Jim Hart: The Early Years

This is the second in a five-part series of stories remembering Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time passing leader.

The odds were stacked against Jim Hart when he arrived at the Cardinals’ training camp in Lake Forest, IL., in the summer of 1966. Not only was he an undrafted rookie, but he also was last in a line of six quarterbacks.

Sixth-year veteran Charley Johnson was the incumbent starter, and Buddy Humphrey was the backup. Behind them, but ahead of Hart, were Terry Nofsinger, rookie Gary Snook and Jack Ankerson.

Jim Hart on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1967

But a series of serendipitous events moved Hart up in the pecking order. Humphrey was released during camp; Snook, a fourth-round draft pick, was drafted by the Army and never played in the NFL; and Ankerson was moved to tight end and, later, cut. That made Hart the No. 3 QB.

Hart spent the first nine games of the ’66 season on the Cardinals’ taxi squad, meaning he practiced during the week but was inactive on game days. After Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury in an early November game against the New York Giants, making Nofsinger the starter, Hart was activated for the final five games. His only playing time came in the fourth quarter of the season finale against the Cleveland Browns, where he completed four of 11 passes for 29 yards.

“The only positive thing there was that I got in a vested year toward my pension,” Hart said.

Fortuity struck again before the 1967 season. The Army called up Johnson for two years of active duty and Nofsinger was traded to the Atlanta Falcons. Suddenly, the inexperienced, 23-year-old Hart was the Big Red’s No. 1 quarterback.

“Some people say, ‘It’s too bad you didn’t get to play before you did,’ ” Hart said. “Well, I got to play my second year in the league as the starter. Are you kidding me? For that to happen as quickly as it did was kind of amazing.”

The ’67 season started promisingly as the Cardinals went 5-3-1 in the first nine games with Hart at the helm. Hart was playing well enough that Sports Illustrated wrote a November cover story on him, titled “Peach Fuzz with a Difference,” touting Hart as one of the NFL’s young QBs who were developing ahead of schedule.

The story included an amusing anecdote, revealed by his wife, Mary. It seemed that Hart usually slept soundly the night before a game, but frequently was restless on Friday nights. Friday was the day when the Cardinals put the offensive plays they had been practicing during the week into a game-like format.

“If things went well, I felt good,” Hart said. “If things didn’t go well, I looked at it as a harbinger for what was to come (on Sunday).”

According to Mary, she woke up one night screaming because Jim had her head in his hands and was holding it like a football.

“I guess it happened if she said so,” said Hart, who couldn’t recall mistaking his wife’s head for “The Duke.” 

“He was my mentor. He was a very good tactician. He studied the game. He just did things right. I was prepared to sit behind him for as long as it took.” 

Jim Hart on Teammate charley johnson

Alas, the fabled Sports Illustrated cover curse worked quickly as the Cardinals closed the ’67 season with four losses in the last five games and finished third in the NFL’s Century Division with a 6-7-1 record. Hart’s season stats: 192 completions in 397 attempts for 3,008 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 30 interceptions. Only Sonny Jurgensen, Johnny Unitas, Norm Snead and Fran Tarkenton passed for more yards. 

At one point, the Giants proposed a swap of quarterbacks: Earl Morrall for Hart—a development Hart learned about years later from Morrall. But the Giants weren’t content with a straight-up, one-for-one deal, according to Morrall. The Giants also wanted the Big Red’s entire starting offensive line—a unit of All-Pros and Pro Bowlers comprised of tackles Ernie McMillan and Bob Reynolds, guards Ken Gray and Irv Goode, and center Bob DeMarco. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals turned down that proposal.

Jim Hart (L) and Charley Johnson on the sideline during a game in 1967

Hart started 12 games in ’68 and Johnson, who had weekend passes from the Army and could suit up for games, started two. In ’69, Winner went back and forth between Johnson (nine starts) and Hart (five), a rotation that left the offensive players confused and divided, and Johnson asking to be traded after the season. 

Although there was competition between the two quarterbacks, Hart said he and Johnson had a good relationship. They roomed together in training camp and on the road.

“He was my mentor,” Hart said of Johnson. “He was a very good tactician. He studied the game. He just did things right. I was prepared to sit behind him for as long as it took.” 

It didn’t take long. The Cardinals granted Johnson’s trade request, sending Johnson to the Houston Oilers for quarterback Pete Beathard and cornerback Miller Farr in March 1970. 

Hart started all 14 games in 1970. Then, just when it looked like he had secured the job, the Cardinals fired Winner after the ’70 season and replaced him with former Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Bob Hollway.

Jim Hart (L), Bob Hollway (C), and Pete Beathard (1971)

“Bob and I got along really well personally, but—and this is something I never talked to him about; it was just something I assumed—he didn’t think I was his quarterback. I picked up on that early on.”

Once again, Hart was forced to share the quarterback job. In 1971, he made nine starts and Beathard made five. The continual revolving door at quarterback was unsettling for Hart.

“When these things cropped up, it was pretty evident that I better not be so complacent that I thought I had it made,” he said. “I didn’t think management was on my side. So, I thought I had to work extra hard at it at all times to make sure I didn’t get bumped.”

The Cardinals quarterback position became really chaotic in ’72 when Tim Van Galder, a 1966 draft pick whose football career had been stalled by his service in the military, and Gary Cuozzo, who had been acquired from New Orleans in a trade for wide receiver John Gilliam and two draft picks, joined Hart in the rotation. Now, try to follow along. 

Van Galder started Games 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8. Cuozzo, who had been in Minnesota when Hollway was there, started Games 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, and 12. Hart started Games 6, 13 and 14. Cuozzo came on in relief of Van Galder in Games 2 and 3; Hart relieved Cuozzo in Games 5, 11 and 12.

The Cardinals went 4-9-1 for the second season in a row under Hollway. They won their final two games, against the Rams and the Eagles, and Hart played well, completing a combined 36 of 48 passes for 535 yards, three TDs and one interception in those two games. In the locker room after the final game, Hollway approached Hart.

“He very quietly said to me, ‘I made a mistake. You should have been playing. You’re my quarterback from now on,’ ” recalled Hart. 

“Now on” didn’t last even 24 hours. The Cardinals players were invited to a holiday fundraiser after the game. While they were walking back to their cars in the stadium garage, they noticed a locksmith’s truck parked outside Busch Stadium.

What do you suppose that is? the players said to one another. You think they’re changing the locks?

“Sure enough,” Hart said. “Poor Bob didn’t know about it until the next day. He would go to Mass every day, and when he showed up at the stadium (Monday morning), his key didn’t work in the lock. What a way to find out you’ve been fired.”

Once again, the Cardinals went searching for a new head coach. And, once again, Hart was left wondering how a new coach would impact his status.  

Jim Hart attempting a pass in the 1970 season opener against the Rams.


2 thoughts on “Jim Hart: The Early Years

  1. Pingback: Cards Legend Jim Hart: A Statistical Review | THE BIG RED ZONE

  2. Pingback: Jim Hart: Where is he Now? | THE BIG RED ZONE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s