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Despite the financial strains he endured, Bidwill remained steadfast in his quest to gain respectability for not only the league but his beloved Cardinals.
After patiently enduring several losing seasons in his 15 years as team owner, he signed Georgia all-America running back Charlie Trippi in 1947 to the biggest contract the NFL had seen-$100,000 over four years-completing an ensemble he would dub the “Million Dollar Backfield.” In the process, he won a bidding war with the New York Yankees of the All-America Football Conference to give the NFL a decisive victory over the rival league. Joined by Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Elmer Angsman, and Marshall Goldberg, Trippi would lead the team to a 10-3 record, capped by a 28-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at Comiskey Park to be crowned NFL Champions. Bidwill sadly dies in April, only a few months prior seeing his soon-to-be ‘dream backfield’ take wing.
A noncomformist, Bidwill was often referred to as “Blue Shirt Charlie” because he sometimes spurned the traditional white shirt and businessman’s shoes in favor of a blue shirt and high boots—truly a working man’s man whose love of the game will remain one of the building blocks of the NFL and the Cardinals.
Though he coached just six seasons—five as a player-coach—Chamberlin won four NFL championships with the Canton Bulldogs in 1922 and 1923, the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1924, and the Frankford Yellow Jackets in 1926.
During his college days at the University of Nebraska, Chamberlin idolized legendary Jim Thorpe, and it was Thorpe who enticed the two-time all-America to play with the Canton club in 1919. And when George Halas began assembling his Decatur Staleys team in 1920, Chamberlin was at the top of his list. Halas proved his fine eye for talent as Chamberlin helped deliver Halas’ first championship that season. With Chamberlin as a player-coach, Canton cruised to undefeated seasons in both 1922 and 1923 and became the NFL’s first two-time champion. The club was sold to a Cleveland promoter in 1924 and Chamberlin, now with another group of players, led his team to a third straight title. He joined the Frankford Yellow Jackets in 1925 and a year later won another title, this time with a 14-1-1 mark.
As a player-coach with the Chicago Cardinals in 1927, the club struggled to a 3-7-1 record but Chamberlin’s legacy as one of the most successful coaches in the early years of the NFL endures.
A multi-talented ‘Renaissance Man’ of his time, James Gleason Conzelman was born on March 6, 1898 in St. Louis and starred for the Washington University of St. Louis football team. He began his professional playing career with the Great Lakes Navy team that won the 1919 Rose Bowl, where one of his teammates was the venerable George Halas, who later recruited him to play for the 1920 Decatur Staley squad which would become the roots of the Chicago Bears. He was player-or coach of four NFL teams in the 1920s (Decatur Staleys, Rock Island Independents, Milwaukee Badgers, Detroit Panthers) and coach of the Providence Steam Roller and Chicago Cardinals. Along the way he also had stints as a newspaper publisher, playwright, major league baseball player and executive, author, orator, and actor—but it was primarily his football exploits that resulted in a measure of excellence.
Despite a knee injury in 1928, he led the Steam Roller to the NFL title with an 8-1-2 record, then after retiring in 1929 spent the next 10 years dabbling in his other endeavors. In 1940, he was lured back to the game with the Chicago Cardinals, and after two seasons with the Cards, he worked in major league baseball for four years.
One of his truly remarkable accomplishments while away from the sport was his commencement address at the University of Dayton in 1942, so impressive and inspirational that it was read into the Congressional Record and was made required reading at West Point. When he returned to the Cardinals in 1946, several key parts of an outstanding team were in place.
Conzelman had passer Paul Christman, barreling runner and blocker Pat Harder, and bookend halfbacks Elmer Angsman and Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg. But both he and Charles Bidwill realized they needed one more weapon. In 1947, they got it in Charley Trippi. Goldberg moved to defensive halfback, and Trippi ran from left halfback.
Conzelman’s wisdom of teaming Trippi with Angsman in the “Dream Backfield” never was more evident than in the 1947 title game, won by the Cardinals 28-21. Trippi and Angsman scored two touchdowns each on long plays. Conzelman’s second NFL title came nearly two decades after his first.
Conzelman did a fantastic job of keeping the team focused in 1948. Stan Mauldin, as good a tackle as the game had seen, collapsed and died of a heart attack after the first game. Still, the team only lost one regular-season game before losing the championship game to the Eagles 7-0 in a blinding blizzard in Philadelphia. After the game, Conzelman retired for good from pro coaching.
The 290-pound Dierdorf, from Canton, Ohio, played both guard and tackle his first two seasons before settling down as the permanent right tackle in his third season. An equally effective blocker on both running and passing plays, Dierdorf was the ring leader of an offensive line which allowed the fewest quarterback sacks in the NFC for five consecutive seasons in the mid-1970s.
In 1975, the Cardinals set a record by allowing only eight sacks in 14 games. Dierdorf proved his durability by playing in every game until a broken jaw forced him out of two games in his seventh season, 1977. In 1979, he missed 14 of 16 games because of a dislocated left knee. However, he bounced back strongly in 1980 with another all-pro caliber season.
Dierdorf was an all-pro five seasons—from 1975 through 1978 and again in 1980. He played in six Pro Bowl games, missing only once from 1974 through 1980. For three consecutive years from 1976-78, he was selected as the best overall blocker in the NFL by the NFL Players Association.
The Chicago Cardinals has just become one of the charter members of the American Professional Football Association in 1920, and owner Chris O’Brien wisely signed Driscoll—to a head-turning $300 per game—in an effort to improve box office appeal. At the time, the Cardinals faced competition for the fan dollar from the Chicago Tigers, and O’Brien challenged the Tigers to a “winner-take-all” game in which the loser would fold operations and relinquish all territorial rights to the victor. Behind the play of Driscoll, who scored the game’s only touchdown, the Cardinals won the game 6-3 and the Tigers soon closed up shop. The Cardinals were the primary franchise in the area, and Driscoll was the player responsible.
A brilliant field general, Driscoll seemed to rise to the occasion. When the legendary Red Grange made his NFL debut with the Bears on Thanksgiving Day in 1925, Driscoll’s perfectly-placed punts frustrated both the fans and Grange—the Galloping Ghost—whom many thought would run rampant over the Cardinal defense. “I decided if one of us had to look bad, it wouldn’t be me,” Driscoll explained. “Punting to Grange is like grooving a pitch to Babe Ruth.”
In 1937, he joined Pittsburgh as a part-time player and assistant coach to head coach Johnny (Blood) McNally, whose escapades were more entertaining than the teams he produced. Kiesling, who proved himself an excellent line coach, succeeded McNally as head coach during the 1939 season. In 1942, with the considerable help of star back “Bullett” Bill Dudley, he coached the Steelers to their first winning season. He was co-coach of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia and Pittsburgh-Chicago Cardinal combined teams during World War II. In the 1950s, he served as Steelers’ coach again. Although the team suffered through three losing seasons, it earned a reputation for rugged, hard-hitting football—much the same reputation its coach had earned during his fine playing career.
Despite rules that made it difficult to effectively use the forward pass, Lambeau and the Packers perfected the aerial game and could strike at any time, on any down, from anywhere on the field. At first, passing could only be done five yards behind the line of scrimmage. An incomplete pass out of bounds went over to the other team, much like a punt. A second incompletion in the same series resulted in loss of possession. There were ample reasons why the early NFL game was a between-the-tackles affair.
Lambeau, never one to accept the conventional wisdom of the times, flew in the face of common practice. With his vaunted passing attack, Lambeau led the team to the 1929, 1930, and 1931 NFL championships. After signing the era’s ultimate weapon, speedy receiver Don Hutson in 1935, Lambeau and the Packers won three other league titles.
When Lambeau retired as a player in 1929, he replaced himself with Arnie Herber and later Cecil Isbell. Before Hutson’s arrival, Johnny (Blood) McNally was streaking through baffled NFL secondaries for large chunks of yardage and numerous touchdowns. McNally was still playing well when Hutson first joined the team. NFL defenders didn’t know whom to cover because both could break open a game. So advanced were Lambeau’s offensive theories and Hutson’s abilities that Hutson’s records stood until Lance Alworth and Jerry Rice entered the NFL decades later.
Lambeau resigned from the Packers in 1950 and later coached the Chicago Cardinals and Redskins. For many years, his 229 career victories were second only to George Halas.
Blessed with speed and outstanding agility, Lane was first tried as a receiver, but the Rams had two future Hall of Famers at the position—Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. Realizing he had much to learn, Lane tagged along with Fears around the clock, and one day was seen in Fears’ room listening to his favorite record, “Night Train” when a teammate christened him with the nickname.
Seeing little chance to play as a receiver, Lane moved to defense and immediately stamped his mark on the NFL with 14 pass interceptions as a rookie—a total which remains a league record. Nearly all defensive schemes called for man-to-man coverage, and Lane was perhaps the finest in the game. His stellar career took him from the Rams to the Chicago Cardinals in 1954 to 1959 where he intercepted 30 passes for 628 return yards in just six seasons. Though he finished his career in the 1960s with the Detroit Lions, he was all-pro five times, four of them with the Lions, and played in seven Pro Bowls, two as a starter. Overall he intercepted 68 passes for 1,207 yards and five touchdowns in his career. His 14 interceptions in 1952 remains a NFL single-season record, which he accomplished in a 12-game season.
Matson never led any of his teams to a title, but his career was exceptional. He gained 12,884 yards on rushing, receptions, and returns. He scored 40 touchdowns running, 23 on receptions, nine on kickoff returns, and one on a fumble recovery. Only twice in his 14-year career did he play on a team which finished over the .500 mark, so opposing defenses could key on him alone when facing the multi-talented Matson. Still, he managed to author one of the most impressive careers in pro football history.
Matson was the Cardinals’ top pick in 1952 but he opted to join the United States Olympic team. He returned from Helsinki with a bronze medal in the 400-meter race and a gold medal from the 1,600-meter relay. Once in the NFL, he shared 1952 rookie-of-the-year honors with Hugh McElhenny. He was all-pro four consecutive years and played in the Pro Bowl five times and was the Pro Bowl MVP in 1956. Matson finished his career in a blaze of glory by leading the 1966 Philadelphia Eagles to a 9-5 record, the best finish ever for a team on which Matson played.
Haugsrud named his team “Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos” and that year showcased his prize with 29 games, 28 of them on the road, and traveling 17,000 miles. Nevers played all but 29 of a possible 1,740 minutes.
In 1929 Nevers signed with the Cardinals, and on Thanksgiving Day that season set today what is the longest-standing National Football League individual record. The game—a rematch against the crosstown rival Bears—was billed as a duel between Nevers and Red Grange, the Bears’ legendary star. However, there was no duel as Nevers scored a remarkable 40 points to lead the Cardinals to a 40-6 victory. The following week, he scored all his team’s points again in a 19-0 win over Dayton to bring his total to 59 consecutive points scored.
Nevers could do it all—run, pass, return kicks, punt, kick, and call plays. In both 1930 and 1931 he also was the playing coach of the Cardinals. In each of the five years he played, he was named the all-league fullback.
At the time of his retirement in 1978, Smith ranked as the all-time leading pass receiver among tight ends with 480 receptions for 7,918 yards and 40 touchdowns—not bad for a track star from Northwestern Louisiana.
He was a talented receiver, punishing blocker, a fierce competitor, and an excellent runner after he caught the ball. He even handled the Cardinals’ punting chores his first three seasons.
Smith became the Cardinals’ starting tight end during his 1963 rookie season and held that spot for 15 years. The team’s offensive co-captain from 1967-70, Smith had a string of 45 consecutive games with at least one pass reception and missed just 12 games in 16 NFL seasons. His consecutive game streak of 121 contests began with his first game as a rookie and lasted until a knee injury sidelined him in his ninth season in 1971. Overall, Smith still played in 198 games with the Cardinals, third most in club history. He caught more than 40 passes seven times and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection.
Jack Cusack, the Canton Bulldogs’ general manager, signed the most famous American athlete of the age for the princely sum of $250 a game. Thorpe was everything Cusack expected him to be—an exceptional talent and an unparalleled gate attraction. With Thorpe leading the way, the Bulldogs claimed unofficial world championships in 1916, 1917, and 1919.
While Thorpe’s exploits tend to be exaggerated with the passing years, there is no question he was a superb football player. He could run with speed as well as with bruising power. He could pass and catch passes with the best, punt long distances, and kick field goals either by drop kick or place kick. He blocked with authority and on defense was a bone-jarring tackler.
Thorpe, who was born in a one-room cabin in Prague, Oklahoma, had some French and Irish blood but he was mostly of Sac and Fox Indian heritage. His Native American Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning “Bright Path,” something he was destined to follow in sports.
He excelled in every sport he tried and won the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, but was stripped of his gold medal because he had once been paid to play minor league baseball (the medal was restored posthumously in 1982). But football was his favorite sport, and he firmly established his reputation when he scored 25 touchdowns in leading the Carlisle Indian School to the national collegiate championship in 1912.
Contracts of that size were unheard of in those days, and the signing proved to be a huge breakthrough for the NFL in its war with the All-American Football Conference. As a two-time all-America from the University of Georgia, Trippi was the most sought-after college athlete of his day.
Trippi’s acquisition completed Bidwill’s quest for a “Dream Backfield.” Although Bidwill did not live to see it, Trippi became a gamebreaker in the talented corps that included quarterback Paul Christman, Pat Harder, Marshall Goldberg, and later Elmer Angsman. Never was Trippi more magnificent than in the 1947 NFL Championship Game, when the Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21. With the game played on an icy field in Chicago, Trippi wore basketball shoes for better traction and totaled 206 yards, including 102 yards on two punt returns. He scored touchdowns on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return.
Trippi could do anything on a football field. He played as the Cardinals’ left halfback for four years, switched to quarterback for two years, and went back to halfback for one season before changing almost exclusively to the defensive unit in 1954 and 1955.
Born in Rigby, Idaho, Wilson was a halfback and defensive back at the University of Utah and originally joined the Cardinals as a seventh round draft choice in 1960. After converting to the defensive backfield due to injuries, Wilson embarked upon a storied career that reached legendary stadium as a hard-hitting six-time all-pro and eight-time Pro Bowl safety, along the way enduring an array of fractured bones, broken teeth, and bumps and bruises on every part of his body, none of which could deter him, however, from answering the call for 169 games.
In a game against Pittsburgh in 1965 he ignored doctor’s orders and, while playing with casts on two broken hands, intercepted a Bill Nelsen pass for a go-ahead 35-yard touchdown return in the 21-17 win on November 7.
Playing like a man twice his size, Wilson punished opposing ball carriers and receivers, and even made his mark against the quarterback on occasion. Cardinals defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis was ready to unveil a new strategy—the safety blitz—but could not find a player with the fearlessness and power to effectively run the play, until he met Wilson, who perfected what is one of the most exciting defensive calls in the game today. The play was coded “Wildcat” and soon became Wilson’s nickname.
When he wasn’t slamming the quarterback to the ground, Wilson was flying through the defensive secondary, making one of his 52 pass interceptions, which remains a team record. In addition to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, he was named to the NFL’s all-time team commemorating the league’s 75th anniversary in 1994.
Born in King City Missouri, Wehrli came from a small high school of just 75 boys, barely enough to fill out a football squad, and received just one from a large school to play football—from the University of Missouri. And it was only with the stipulation that he play baseball as well as football.
Wehrli became a starter in the defensive backfield his sophomore season at Mizzou, went on to earn all-America notice as a senior with 10 interceptions, and was among the top punt returners in the nation.
The Cardinals made him their first-round pick in the 1969 NFL Draft, and though he struggled a bit as a rookie, his perseverance and confidence showed, and in just his second pro season in 1970 he intercepted six passes and earned all-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.
Wehrli soon became a defensive cornerstone for the exciting Cardinal teams of the mid-1970s that forged a three-year record of 31-11 (10-4, 11-3, 10-4) from 1974-76 under Don Coryell. During that period, Wehrli was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1974-75-76-77 and again in 1979, and was voted to the All-Decade Team of the 1970s.
And Wehrli was able to maintain that excellence during a time when the NFL showcased a wide-open offense and some of the all-time great quarterbacks (Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton) and wide receivers (Charley Taylor, Drew Pearson, Paul Warfield, Lynn Swann). There are 18 modern-era wide receivers in the Hall of Fame, and Wehrli played against 10 of them.
Over the course of his NFL career, Wehrli was both a warrior and a graceful sportsman. His mastery of the cornerback position, coupled with unwavering toughness and determination, enabled him to play the demanding cornerback position with excellence for 14 seasons.
Wehrli finished his career following the 1982 season with a total of 193 games played, 40 interceptions, seven Pro Bowl appearances, five Pro Bowl honors, and a reputation as one of the most reliable and fundamentally-sound defenders of his era.