As we move closer to the 2023 NFL Draft (April 27-29), The Big Red Zone is looking back on each of the 28 St. Louis Cardinals drafts (1960-87). This installment focuses on the 1974 Draft, which was held January 29-30 in New York.
With the exception of first-round pick J.V. Cain and fourth-round choice Ike Harris, the Cardinals didn’t get much help from this draft. And both of those players had short careers in St. Louis.
A tight end from Colorado, Cain was a backup in his first two seasons in St. Louis. He became a full-time starter in 1976, and caught a combined 51 passes for 728 yards and nine touchdowns in ’76 and ’77. He suffered a torn Achilles tendon in training camp in 1978 and missed that entire season.
A year later, on July 22—his 28th birthday—tragedy struck. Cain collapsed on the field at Lindenwood College while running a pass pattern during a non-contact training camp practice. While coaches and teammates watched in shock, medical personnel gave Cain CPR. He was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital and died shortly thereafter. An autopsy showed that his death was due to a rare congenital heart problem.
Desperate for defensive line help in the 1974 NFL draft, Big Red personnel director George Boone shocked everyone when he selected tight end James Victor Cain with the 7th overall pick in the draft.
“We didn’t feel we could pass up a guy like that,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the Cardinals picked the Colorado All-American.
The Big Red already had a pretty good tight end in future Hall of Famer Jackie Smith, so they worked Cain out at both tight end and wide receiver during his first training camp. And it didn’t take long for the tall, rangy Houston native to make an impression with his new teammates in St. Louis.
J.V. Cain caught 76 passes for 1014 yards and 9 touchdowns in four seasons with the Cardinals.
“You seldom see a wide receiver hit people all over the field the way J.V. does,” reserve quarterback Bill Bynum said. “He’s so big and strong that he can get down into the pattern quickly and doesn’t have to worry about having trouble releasing from the linebacker.”
“Cain is just super,” head coach Don Coryell said. “He catches everything. That’s what I like about him. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
With the NFL celebrating its centennial season in 2019, the league will soon be announcing its top 100 players of all-time. I thought it would be fun to look back and rank the Big Red’s top 100 players who played in St. Louis.
The Cardinals moved from Chicago after the 1959 season and played 28 years in St. Louis before Bill Bidwill moved to the desert in 1988. Several great players played under the arch during this period including four Hall of Famers.
These rankings are only based on the player’s time spent in St. Louis. Consideration was given to the player’s statistics, All-Pro/Pro Bowl selections, team leadership, and impact in the community. It is next to impossible to compare eras, so many of these picks were very difficult.
The Top 100 St. Louis Football Cardinals of All-Time: 40-31
40. J.V. CAIN (TE)
This may be a sentimental pick, but J.V. Cain was on the verge of becoming a superstar before tragically passing on his 28th birthday in 1979. Cain was the 7th overall pick in the 1974 draft out of Colorado. The speedy tight end was the Big Red rookie of the year in ’74 and had breakout seasons in ’76 and ’77 combining for 51 catches, 728 yards, and 7 TDs. His most memorable catch came in the 1977 home opener when he snagged a one handed pass from Jim Hart for a TD against the Chicago Bears. Cain’s number “88” is one of the few numbers retired by the Cardinals organization.
On the eve of the 2019 NFL Draft, let’s take a close look at the 31 St. Louis Football Cardinals first round draft picks.
The Big Red drafted four quarterbacks who combined to start only 5 games for the team. Two Hall of Famers were drafted, but only one actually suited up in St. Louis. Of the 31 top picks, 12 can be considered busts. Many of these picks were made by the late George Boone, who was the team’s long time player personnel director. He may or may not have had incriminating photos of owner Bill Bidwill.
And so, here’s my ranking of the Big Red first round draft picks, worst to first. Let me know what you think!
31. Kelly Stouffer QB (1987 – 6th Pick)
On the 10th anniversary of the Steve Pisarkiewicz pick, the Big Red reached for the relatively unknown Stouffer out of Colorado State who also admitted he was shocked to be taken that early in the draft. He also held out of training camp and never signed with the Big Red. He was traded a year later to Seattle for three draft picks where he started 16 games in four seasons.
30. Clyde Duncan WR (1984 – 17th Pick)
The Big Red passed on eventual rookie of the year Louis Lipps and drafted Duncan after one good college season at Tennessee. There was only one problem according to then head coach Jim Hanifan, “He couldn’t play.” Duncan, who was admittedly surprised to be a first round pick, held out of training camp and then suffered a shoulder injury. He caught only four passes in his career and was out of football after two season.
29. Steve Little K (1978 – 15th Pick)
It’s never a good idea to draft a kicker in the first round, but the Big Red were desperate to replace their all-time leading scorer Jim Bakken. They drafted Little out of Arkansas who had a big leg (kicked 67 yard FG), but was never able to transition to kicking FGs without a tee. Little lasted three forgettable seasons. After being released in 1980, Little was paralyzed after crashing his car on a rain slicked highway in St. Louis.
28. Fate Echols DT/OT (1962 – 6th Pick)
The Northwestern product arrived at training camp overweight and was cut before the season started. He was later resigned and played sparingly over the next two seasons before being released.
27. Larry Stegent RB (1970 – 8th Pick)
The Big Red drafted the injury prone running back out of John David Crow’s old school Texas A&M. The Cards drafted him despite Stegent playing very little his senior season. He was injured before training camp in the College All-Star game and then tore knee ligaments on his first preseason carry and was out for the year. He caught one pass in 1971 and tore up his other knee and never played another down in the NFL.
Q: Bud Wilkinson was hired after Don Coryell left in 1977. It was a rough couple of years for the Big Red in 1978/1979. What are your memories of Coach Wilkinson?
Banks: I don’t know if you saw this, but I was quoted in the paper saying, “insanity prevails.” (laughing) I thought it was a good laugh. But I really liked Bud. He was in a bad situation and he knew it right away. He did everything he could to change it, but there was just nothing he could do. Bud went in there and really tried to make things better. But, in the Cardinal organization, back in those days, you had to change their (management’s) attitude toward the players. And Bud learned pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen. So, I really think that he got so frustrated, he kept going in there trying to work with management and saw no results. Bud was really a good guy, and I know it was very frustrating for him, but it got to the point where he said the wrong thing to somebody and they told him to pack his bags and he was gone. But, he was trying to do the right thing.
Q: J.V. Cain was a future star tight end for the Big Red. He missed the ’78 season with an injury and then tragically passed away on the field in training camp in 1979. Tell me a bit about J.V. and your memories of that practice.
Banks: Actually, I was holding out here in Birmingham when J.V. passed away. I came up for the funeral, of course. J.V. was just a wonderful man and a great player, but I feel to this day, he was a better person than a player. Just feel so strongly about that. For that to happen to him… we all realized it could happen to any of us. That’s a sobering feeling. He had learned a lot from Jackie (Smith) and having them both there for a few years was terrific. But on his 29th birthday? I mean what a shock for all of us. I’ll never forget that Dan (Dierdorf) called me and told me and I just sat there and cried. He was one of the good guys.