This is the fourth in a five-part series of stories remembering Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time passing leader.
The latter years of Jim Hart’s Cardinals career (1978-83) were marked by seminal events that tested both Hart’s and the team’s resolve.
There was the death of tight end J.V. Cain; a war of wills between coach Bud Wilkinson and owner Bill Bidwill that resulted in Wilkinson’s ouster; the arrival of quarterback Neil Lomax that led to Hart’s demotion; and, finally, Hart’s unceremonious release by the team.
It was a mostly distressing time, coming on the heels of the “Cardiac Cards” era, a stretch (1974-76) under coach Don Coryell during which the Big Red posted three double-digit winning seasons, made two playoff appearances, and sent multiple players to the Pro Bowl.
After Coryell left, Bidwill shocked the NFL world when he named Bud Wilkinson as the team’s new head coach in 1978. Wilkinson was a legendary college coach who guided the University of Oklahoma football team to glory from 1946-63, but now he was in his early 60’s and hadn’t been on a sideline for years.
Although Wilkinson kept the Coryell offense, the Cardinals started 0-8 in his first season and finished with a 6-10 record. Despite that, Hart recorded career highs in pass attempts (477), completions (240) and yards (3,121).
In July 1979. tragedy struck during a training camp practice when Cain, while running a pass pattern, collapsed on the field. He died at a hospital later.
“I remember it vividly,” Hart recalled. “The sound J.V. made when he hit the ground was just unbelievable—a big, loud thump. Everybody turned to look at what happened. The first thought was that the linebacker (covering Cain) might have cold-cocked him, but there was nobody around him. He was out before he hit the ground, I guess.”
Still reeling from Cain’s death, the Cardinals struggled again in ’79, losing 10 of its first 13 games. At that point, Bidwill demanded that Wilkinson start Steve Pisarkiewicz, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in ’77, at quarterback. When Wilkinson refused, Bidwill fired him. Larry Wilson, the Big Red’s legendary safety who at that time was a team executive, was named as the interim coach.
The Big Red won Pisarkiewicz’s first two starts, home games against the 49ers (Joe Montana’s first start in the NFL) and Giants. But things unraveled in the final game of the season against the Bears on a bitterly cold day in Chicago. Pisarkiewicz struggled in the first half and the Cardinals fell behind, 21-0. In the locker room at halftime, as the players tried to get warm, quarterbacks coach Harry Gilmer approached Hart.
“Well, pawdnah, I guess you know why I’m here,” Gilmer said in his Alabama drawl. “I bet you know what I’m going to tell you, too.”
Gilmer asked Hart to go in at quarterback for the second half. Hart said he would have declined anyone else, including Wilson, but he couldn’t turn down Gilmer. “He was my friend, my mentor,” Hart said.
On the first series in the third quarter, Hart led the offense down the field and into scoring position. As Bears safety Doug Plank blitzed him, Hart lobbed a pass over the head of the Bears safety and wide receiver Pat Tilley caught it for a 13-yard touchdown (it was the Cardinals’ only score in a 42-6 drubbing). Just as Hart released the pass, Plank drilled him in the chest.
“The last thing to hit the ground was my head,” Hart said. “I was out.”
When Hart woke up on the bench, he was both cold and woozy. He sat out the rest of the game and was still unsteady on the plane ride back to St. Louis.
The Big Red’s adversity continued in 1980, Jim Hanifan’s first year as head coach, as the team went 5-11. When Hart was injured in the 1981 season opener against Miami, second-round rookie Neil Lomax replaced him. Lomax then started the next week against the Cowboys in Dallas.
Hart returned and started Games 3-10, but when a 52-10 loss to the Eagles left the team with a 3-7 record, Hanifan decided it was time for a change. He benched Hart and named Lomax the starter. In effect, that ended the reign of Hart as the Big Red’s quarterback. He started one more game in ’81, saw only spot duty in the strike-shortened, nine-game ’82 season, and made just three starts in ’83.
“I don’t remember that being so bad,” Hart said. “By that time in my career, each year I was anticipating being asked to call it a day.”
What disenchanted Hart was a conversation he had with Hanifan when the team decided to release him after the ’83 season.
“He said he didn’t think I could handle being the backup,” said Hart, who was then 39 and had been Lomax’s backup for the last two and a half seasons. “I said, ‘This is a heckuva time to be talking about it. You didn’t talk to me about it before you made up your mind (in ’81).’ ”
Hart also was surprised to hear Hanifan say he didn’t think Hart and Lomax could interact.
Hart acknowledged that his relationship with Lomax was “a little bit difficult—I think Neil thought he should come right in and play; that’s what I heard”—but added, “I would have enjoyed helping Lomax—if he wanted to be helped.”
“What was I going to do? Sabotage his performance? I could have handled it. It was not that big of a deal. I was going on 40 years old, happy to still be in the league.”
After leaving the Cardinals, Hart played one last season in Washington after Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, Hart’s friend and a former Cardinals assistant under Coryell, asked him to back up Joe Theismann.
Hart finished his NFL career with some remarkable numbers: 201 games, 180 starts, 5,076 passing attempts, 2,593 completions, 34,665 yards, 209 touchdowns, and 247 interceptions. At the time of his retirement, only two other NFL quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton had thrown for more yards.
Still, Hart was disillusioned about how his Big Red career ended. “Yeah, I was hurt that after all those years they would send me packing,” he said.
As time passed, and he and his wife, Mary, moved to Naples, Fla., Hart wondered if he and the Cardinals would remain estranged forever. Then, in 2017, he received a phone call from then-Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, Bill Bidwill’s son, who was in Florida on a business trip and asked if Hart and Mary could meet him for lunch. Over the years, Hart and Michael, who had been a ball boy for the Cardinals during Hart’s early years with the team, had forged a friendly bond—unlike the chilling relationship Hart had had with Michael’s father.
After some initial cordial talk, Michael Bidwill said, “Well, let me tell you why I’m here.” He then surprised Hart by telling him the Cardinals wanted to induct him into the team’s Ring of Honor.
“Mary reached over and closed my mouth, I was in such awe,” Hart said. “I just never thought it was going to happen.”
Finally, it did. On December 3, 2017, in a halftime ceremony long overdue, the Cardinals saluted their legendary quarterback by putting his name up on the board at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. No. 17 became the 17th player to join the team’s Ring of Honor.
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