Most people are aware of the historic struggles the St. Louis Cardinals had when it came to the NFL draft. There were some very good drafts over the years (1979-1983 for example), but more times than not, the Big Red left their fans scratching their heads (“They drafted a girl!”).
I thought it would be fun to go back and rank the all-time Big Red draft picks by round. Many on this list were no-brainers, but there were a few very competitive rounds. I’m sure everyone will agree that some of the greatest names in Cardinals history are on this list, including four Cardiac Cards offensive lineman, and all four Hall of Famers. But I also learned something about the Cards top 16th and 20th round picks, Jimmy Lee Hunt and Tom Day. Both were released by the Cardinals and both went on to become stars in the AFL. Hope you enjoy!
ALL-TIME ST. LOUIS CARDINAL DRAFT PICKS BY ROUND
ROUND 1 – ROGER WEHRLI (1969)
Wehrli was a consensus All-American at Missouri when the Cards selected him with the 19th pick in the draft. He went on to a 14 year career in St. Louis that included 3 All-Pro and 7 Pro Bowl selections. He had 40 interceptions, 19 fumble recoveries and was the longtime holder for Big Red kickers. He returned a fake FG for a TD in his final NFL game in 1982. Roger Staubach called him the best cornerback he ever played against. Wehrli was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the 1970s NFL All-Decade Team.
Bill Bidwill called him “one of the great defensive players we had.”
Dale Meinert was a three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker with the Cardinals from 1958-1967. He was a college star at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1955. But instead of playing in the NFL, the Lone Wolf, Oklahoma native decided to play in the CFL for Frank “Pop” Ivy and the Edmonton Eskimos, where he won a Grey Cup Championship.
In1958, after spending a couple of years in the Air Force, Meinert rejoined Pop Ivy with the NFL Chicago Cardinals. He played offensive line his first two seasons, but defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis converted him to linebacker in 1960.
“I guess they figured I wasn’t big enough to play guard,” the 215 pound Meinert said in Bob Burnes book Big Red, “and I sort of agreed with them because those defensive tackles kept looking bigger and bigger.”
It was a decision the Cardinals and Meinert would not regret. The tall rangy linebacker intercepted a pass in his first start against the Rams in 1960 and quickly developed into an aggressive tackler and pass defender. He was named team MVP in 1961 and earned Pro Bowl selections in 1963, 1965, and 1967. He did a brilliant job quarterbacking the Big Red defense and calling all the plays.
The St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers became the first teams to play an NFL game outside of North America on August 16, 1976.
The game was called the Mainichi Star Bowl and was sponsored by the Mainichi Daily News, an English-language newspaper in Tokyo. However, a lettuce farmer from California, Frank Takahashi, was the sole promoter of the game. A self-described “football nut,” Takahashi foot the entire bill for the exhibition contest.
“If we have a sellout, I will break even,” Takahashi told Doug Grow of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1976 interview.
Unfortunately, the game was not a sellout and Takahashi reportedly lost tens of thousands of dollars to bring the NFL to Japan.
Regarding the game, Jim Hart’s 60 yard touchdown pass to Ike Harris helped give the Cardinals a 20-10 victory. It was the Cards second victory of the preseason.
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.”
Pete Retzlaff was a Philadelphia Eagles receiver who was difficult to defend because of the precise pass patterns he ran and his reliable hands. Initially a flanker and split end, Retzlaff became a tight end and was instrumental in transforming the position.
During his 11 NFL seasons (1956-66), all with the Eagles, Retzlaff developed a respect for St. Louis Cardinals safeties Jerry Stovall and Larry Wilson. In 1965, Retzlaff told The Sporting News, “St. Louis has the toughest defensive backs. Larry Wilson was real tough when he played me, but now I find Jerry Stovall even tougher to shake. Jerry has to be the most improved player at his position in the league.”
Retzlaff later told the Akron Beacon Journal, “Once, after we’d played in the Pro Bowl, Larry Wilson told me he always said I was the toughest tight end he ever tried to cover.”
Several former St. Louis Football Cardinals alumni recently gathered in Chesterfield for the annual Christmas Party. Among those in attendance were Coach Jim Hanifan, Johnny Roland, Mel Gray, Jackie Smith, Bob Rowe, Mark Arneson, Tim Kearney, Ron Yankowski, Ernie McMillan, Eddie Moss, Mike Wood, Terry Miller, Eric Williams, Keith Wortman, Willard Harrell, Jim Otis, Herschel Turner, Tim Van Galder, Jerry Holloway, former Big Red PA announcer Jim Holder, former Mizzou and Dallas Cowboys player Howard Richards, former MIzzou and Raiders player Gus Otto, and Big Red Line cheerleader Melodee Hinkle.
The 1974 St. Louis Football Cardinals were off to their best start in eight years. They had won their first four games of the season, but many “experts” still had their doubts. And who could blame them? The Big Red were coming off three straight 4-9-1 seasons and three of their early victories were against less than top-tier opponents. To add insult to injury, Dallas was coming to town and, despite a 1-3 record, the Cowboys were favored by three points over the Cards.
“I love it,” quarterback Jim Hart told Jeff Meyers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I like going into a game as the underdog. I don’t think that the Cowboys, with their history of success, really take us seriously, even if it’s possible that a 1-3 team would be complacent.”
One reason the Big Red were underdogs was that they hadn’t beaten Dallas since their 38-0 win on Monday Night Football in 1970. They had lost six in a row to the Cowboys by an average score of 30-11. And the Cowboys certainly didn’t feel like they were playing poorly in 1974. They had lost three straight games for the first time in ten years, however two of their losses were on last-minute field goals-one of which they believed wasn’t good. But, head coach Tom Landry knew that another loss would probably keep them from making their ninth straight postseason appearance.
“We’ve got to beat the Cardinals,” Landry said. “We’re surely not out of the race yet.”
So the stage was set for a mid-October showdown on a warm sunny day at sold-out Busch Stadium. The 4-0 Cardinals vs. the 1-3 Cowboys.