Where Are They Now? Former Big Red Running Back Willis Crenshaw

Imagine what it would be like to play for the professional football team in the city where you were born and raised.

Willis Crenshaw didn’t have to imagine it. He lived it.

Crenshaw, who grew up in St. Louis’ Central West End, was a two-sport star for Soldan High School and a football player at Kansas State University for three years. The Cardinals selected Crenshaw in the ninth round of the 1963 NFL draft. A multi-talented offensive back who could run, block and catch, Crenshaw played six seasons for the Big Red (1964-69) before finishing his NFL career with the Denver Broncos (1970). 

What was it like playing in front of family and friends at Sportsman’s Park and, later, Busch Stadium—venues located only a few miles from his neighborhood?

“I felt fortunate to be able to do that because there were a lot of guys who wished that was their situation,” Crenshaw said. “The whole thing was just an amazing experience for me.”

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Big Red Flashback: O.J. Anderson’s Historic NFL Debut

After Cardinals management decided not to retain star running back Terry Metcalf in 1978, new head coach Bud Wilkinson searched the entire season for an outside threat to complement the inside running of Wayne Morris and Jim Otis. That problem was solved in 1979 after the Big Red selected Ottis Jerome (O.J.) Anderson with the eighth pick in the 1979 NFL draft.

“His durability, his speed, his attitude, his ability to catch the ball,” a pleased Bud Wilkinson told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the Cards chose the West Palm Beach, Florida native. “There were so many factors. This is something we’ve been discussing for three months. There was no doubt who we wanted. The question was whether he’d be available.”

Cardinals personnel director George Boone added, “We feel that he has the great moves that we’ve been hunting for. We haven’t had those in quite a while.”

“I always believed I was the No. 1 back in the country,” Anderson told the Post Dispatch. “I was happy to be picked in the first round, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Playing in the shadow of Chuck Foreman at the University of Miami (FL), Anderson set several school records including Foreman’s single-season rushing record in 1978.

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Jim Hart: Where is he Now?

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.”

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Jim Hart: The Final Years

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.

Jim Hart against the New York Giants in 1979.

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).

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Former Cardinal Defensive Back Jimmy Burson Has Died

Jimmy Burson passed away on August 2 at the age of 81.

Burson was the Cardinals’ eleventh-round selection in the 1963 NFL draft. He was an outstanding offensive back at Auburn where he set a school record with a 105-yard kickoff return.

Jimmy Burson

The Cardinals switched the Georgia native to defense where he gained a starting role at cornerback in 1964 and intercepted three passes. He also returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. The fleet corner picked off five passes in 1965 and two more in 1966.

The Cardinals traded Burson to the Washington Redskins in 1968, but he was soon after acquired by the Atlanta Falcons. Burson intercepted four passes in 1968 before calling it a career.

Following his playing career, Burson began coaching at the high school level in The Atlanta area. The highlight of his career was a 12-year stint as head coach at Milton High School from 1974-1985.

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Jim Hart: The Coryell Years

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

Jim Hart was scared. He thought his football career was over.

On Dec. 2, 1973, in the third-to-last game of the season, Detroit Lions second-year defensive lineman Herb Orvis broke through the Cardinals’ pass protection and hit Hart’s right arm just as the quarterback released a pass. Hart’s arm bent backward and hyperextended. He then heard a “whoomph” as the arm snapped back into place. 

Jim Hart’s career took off under Don Coryell in 1973

Hart suffered an elbow injury that caused him to miss the final two games of Don Coryell’s first season as coach of the Big Red. Even though the Cardinals finished with a 4-9-1 record for the third consecutive year, Hart and his teammates were encouraged. Coryell had brought with him from San Diego State University a state-of-the-art, pass-oriented offense that was both easy and exciting to execute. And he chose Hart, who had been forced to share the starting quarterback job with multiple players in the previous two seasons under coach Bob Hollway, as his engineer.

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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.

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Cards Legend Jim Hart: A Statistical Review

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series of stories remembering Jim Hart, the Cardinals’ all-time passing leader.)

Jim Hart

Whether Jim Hart belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a matter of opinion. Whether he was one of the best non-drafted quarterbacks to play in the NFL is a matter of fact.

The numbers confirm it.

In March 2017, the website footballoutsiders.com released a statistical study comparing the 36 undrafted quarterbacks who had thrown at least 500 passes during their NFL careers. The top-level included Hall of Famer Warren Moon, Dave Krieg, Jon Kitna, Tony Romo, and Kurt Warner.

(There have been some additions in the last five years, but no one has moved up enough to significantly alter the list).

Hart’s career numbers put him near the top in most categories:

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Big Red Legends: John David Crow

There was no better all-purpose running back in the late 1950s/early ’60s than the Cardinals’ John David Crow. The 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pounder was strong, had quick feet, great balance, was an excellent receiver, fantastic blocker, and may have been the best passer on the team for a couple of seasons.

“He’s big and strong and tough,” Chicago Cardinals head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy told the Chicago Tribune about his star running back in 1959. “I’ll tell you, he’s what we call a wiggler. It’s an almost indefinable quality. When the opposing defense is tight, he’ll bull his way into a hole, then suddenly wiggle through for extra yardage.”

John David Crow

Legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once called John David Crow “the finest player” he ever coached. Crow won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Bryant at Texas A&M in 1957. Later that year the Chicago Cardinals selected him as the second overall pick in the 1958 NFL Draft.

The rookie scored his first career touchdown when he recovered a fumble in the endzone against the New York Giants in the 1958 season opener. The following week he dashed for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play of the game and later added another score in a 37-10 win over Washington.

“He used that wiggle I was talking about,” Ivy explained after the game. “After he got into the secondary, he had no blocking at all. He was strictly on his own. He wiggled past a couple of defensive backs, and then simply outran everybody to the goal line.”

Crow scored a 91-yard touchdown a week later and was well on his way to rookie of the year honors, but a knee injury would slow him down and limit him to only 8 games his freshman season.

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OJ Anderson inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame

Former Big Red running back Ottis Jerome “OJ” Anderson was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame on May 2, 2022, at the Liuna Event Center in St. Louis. OJ becomes the twenty-first member of the St. Louis Football Cardinals to be enshrined.

OJ starred at the University of Miami and was the Cards top pick in 1979. The Florida native made a big splash in his NFL debut with a 193 yard performance against the Dallas Cowboys. He would set league rookie records for rushing yards (1,605), rushing attempts (331), and the most 100 yard rushing games in a season with 9. He was named first team NFL All-Pro, consensus NFL Rookie of the Year, NFC Player of the Year, and team MVP. Anderson became the first running back to twice rush for 100 yards against the Dallas Cowboys.

OJ became the Cardinals’ all-time leading rusher in 1981 when he broke fellow St. Louis Sports Hall of Famer Jim Otis’ record of 3,863 yards.

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