This is the last story in a five-part series about former quarterback Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time leading passer.
Most evenings, before he goes to bed, Jim Hart will walk into the living room of his house in the tiny Island Walk section of Naples, Fla., where lakes run behind the houses and neighboring streets are connected by Venetian-style bridges. There he will sit down on a bench, put on headphones so as to not disturb his wife, Mary, and start playing the electric organ.
Yes, the former football player is a musician.
Hart started out playing the accordion while growing up in Evanston, IL. Later, when his parents bought an organ, he learned to play that instrument, too. Organ music captivates him and brings a calming closure to his day.
His repertoire includes a variety of songs: hymns, country western songs, and show tunes. Before he knows it, an hour, maybe two, has passed. He always finishes with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Let there be Peace on Earth.”
“It’s a very peaceful ending to the day,” Hart says. “It makes me feel good, and I’m ready to turn in.”
It’s hard to believe, but the Harts have lived in Naples for 20 years. Even harder to believe is that Hart, who turned 78 in April, has been gone from the NFL for 38 years.
Yet, the man who still holds Cardinals franchise passing records for attempts (5,069), completions (2,590), yards (34,639), touchdowns (209) and interceptions (247), has dreams about preparing to play another season.
“When I wake up, I think, ‘What are you thinking about?’ ” Hart says. “First of all, you’re going on 80 years old. I can’t throw the ball 10 yards. How can I go out there and lead the team? There’s no way.”
One of the last times Hart threw a football, it didn’t go quite like it was scripted. In December 2017, when he was being inducted into the Cardinals Ring of Honor at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ., wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald walked up to Hart, handed him a football, and said, “Throw me a couple.”
Hart said, “Don’t go very far. I haven’t thrown a ball in years.”
Hart tossed a short pass that landed at Fitzgerald’s feet. Fitzgerald brought the ball back and said, “Here, try again. You have a sports coat on.” Hart’s second pass also hit the ground. “I said, ‘That’s enough,’ ” said Hart.
His arm may have betrayed him, but oh how Hart could propel a football back in the day. He had one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and deep passes were his forte. When he retired in 1984 after 18 seasons with the Big Red (1966-83) and one with Washington (1984), only Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas had thrown for more yards in NFL history.
After his playing career, Hart spent a few years working as a co-analyst with Dick Butkus on Chicago Bears radio broadcasts. He then spent 12 years as the athletic director at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, his alma mater. He also was a restaurateur with his good friend and former teammate, Dan Dierdorf; they co-owned Dierdorf and Hart’s Steakhouse and American Bistro. After 19 years, however, they decided that the business had run its course and they sold their ownership in 2002. The restaurant closed for good 11 years later.
Other than playing golf, or going out to dinner with friends such as former Washington quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and his wife, Hart has a mostly quiet life these days.
The post-football years haven’t always been kind. Among the myriad health issues, Hart has had to endure are three knee surgeries, three hip replacements, three heart stints, pulmonary thrombosis, a quadruple heart bypass and, most recently, a scary bout with esophageal cancer in 2018. After the tumor was shrunk, Hart went to a hospital to have it removed. While there, he developed a blood infection that led to a six-week stay and a loss of 60 pounds. Every now and then Mary will remind him, “You almost died.”
The Hart’s three children have grown up and are scattered across the country. Daughter Susie works for Marriott and is stationed at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center in Aurora, CO. Brad, her twin brother, works for a medical company in Dallas. Recently, the Harts learned that Brad has Multiple sclerosis; fortunately, medication and physical therapy are allowing Brad to continue working.
Katie, the Hart’s youngest daughter, lives just outside of Mayfield, KY., where a tornado came through last December, causing death and devastation. Katie’s son, the Hart’s oldest grandchild, was working at a candle factory in Mayfield that was demolished. Eight workers were killed, but he managed to escape the building before the tornado leveled it.
“He lost his father, he lost his grandfather, he lost his aunt, he lost his house, his car, all of his belongings,” Hart says. The grandson also suffers from PTSD. “Every time there’s a storm moving through the Midwest, he’ll call his mother. He has to talk to somebody, even if it’s one in the morning.”
Mary Hart started a fundraiser for their grandson. Her tireless efforts have helped him re-establish himself—even though Mary herself was diagnosed earlier this year with breast cancer.
“It’s kicking her butt,” Hart said. “But she’s doing all right. She’s tough.”
Football fans haven’t forgotten Hart. He receives more fan mail now—“Every … single … day,” he says—than he did 10 years ago. It comes from all over the U.S.: St. Louis, Arizona, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon. It comes from all over the world: Poland, Italy, Iran. Often, it’s a younger fan writing that his father or grandfather saw Hart play and handed down his love for football. There are autograph requests for programs, books, mini-helmets and the November 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated with Hart on the cover.
Frequently, fans will ask Hart what was his greatest moment in the NFL, or what was the most memorable game he played in.
“Invariably, I will answer them that the greatest time I had was being chosen to play for the football Cardinals,” Hart says. “I was a free agent, undrafted, number six of six quarterbacks at training camp. The fact that I was just there—and then making the team, being a backup before the end of that first year. You’ve got to be kidding me. What more could I expect from that situation?”
“There were some games that are great to remember, like beating the Cowboys, 38-0, on Monday Night Football (in 1970). But it still goes back to I wasn’t supposed to make the team. And all of a sudden, I’m playing 18 years. I’m almost 40 years old and I’m still playing in the NFL.”
“Who would have thought?”