The Big Red Zone continues its series by looking back on each of the 28 St. Louis Cardinals drafts (1960-87). This installment focuses on the 1981 Draft, which was held April 28-29 in New York.
Hugh Green or E.J. Junior? That was the question staring the Cardinals in the face as they debated who to select with the fifth overall pick in the 1981 draft.
Green, a 6-2, 225-pound defensive end from Pittsburgh, had been one of the best college players in 1980. A three-time All-American, he had won the Lombardi Trophy as the nation’s best lineman and had finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Junior, a 6-3, 238-pound end from Alabama who had played for legendary coach Bear Bryant on two national championship teams in 1978 and 1979, also had been a consensus All-American in 1980.
In the end, the deciding factor was size. And Junior was the choice.
Stump Mitchell rushed for 1,647 yards his senior season at The Citadel, second in the nation to South Carolina’s George Rogers who was rewarded with the Heisman Trophy and selected as the first overall pick in the 1981 NFL draft.
Meanwhile, Stump waited patiently for the telephone to ring while running backs were coming off the board left and right.
“I was waiting and praying,” the 5-foot-8 190 pound Georgia native told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1981 interview..
Late in the second day of the draft, Stump picked up the ringing phone and heard St. Louis director of pro personnel Larry Wilson telling him, “Congratulations, you’ve been selected by the St. Louis Cardinals.” In response, Stump couldn’t contain his mood.
“He was mad,’ Wilson remembered. “He told Jim Hanifan (then Cardinals head coach) and me, both of us, that he was going to make our ball club, that he was better than a ninth-round choice, that he was going to make us forget about Ottis Anderson.”
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.
The NFL was coming off another strike and the Big Red were on a three-game losing streak. They were facing a bad Tampa Bay team and owner Bill Bidwill was talking about leaving town. It’s a wonder that even 22,449 fans showed up to see the Cardinals play the Buccaneers on a dreary, rainy Sunday in early November.
And like many fans, the Cards were no-shows themselves for the first three quarters of the game spotting the Bucs a 28-3 lead. As St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Kevin Horrigan wrote, “As the fourth quarter began, the Bucs are up by 25 points and it’s so quiet you can hear the cheerleaders, which is a bad sign. NFL cheerleaders are designed to be seen, not heard.”
But the game was far from over.
The Big Red erupted for four touchdowns in the final 12:42 to win the game
31-28. It was the largest fourth quarter comeback in NFL history.
“Just another laugher,” said Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill who was accompanied by detectives after receiving a death threat prior to the game.
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: 20-11
20. PAT TILLEY (WR)
Pat Tilley played 11 seasons for the Big Red and retired as the second leading pass catcher in team history. The Louisiana Tech product was the Cards 4th round pick in 1976 and shared the team rookie of the year honor with Mike Dawson. Tilley scored his first NFL touchdown in the ’76 season opener against the Seahawks. Teammates Mel Gray and Roy Green got all the headlines, but Tilley led the team in receiving from 1978-1982 earning one Pro Bowl appearance in 1980. He started every game but one from 1978-1985. His best season was in 1981 when he caught 66 passes for 1040 yards and three TDs. Tilley finished his career with 469 receptions, 7005 yards and 37 touchdowns.