Big Red Legends: Sonny Randle

Ulmo Shannon “Sonny” Randle was born in Washington, DC, on January 6, 1936, to Ulmo S. and Lillian D. Randle. Sonny attended Fork Union Military Academy where he excelled in track and field but didn’t play football until his senior season.

Randle enrolled at the University of Virginia, walked on, and eventually earned a scholarship. In 1958, Sonny was an honorable mention All American when he caught 47 passes and was the country’s top kick returner, averaging 24.1 yards.

The Chicago Cardinals drafted Randle in the 19th round in 1958, but the speedster struggled to adapt in the NFL catching only 15 passes his rookie season.

However, with the help of teammates Dick “Night Train” Lane and Jimmy Hill, Randle learned how to get “open” and would become one of the great receivers over the next decade.

St. Louis Bound

The Cardinals relocated to St. Louis in 1960 and opened the season with a 43-21 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Sonny caught 7 passes for 159 yards and scored three long touchdowns. “Randle had a phenomenal game,” head coach Pop Ivy stated after victory.

Sonny didn’t stop there. By season’s end, he set franchise records with 62 receptions and 15 touchdowns (still tops in Cardinals history). He was named to the Pro Bowl and first-team NFL All-Pro.

“It doesn’t take much of a passer to get the ball to him,” quarterback John Roach said of Randle in 1961. “He has real good moves, and of course wonderful speed.”

“When Randle came in as a rookie in 1959, all he could was run straight—and very fast,” former Cardinals owner recalled in 1988. “But he taught himself how to become a receiver in the offseason and by his first year here in 1960 he was an accomplished receiver. He knew how to make moves and caughrt

Sonny set another franchise record in 1962 with 1,158 receiving yards and was named second-team All-Pro. Against the Giants, he had the second most prolific game by a wide receiver when he caught 16 passes for 256 yards in a 31-28 loss at Yankee Stadium.

“It was just one of those days when everything went right,” Randle recalled in a St. Louis Post Dispatch interview from 1963. “I wasn’t knocked down, the ball wasn’t knocked down, and the quarterback wasn’t knocked down, and you have to have a combination of circumstances like that to have a day like that.”

Randle scored 43 touchdowns from 1960-1963 and would score more touchdowns than any other receiver in the 1960s with 64.

Sonny Gets Baseball Spring Training Invite

In 1961, baseball Cardinals GM Bing Divine invited Sonny to spring training to help the Redbird baserunners.

When Randle arrived at camp, Cardinals equipment manager Butch Yatkeman “had to show me how to put on a uniform,” Randle said.

“He really grows on you,” said manager Solly Hemus. “The players were a lot more inclined to listen to an active football sprinter than to a veteran track coach, no matter how much more the old coach might know.

Sonny gets Injured

In 1964, Randle was on pace for 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in an October loss to the Cowboys.

“He begged doctors to let him finish the season, willing to risk a bad shoulder for the rest of his life, and that’s the kind of attitude most guys have in playing this game,” head coach Wally Lemm told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

A few weeks after the injury, Sonny agreed to become a regular sports anchor for KSD-TV, Channel 5, and would continue in that role until 1967. He would often be seen interviewing Big Red players after practice while still wearing his practice gear.

“The opportunity was wonderful and the challenge was great,” Randle said in a 1966 St. Louis Post Dispatch interview, “but I was frightened, too. I’d never been on TV before.”

“Right now, I’m a football player who has access to a microphone. Eventually, I’d like to be an accomplished announcer who happened to play football.”

Randle was proudest of having had an exclusive interview in which his teammate John David Crow said that he was unhappy in St. Louis and wanted to play for a different team and different coach. Crow was traded to the 49ers a few months later.

Sonny’s Final Seasons

Having recovered from the shoulder injury, Randle returned in 1965 and caught 51 passes for 845 yards and 9 touchdowns. He was named to his fourth and final Pro Bowl season.

In 1966, the 30 year old suffered a fractured hand in the third game of the season which hampered him the rest of the year. He was eventually replaced in the starting lineup by Billy Gambrell.

“I was asked if I planned to retire from football,” Randle said after the season, “and I said I most certainly did not. I’d hate to go out on a season such as the one I had and I want to play another year. I’d be more than happy if I stay with the Cardinals.”

Sonny Gets Traded

However, with the emergence of 26 year old Billy Gambrell and the arrival of rookie wide receiver Dave Williams, Randle became expendable and he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a second round draft pick just three days before the 1967 season opener.

Team president Charles “Stormy” Bidwill said the Big Red were looking to the future.

“There was no player available in exchange, but draft choices are important to us because a club can grow old in a hurry,” Bidwill said after the trade. “And if you don’t have players coming along, you might wake up to find it impossible to stay in contention. The deal was made after much discussion by the coaches.”

Randle said that he thought a deal might be made and couldn’t expect the club to stand still.

“But, we’ve always been a part of the community in St. Louis and after the 14-week season, I expect to return here.”

“Sonny has been a great receiver and still is a fine one,” head coach Charley Winner said, “but there comes a time when you have to make a decision on these things.”

Randle played one season in San Francisco catching 33 passes for 502 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was released during the 1968 season and signed with the Cowboys where he caught just one pass. He was signed by Washington in 1969 but was cut during training camp after suffering an injury. Randle retired shortly after.

Coach Sonny

In 1970 Randle signed on as an assistant football coach for former Big Red teammate Mike McGee at East Carolina University. He would take over as head coach the following season and eventually would land head coaching gigs at Marshall and his alma mater Virginia.

After coaching, Randle would return to television participating in radio broadcasts of college football games for several years. Randle retired from broadcasting in 2014.

Sonny Randle passed away on May 23, 2017, in Harrisonburg, Virginia at the age of 81.

Sonny Randle Statistics

3 thoughts on “Big Red Legends: Sonny Randle

  1. The Big Red sure did have some great wide receivers. There career stats have also held up well over time. Of the top ten Cardinals leaders in receptions and yards only 4 belong to Arizona.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t know that defensive backs Dick “Night Train” Lane and Jimmy Hill mentored Sonny Randle on how to get open on pass routes. That is so awesome. What a pair of masters to learn from. Oh, man, how incredible it would be to know what they told him. It speaks well for Sonny Randle that he earned the respect, confidence and trust of two of the NFL’s best defensive secondary pros _ Lane and Hill.

    Liked by 1 person

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