As exciting as the Cardinals’ offense was during Don Coryell’s tenure as head coach (1973-77), the defense was a poor stepchild. And for good reasons.
During the Coryell years, the Big Red defense ranked 26th (last in the NFL) in total defense in 1973, 17th in ’74, 18th in ’76, 12th in ’76 and 24th in ’77. The only defensive player who was selected to the Pro Bowl during that span was cornerback Roger Wehrli.
A frustrated Coryell once said that the Cardinals had only two defensive players who could start for the New York Giants. The joke was that all of the defensive starters went up to Wehrli and said, “You and me, right Rog?”
But older Big Red fans might remember that the Cardinals had several good defensive players in their first 10 seasons in St. Louis (1960-69), when Chuck Drulis was the defensive coordinator.
Drulis joined the Cardinals in 1956, when the team was still in Chicago, and coached 16 seasons (through 1971), serving five different head coaches. Tragically, Drulis died at the age of 54 on August 23, 1972 when he suffered a massive heart attack on the team’s charter flight from St. Louis to Houston for an exhibition game.
While Cardinals safety Larry Wilson rightfully became a national darling, many believed Jimmy Hill was the best cornerback in the NFL in the early 1960s.
The Dallas, TX native was a star offensive end at Booker T. Washington High School where he was named to the all-Texas team in 1945 and 1946. He caught 134 passes and scored 16 touchdowns or the Bulldogs and also set a high school record in track and field in the low hurdles.
Hill attended Sam Houston State College in Austin, TX where he starred in four sports. He was named All-American honorable mention in 1948 and 1949 as a running back and once ran for 5 touchdowns in a game. In addition to football, Hill was a sprint champion in track racking up a 9.5 mark in the 100 yard dash and also starred on the baseball and basketball teams. He was named the school’s best all-around athlete his last three years in college.
Hill was good enough in baseball as a pitcher to garner interest from the Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians. In 1950, he was offered a contract by the Montreal Alouettes to play football in the Canadian Football League and the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League, but he decided to teach and coach football after college.
Larry Wilson was a humble man, from humble beginnings who never forgot where he came from. Wilson was born and raised in the small town of Rigby, Idaho and would later become the greatest athlete in Rigby High School history, earning 16 Letters in football, baseball, basketball and track. Larry went on to star at the University of Utah and then with the St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League.
On July 7, 1967, the town honored Larry Wilson by retiring his high school number 7 and naming their football field “Larry Wilson Field.” Over 300 friends and acquaintances of Larry descended on Rigby to help honor “Willy.” Even Cardinals vice president Bill Bidwill flew in unexpectedly to participate in the celebration.
According to Wilson family friend, Michelle Barber, the name Larry Wilson Field was supposed to remain in perpetuity. However, when the new high school was built in the early 1990s, Larry’s name was removed and replaced with the name of a local doctor who never played ball in Rigby.
Michelle grew up watching Larry play football and said she and her late father, Dean Allgood, would watch the Cardinals whenever they were on television. Dean was a good friend of Whitey Wilson (Larry’s father) and the family felt terrible when Larry’s name was removed from the field.
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.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for St. Louis sports fans. We lost baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock on September 6 and on Friday we learned of the passing of former Big Red great Larry Wilson.
Wilson played college ball at the University of Utah and was the Chicago Cardinals 7th round draft choice in the 1960 NFL draft. He went on to a 13 year Hall of Fame career in St. Louis.
The Rigby, Idaho native played in 8 Pro Bowls and was named first team All-Pro five times. He was selected to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, the 75th Anniversary Team, and the NFL 100 All-Time Team. Wilson was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1966 and is the all-time Cardinals leader in interceptions with 52. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
Wilson was a member of the Cardinals organization as a player, coach, and executive for over 40 years. He was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor in 2006.
Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill had this to say about Wilson.
“Besides my father, Larry Wilson was the most influential male figure in my life. He was someone who truly lived his faith and demonstrated it daily in the kindness he showed every single person he met. Any of us lucky enough to be in his orbit – whether that was for a few minutes or four decades – was always better off from the experience. I will remember Larry Wilson first as a fantastic person but then obviously as one of the greatest players the National Football League has ever seen. It’s fitting that his passing coincides with the league’s 100th birthday because his toughness and the way he revolutionized his position make him one of our game’s most unforgettable figures. Whether on the field playing with casts on both hands or brightening the lives of every person he knew, Larry’s selflessness defined who he was and how we will all remember him.”
Larry Wilson is survived by Nancy, his wife of 40 years, as well as daughter Christie, son Larry Jr., numerous grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
(Editors Note: This was a feature in the December 17, 1972 edition of Pro! Magazine written by St. Louis Post Dispatch writer Robert Sanford. It was Larry’s last NFL game and he was featured on the cover..)
One of the all-time great Big Red memories is when Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson played a game with two broken hands against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1965. Not only did Larry play with casts and layers of gauze on both hands, but he also intercepted a Bill Nelson pass during the game. It’s the stuff that legends are made of. And of course Larry Wilson is a legend.
But many people have forgotten that Wilson’s teammate, and fellow Hall of Famer, Dan Dierdorf once played with a broken jaw. In fact, he missed only two games after suffering the injury against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977.