A Not-So-Super Story
For a brief time in the 1970s, I cared more about football than baseball. The football Cardinals, under Don Coryell, were more interesting than the baseball Cardinals. And my college team, the Missouri Tigers, regularly upset the top teams in the NCAA. In 1976 alone, they upset #8 USC, #2 Ohio State, and #3 Nebraska — all on the road. That was after beating #2 Alabama in 1975 and before toppling #2 Nebraska in 1978.
And I’m sure they beat Notre Dame somewhere in there, along with some other ranked teams that I can’t recall just now.
Ultimately, though, the crushing disappointments inherent in following those teams, watching them beat some of the best teams one week and then the following week lose to some of the worst, wore me out. By the time Whitey Herzog came along to manage the baseball Cardinals in the early 1980s, I was ready for a permanent switch to baseball fandom.
So, unlike a lot of former St. Louis (football) Cardinals fans, I don’t have any particularly deep or wistful feelings associated with the fact our former team is finally successful in a completely different city. I’ll watch the Super Bowl tomorrow with about my usual level of interest, which isn’t particularly deep or passionate. I’m just hoping for a decent game and entertaining commercials. I’ll be happy for the fans of whichever team wins, but that’s as far as my emotional involvement goes.
I do, though, have a story about the football Cardinals that I don’t believe I’ve ever told in an article or blog.
In 1978, the team made what’s widely regarded as one of its worst draft picks ever, taking can’t tell you why a great college kicker failed so miserably in the pros, but he did. He was cut in 1980.
I was working for the Riverfront Times then, and my editor, Ray Hartmann, was interviewing Little for a feature. I can’t remember any details about the story, except for the fact that the entire staff went out drinking with Little the night he was cut.
He was friendly and generous, pulling $50 bills out of his pocket to pay for rounds of drinks. I remember he flirted with one of my coworkers, whom I happened to be dating at the time.
Two things struck me as odd: First, a guy who’d just been fired from his job was spending money like he owned the printer and could make as much as he wanted. That made an impression on a guy making $120 a week at his first post-college job. Second, a married guy was flirting with a young woman who was, however briefly, my girlfriend.
That’s all I remember about the night. I was shocked, like everyone else in St. Louis, to wake up the next morning and hear the news that Little had been seriously injured when he wrecked his car driving home that night.
Little ended up paralyzed, and died 19 years later, when he was 43. He ended up living almost as long in the wheelchair as he’d lived out of it, spending much of his life as an elite, celebrated, and then vilified athlete.
I don’t know if there’s any lesson to be learned from Little’s story, other than the obvious one about DWDU — driving while drunk and unemployed. But it’s the one that comes to mind when I think of the hapless history of the football Cardinals in St. Louis.
And it’s probably the reason I’ve never cared about them, or pro football in general, ever since.