As we move closer to the 2023 NFL Draft (Thursday-Saturday), The Big Red Zone is looking back on each of the 28 St. Louis Cardinals drafts (1960-87). This installment focuses on the 1978 Draft, which was held May 2-3 in New York.
Of the 139 kicking specialists drafted in the NFL before 1978, only two—placekicker Charlie Gogolak (1966) and punter Ray Guy (1973)—were selected in the first round. On May 2, 1978, the Cardinals increased that number to three when they took Arkansas dual kicker Steve Little with the 15th overall choice.
Before you go saying, Just another dumb move by George Boone, consider that all of the Cardinals’ hierarchy was on board with the pick.
“It was a unanimous decision,” first-year head coach Bud Wilkinson told reporters, using an analytical explanation for defending the pick.
Wilkinson pointed out that in 1977, the Big Red’s average field position for an offensive position was their 32-yard line, and that they netted only a little more than 31 yards in net punting. (Actually, the Cardinals’ net punting average had been 32.8 yards—10th best in the NFL and slightly better than the league’s 31.8 average—but let’s not quibble).
“That’s a loss in field position that’s difficult to make up. And those are figures that can be improved,” Wilkinson said, tossing out phrases such as position football and cumulative yardage.
“This is a good punter,” he said of Little. “And he’s demonstrated the ability to kick off as well as anyone I’ve seen.”
Little had been a successful kicker in college. Used only for placekicks and kickoffs as a freshman and sophomore, he had scored 65 points in each season. After he also took on punting duties a junior and senior, he averaged 44.4 yards per punt. For his career, he set an Arkansas school record for kicking points (280).
So, it was only natural for the Big Red to have high hopes for Little.
However, Little never lived performed up to expectations, neither as a punter nor as a kicker, and was released early in the 1980 season after only 33 games in a St. Louis uniform by new head coach Jim Hanifan.
“I just hope I get the chance to come back here and haunt St. Louis—not only the fans but the people who cut me,” Little told the Globe-Democrat as he left Busch Stadium after being cut. “I’m gonna go sit down and drink a few cold ones right now.”
What happened after that was tragic. Later that night, Little crashed his car at the Ladue Rd. exit off I-270, the single-car accident leaving him a quadriplegic. He died in 1999 at the age of 43.
1978 St. Louis Cardinals Draft
|1-19||Ken Greene||DB||Washington St.|
|2-42||John Barefield||LB||Texas A&M-Kingsville|
|3-69||Doug Greene||DB||Texas A&M-Kingsville|
|4-97||Jimmy Childs||WR||Cal Poly-SL Obispo|
|6-151||Jack Williams||DE||Bowling Green|
|7-181||Dave Stief||WR||Portland St.|
|9-235||Joe Mosley||TE||Central State-Ohio|
|10-265||Randy Gill||LB||San Jose St.|
|12-319||Anthony Clay||LB||South Carolina St.|
*As a rookie in 1978, Steve Little shared punting duties with Mike Wood, a free-agent acquisition. Little punted 46 times and averaged 38.0 yards with a 28.6-yard net. The following season, he did all of the punting, averaging 38.7 yards (32.4 net) on 70 punts. He and Wood split placekicking duties, with Little making only 10 of 19 field goal attempts and 24 of 32 extra points. Little struggled again in 1980. After the first six games, he had connected on only three of eight field goal tries and had missed two of 19 extra points. At that point, Hanifan brought in free-agent kicker Neil O’Donoghue and had him and Little participate in a “kicking duel” during practice in front of the entire team. O’Donoghue was deemed the winner and Little was cut. Little’s career numbers for St. Louis: 13 of 27 field goals (48.1 percent); 41 of 51 extra points; and 125 punts for an average of 38.5 yards (31.0 net).
*For the first time since 1963, the Cardinals had two picks in Round 1. With their second first-round choice (19 overall), they took Ken Greene, a defensive back from Washington State. A cornerback in college, Greene was switched to safety in St. Louis, where he played both strong safety and free safety. Greene started 12 games as a rookie, 16 in 1979 and 15 in 1981. During his five seasons with the Big Red, he intercepted 15 passes for 191 yards, including seven picks in ’81; recovered six fumbles and had two sacks. After his football career, Greene and his wife, Tina, competed in the 13th season of The Amazing Race. They finished second.
*Linebacker John Barefield burst onto the St. Louis scene with a lot of self-promotion. Nicknamed “Dr. Doom,” Barefield wore quarters in his ears and wrote poetry about the ferocity of his tackles at Texas A&M-Kingsville. Unfortunately, his production didn’t live up to all the hype. Barefield played only three seasons for the Cardinals, started only eight games (in 1979) and was credited with no sacks, no interceptions and no fumble recoveries on scrimmage plays.
*In five seasons with the Cardinals, offensive lineman George Collins made only 26 starts, including nine in 1980, and 13 in 1981 at left tackle after Keith Wortman was waived.
*Jimmy Childs made limited impact in his two seasons in St. Louis. The wide receiver caught only 12 passes (11.9-yard average, one touchdown) and returned four kicks (19.3-yard average).
*An impact player in coach Mouse Davis’s Run-and-Shoot offense at Portland State, where he set school records in touchdown receptions (22) and receiving yards (2,581), Dave Stief was primarily a role player in his five seasons with the Big Red. He caught 67 passes (15.6-yard average) and scored five touchdowns. His rookie season was his best: 24 receptions for 477 yards (19.9-yard average) and four TDs. He died of esophageal cancer in 2000.
The Steve Little story is a tragic one. It was only about a year or two ago that I read an old interview by Neil O’Donoghue where he retold the story of him politely declining Steve’s invite to go out for a couple of drinks. Those things stay with you the rest of your life.