There was no better all-purpose running back in the late 1950s/early ’60s than the Cardinals’ John David Crow. The 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pounder was strong, had quick feet, great balance, was an excellent receiver, fantastic blocker, and may have been the best passer on the team for a couple of seasons.
“He’s big and strong and tough,” Chicago Cardinals head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy told the Chicago Tribune about his star running back in 1959. “I’ll tell you, he’s what we call a wiggler. It’s an almost indefinable quality. When the opposing defense is tight, he’ll bull his way into a hole, then suddenly wiggle through for extra yardage.”
Legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once called John David Crow “the finest player” he ever coached. Crow won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Bryant at Texas A&M in 1957. Later that year the Chicago Cardinals selected him as the second overall pick in the 1958 NFL Draft.
The rookie scored his first career touchdown when he recovered a fumble in the endzone against the New York Giants in the 1958 season opener. The following week he dashed for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play of the game and later added another score in a 37-10 win over Washington.
“He used that wiggle I was talking about,” Ivy explained after the game. “After he got into the secondary, he had no blocking at all. He was strictly on his own. He wiggled past a couple of defensive backs, and then simply outran everybody to the goal line.”
Crow scored a 91-yard touchdown a week later and was well on his way to rookie of the year honors, but a knee injury would slow him down and limit him to only 8 games his freshman season.
Crow came back strong in 1959 when he combined for almost 1,000 yards from scrimmage, scored seven touchdowns and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
In March of 1960, the Cardinals left the Windy City for St. Louis and Crow had the biggest year of his career. In just 12 games, the Louisiana native became the organization’s first 1,000-yard rusher (1,071) and averaged 5.9 yards per carry, tops in the league. He also led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,533) and even passed for 247 yards and two touchdowns. Crow closed the season with a bang, rushing for 203 yards in a 38-7 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Busch Stadium I. Box Score
“The boys really gave me some wonderful blocking—all of ’em,” Crow said after the game. “You have to have it for 203 yards in this league. Man, I’m tired, but you don’t think about that when you win.
Crow was named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl, finished third in the NFL MVP vote, and earned a salary increase with a new contract.
When asked about his goals for the next season, a grinning Crow told the St. Louis Post Dispatch “I’d like to gain at least 1,072 yards.”
Crow had become the top all-purpose back in the league and was feared by opponents. Two months after Crow completed the 1960 season, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat broke the story of a proposed trade of Crow to Cleveland for All-Pro running back Jim Brown. However, the Cardinals reportedly rejected the deal. Learn more about the trade proposal here.
Crow told the Post-Dispatch he “was flattered” the Cardinals turned down an offer for Brown.
“The Wolfners not only have treated me well, but the Cardinals are a great gang and I like St. Louis,” Crow said.
In 1961, Crow injured his knee in a preseason contest against the Packers and only played in eight games. He also struggled to return to form in 1962 and led the league in fumbles. But the big halfback finished the season strong gaining over 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the last three games of the year including a four-touchdown performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale.
“I never have been able to put a finger on what my trouble was,” Crow told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the game. “But I finally decided the heck with everything and I wasn’t going to worry about fumbles or anything.”
Crown finished the ’62 season with 997 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns. He also completed 12-20 passes for another 246 yards and was named to his third Pro Bowl team.
After the season, Crow again was rumored to be on the trading block. The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that the Green Bay Packers offered a package for Crow in 1963 before he injured his knee in training camp.
The knee injury would limit Crow to only three games in 1963 but he did manage to throw one touchdown pass to a young rookie tight end named Jackie Smith. It was the future Hall of Famer’s first touchdown reception of his career. Watch Video.
Crow arrived at training camp fully rehabbed and in excellent shape In 1964, but head coach Wally Lemm had a loaded backfield and wanted to preserve his top back by limiting Crow’s workload throughout the season. Crow only carried the ball four times in the preseason but was the opening day starter at halfback. He scored a touchdown and gained 87 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches in the second game of the season at Cleveland and his teammates were glad to have him back.
“There’s no doubt about it, John’s just a super-star,” quarterback Charley Johnson said of Crow. “His ability to block, run, pass or receive puts pressure on the opposing defense, and his running threat certainly makes the play-action pass work.”
Although Crow averaged a career low of 3.4 yards per carry in 1964, he still led the team in rushing with 554 yards and scored 8 touchdowns for a team that finished 9-3-2 and missed playing for an NFL Championship by just half a game.
However, just a few weeks after the Cards defeated the Packers in the Playoff Bowl, Crow expressed his unhappiness with how Wally Lemm used him during the season and demanded a trade.
“I feel I didn’t get to play as much as I wanted to and as much as I deserved,” he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 21, 1965. “I have talked with the Cardinals owners and have asked them to trade me.”
“I will hate to leave a lot of friends I have in St. Louis, too. I hope they will understand.”
On February 8, 1965, the Big Red traded Crow to the San Francisco 49ers for defensive back/kick returner Abe Woodson.
“I’m very happy,” Crow said after the trade. “My wife and I have talked about it, and we’ve decided San Francisco is the place we would like to go. I certainly appreciate what the Cardinals have done for me. Now I hope to give Frisco a lift for a couple of years.”
“We think it’s a fair trade for both teams,” Cardinals vice president Bill Bidwill said.
Crow played in every game over the next four seasons in San Francisco and played well. He was named to his fourth and final Pro Bowl in 1965 and played tight end his final season in 1968 before retiring.
“It’s been a great 11 years,” Crow said at the time. “I only hope I have put back into the game a little of what I have got out of it.”
In retirement, Crow was an assistant coach in both college and the NFL and later became the Athletic Director at his alma mater, Texas A&M, from 1988-1993. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976.
Crow passed away on June 17, 2015 just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday.
Crow scored 74 touchdowns over his career (38 rushing, 35 receiving, and one fumble recovery) while also throwing five touchdown passes. In 125 games, he rushed for 4,963 yards on 1,157 carries while catching 258 passes for 3,699 yards. He was named to four Pro Bowls and the league’s 1960s All-Decade Team.
Crow still has the longest run in Cardinals history, dashing 83 yards for a score against Washington on Oct. 4, 1958. He is tied for fifth in team history with 51 career touchdowns and if it weren’t for injuries he may well have been a Pro Football Hall of Famer.