Pat Fischer was a jack of all trades in college while playing for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He started at quarterback and defensive back his senior season and was a fabulous kick returner. The Omaha native still holds the Cornhusker record with a career average of 18.3 yards per punt return. He was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1974.
The diminutive Fischer stood just 5 foot-9 inches and was deemed by many to be too small to play in the pros, however the St. Louis Football Cardinals drafted him in the 17th round of the 1961 NFL draft.
“I was selected in the 17th round of the draft, so whenever anyone would ask I could say that I was drafted. I didn’t have to say the round, just saying that I was drafted by an NFL team was enough to impress people,” Pat told the Washington Times in a 2008 interview.
Fischer was also a late draft pick of the AFL Dallas Texans, who would eventually become the Kansas City Chiefs. But he decided to sign with the Cardinals because they were in the NFL. “I looked upon the AFL as a fallback. I thought the NFL was the better league. If I didn’t make the Cardinals, I could always go on and try out for the Chiefs,” he told the Times.
The Cardinals admitted they felt Pat had little chance to make the team.
“His coaches at Nebraska spoke for him,” Abe Stuber, chief talent scout for the Cards, said in Robert Burnes book Big Red: Story of the Football Cardinals. “They said he was the toughest man on the team, had all kinds of guts. But I think everybody worried about his size.”
It didn’t take long for Fischer to make an impression in training camp. He returned a George Izo pass 90 yards for a touchdown in the first Big Red scrimmage. He made the team and would primarily play on special teams his first two seasons. He also averaged more than 25 yards per kick return.
Fischer picked off his first pass against Sonny Jurgensen in a 27-21 win over the Eagles in the season opener. The fourth quarter interception led to the game winning touchdown.
Pat feared that he would not make the team in 1963, but caught a break prior to an exhibition game against the Bears. Veteran CB Jimmy Hill faked an injury which forced defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis to give Fischer a chance and he took advantage by playing very well. “Well enough to be recognized,” he told Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Fischer ended up starting all 14 games and led the team with 8 interceptions.
He followed that up with a Pro Bowl and All-Pro season in 1964 when his aggressiveness and anticipation led to 10 interceptions, the second best in the NFL. He also returned a fumble 49 yards for the game winning touchdown in a 21-20 victory over Pittsburgh. “I didn’t do much,” he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the game. “I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time, caught the ball and ran into the end zone.”
Drulis called Fischer the “the best cornerback in the league” and his teammates voted him the club’s Most Valuable Player following the ’64 season. After receiving the award, Fischer called it “the proudest moment of my life, knowing that the other guys selected me.”
Part of Pat’s success should be credited to Drulis. The Big Red secondary was prone to giving up big plays whenever safety Larry Wilson blitzed and was unable to get to the quarterback. After being burned a few times, Drulis suggested that Fischer play the bump and run technique. At the time, NFL rules permitted defensive backs to bump the receiver all the way down field until the ball was thrown. The bump and run was tailor-made for Fischer as he was able to take bigger and faster receivers out of their routes and often out of their games with a physical confrontation.
“Drulis told me to play a normal goal line defense whenever Wilson blitzed,” Pat explained. “On the goal line I would have to play right up on the line because there was no room. The idea was to bump the receiver and take a second or two away from him, screw up the timing of the pass play. I did what I was told, but I wasn’t confident about it at first. It took a number of games for me to see what it was like and to build my confidence. It developed over a period of time.”
Fischer was known for his work ethic and was a master of leverage who understood how to maximize his power and punish those who would enter his domain. He revelled in the challenge of taking on the biggest, the fastest and the strongest. In a 1964 game at Cleveland, Fischer met the great Jim Brown head-on, picked up the famous 230 pound full back, and single handedly dumped him in the backfield for a three yard loss.
“Stay low, keep my head up and when I make contact, lift and take at least one of his legs away from him,” Fischer said in an NFL Films video about his “one leg up” tackling technique. If I get him off the ground with one leg, I’m gonna win the war… because now he doesn’t have any power. What he has to have is both legs driving in order for him to run over me. “
Few opponents enjoyed playing against Pat. He understood that intimidation was about attitude and on game day, his was always nasty. Off the field he was modest, respectful and humble.
Because of his size, Fischer was always an inviting target for opposing quarterbacks. “I’m not as big as the men I’m defending against,” Fischer said after the 1964 season, ” and I’m not as fast as most of them so I have to compensate. I have to be aggressive. If the man I’m up against beats me once, I’m twice as determined to stop him the next time.”
Fischer earned another Pro Bowl invite in 1965 and intercepted a pass against the Browns just two days after his father passed away. “Football was a big part of his life and the folks at home told me they wanted me to play,” Fischer told the Post Dispatch after the game.
Fischer struggled with injuries in 1966 and had a falling out with management and head coach Charley Winner in 1967. He decided to play out his option and not to return to the Big Red in 1968.
“I felt I was unfairly criticized by Coach Winner for some defensive problems that were not my fault,” Fischer told Burnes,”but I was made the scapegoat.”
He was prepared to retire from football and return to Nebraska to finish his degree.
“I needed nine hours to get my degree from Nebraska so I would have gone back to school,” said Fischer. “I had played seven years already and couldn’t expect to play more than 10 years. So at that point it was a decent career. I could walk away from it. It was an easy decision not to sign with the Cardinals.”
Instead, Fischer signed a contract with the Washington Redskins and would go on to play ten more seasons which included an appearance in Super Bowl VII against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
Many will recall Fischer’s legendary battles with Eagles wide receiver Harold Carmichael who stood almost a foot taller than Pat, but Big Red fans will always remember his involvement in a game-changing play that happened on a late Sunday at Busch Stadium in 1975.
The play was known as the “Phantom Catch” and occurred with the Redskins leading the Cardinals 17-10. With 24 seconds left in the game, the Big Red had a fourth down and goal at their own seven yard line when Jim Hart threw a slant pass to Mel Gray in the endzone. As Pat Summerall described in a This Week in Pro Football highlight, “the ball, Gray and Pat Fischer met in simultaneous rendezvous.” Gray appeared to momentarily have possession of the ball, but Fischer’s hit knocked the ball loose. One official immediately signaled the pass was incomplete, but the call was eventually overruled and Gray was credited with a touchdown. The Cardinals tied the game and went on to win in overtime 20-17. “That is one of the plays they point to to justify instant replay,” said Fischer.
Fischer would retire after the 1977 season due to a back injury. “If it wasn’t for that, I would have played until they took my helmet away from me.”
Fischer is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Hall of Fame voter Clark Judge feels that #37 should be inducted.
“Fischer was good, tough and durable,” Judge said. “He lasted 17 seasons and created takeaways. A turnover machine, he had 56 career interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. More importantly, he played the run as well as the pass — a sure tackler who, Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff said, `intimidated’ him. What’s more, he was an innovator — one of the first … if not the first … to play the bump and run. Fischer could play fast receivers, he could play shifty receivers and he could play tall receivers … and he never backed down.”
Pound for pound, there may not have been a better player in the NFL than Pat Fischer. Big Red fans can only fantasize about a tandem of Roger Wehrli and Fischer playing cornerback for the Cardiac Cardinals in the 1970s.