’s case lacked sufficient evidence.

Latourette was 37 years old when he passed. Big Red officials and former players remembered him with fondness and respect.

Bill Bidwill, Cardinals owner: “I didn’t know him well personally because there was a difference in our ages, but I admired him as a fine young man and a great competitor.”

Larry Wilson, director of pro personnel: “I was really shocked. Chuck was an aggressive football player, one of those guys who really loved to play.”

Charley Johnson, former quarterback: “He was fearless. He played as if every game was his last one.”

Jim Hart, former quarterback: “He was a wild and reckless guy with the special teams.”

Bob Rowe, former defensive tackle: “He was a super competitor. He loved those punt returns. He infected the team with excitement. He was a real fun-loving guy. A real team player.”

“Frenchy” Latourette returning a kick against the Colts in 1968.

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