(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series of stories remembering Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time passing leader.)
Whether Jim Hart belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a matter of opinion. Whether he was one of the best non-drafted quarterbacks to play in the NFL is a matter of fact.
The numbers confirm it.
In March 2017, the website footballoutsiders.com released a statistical study comparing the 36 undrafted quarterbacks who had thrown at least 500 passes during their NFL careers. The top-level included Hall of Famer Warren Moon, Dave Krieg, Jon Kitna, Tony Romo, and Kurt Warner.
(There have been some additions in the last five years, but no one has moved up enough to significantly alter the list).
Hart’s career numbers put him near the top in most categories:
Games played (201)—third behind Krieg (213) and Moon (208).
Games started (180)—second behind Moon (203).
Passing attempts (5,076)—third behind Moon (6,823) and Krieg (5,311).
Pass completions (2,593)—sixth behind Moon (3,988), Krieg (3,105), Romo (2,829), Kitna (2,677), and Warner (2,666).
Passing yards (34,665)—third behind Moon (48,325) and Krieg (38,147).
Passing touchdowns (209)—fourth behind Moon (291), Krieg (261) and Romo (248).
(Alas, he ranked No. 1 in interceptions.)
Hart’s numbers are extraordinary for a guy who was passed over in the draft and wound up signing a free-agent, rookie contract with the Cardinals for a modest $16,000.
Fourteen quarterbacks were selected in the 20-round, 305-player NFL Draft in 1966, including Gary Snook, Tim Van Galder and Benny Russell—each of whom was picked by the Cardinals. Hart, a strong-armed but unsung passer from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, was not among them. He had passed for 34 touchdowns and 3,779 yards (a school record that stood until 1983) at SIU, but Carbondale wasn’t a must stop on the NFL scouting trail and the Salukis were a paltry 8-21 during Hart’s three seasons as the starter.
Five of the 14 drafted quarterbacks in the 1966 Draft never played in the NFL. Of the remaining nine, only Randy Johnson, a first-round pick by the expansion Atlanta Falcons, and Rick Norton, a second-round pick by the Cleveland Browns, put up substantial numbers professionally. Johnson played a combined 10 seasons for the Falcons, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and Washington Redskins. In 75 games (49 starts), he completed 647 of 1,286 passes for 8,329 yards and 51 touchdowns (with 90 interceptions). Norton played four seasons with the Miami Dolphins and one season with the Packers. His career totals: 32 games (11 starts), 382 attempts, 159 completions, 1,815 yards, seven touchdowns and 30 interceptions.
Hart’s career statistics were more than the collective numbers of those nine drafted quarterbacks:
G / S Att. Cmp. Yds. TDs
Hart 201/180 5,076 2,593 34,665 209
9 Draftees 152/75 2,016 964 11,620 63
Hart wouldn’t have received a shot with the Big Red if not for a man named Don Shroyer. An assistant coach with the Cardinals in 1966, Shroyer had coached Hart for two years at SIU. He persuaded first-year Big Red coach Charley Winner to bring Hart to training camp.
The Cardinals didn’t exactly have lofty expectations for Hart. They dispatched their ticket manager—not a front-office man, not a coach, not a scout—with a check for $1,000 to sign Hart. Hart recalled the moment in “The Super ‘70s: Memories of Pro Football’s Greatest Era.”
“I said, ‘A thousand dollars? Is that all you got?’ (The ticket manager) said, ‘That’s all I’m authorized to give you. I could try to make a few calls, but it’s eight o’clock and I doubt I’ll be able to get in touch with anybody.’ I started thinking that if this ticket manager calls and inconveniences somebody, they might call off the whole thing. ‘OK, I’ll take it.’ ”
Despite that humble beginning, Hart played 18 seasons (1966-83) with the Cardinals (he played one more season, 1984, as a backup for the Redskins) and set career franchise records that still stand in pass attempts (5,069), pass completions (2,590), passing yards (34,639), passing touchdowns (209), and, yes, interceptions (247). He was selected as the NFC’s Player of the Year in 1974, was voted to four consecutive Pro Bowls (1974-77), was voted the team MVP three times (1973, ’75, and ’78), and received the prestigious Whizzer White Award from the NFL Players Association for being the league’s top humanitarian in 1976.
Despite that impressive resume, Hart’s NFL journey ran into myriad obstacles. The first one came when he arrived at training camp in 1966.