Woe, Be Gone

For the Cardinals, a Lombardi Trophy would redeem six decades of suffering—and finally put a winning stamp on a long-wayward franchise
February 02, 2009

IN 1905 theMorgan Athletic Club on the South Side of Chicago split into two factions. Onewould become an Irish gang called Ragen's Colts, which later worked for AlCapone. The other would become a football team called the Cardinals. ¬∂ Fromtheir NFL beginnings, the Cardinals were hard to watch. They played their homegames at Comiskey Park, seven blocks from the stockyards, the stench of cowmanure in the air. Their fans—stockyard workers, steamfitters, mobsters—wereknown to set fires in the bleachers to keep warm. When a brawl broke outbetween the Cardinals and the hated Bears during one game, some of Capone'sassociates came down from the stands to mediate.

The Cardinalseventually moved from Chicago, where they were overshadowed by the Bears, toSt. Louis, where they were overshadowed by the other Cardinals, to Arizona,where, until very recently, they were ignored altogether. "In St. Louis andin Arizona the wives' section was right behind the bench," says VaiSikahema, a kick returner for the Cardinals from 1986 through '90. "By thefourth quarter you could hear them telling each other, 'Let's go to RubyTuesday after the game.' You'd start making dinner plans with the guys."Tables could be hard to come by. "I'd go to a bar in Scottsdale," saysEd Cunningham, a Cards center from 1992 to '95, "and if there was a longline, I'd go to the front and say I played for the Cardinals. They'd point tothe back of the line."

Throughout theirhistory the Cardinals have been known as nondescript losers, but that was neverfair. They were colorful losers. The franchise has lost 674 regular-seasongames, 105 more than the Lions. The Cards once lost 29 games in a row,including an 0--10 season in 1944, when many of their players were serving inWorld War II and the rest merged with the Steelers. Card-Pitt, as it wascalled, had an interception-to-touchdown pass differential of 41 to 8, earningthe team the nickname "Car-Pitts," because other teams walked all overthem.

Before KenWhisenhunt was hired in 2007, the Cardinals had burned through 37 coaches in 87NFL seasons. Four—Guy Chamberlin, Curly Lambeau, Joe Stydahar and JimmyConzelman—are in the Hall of Fame, but only Conzelman lasted more than twoyears with the Cardinals. The team fired Jim Hanifan in '85 by changing thelocks on his office at halftime of a home game against the Redskins. Buddy Ryanwas let go in '95 after he left the sideline of a game against Dallas with onesecond still on the clock, the last straw in his failed two-year tenure.

Still, coacheshave enjoyed job security compared with Cardinals quarterbacks. Since 1960 theteam has had 39 starting QBs. In 1950 Jim Hardy threw eight interceptions inthe season opener. In late '73 Gary Keithley had a passer rating of 0.00 inconsecutive weeks. In 1981 the Cards snapped a nine-year streak without aquarterback sneak. And yet, in '95, they allowed a 76-yard sneak by Kansas CityQB Steve Bono, one of the slowest players in the league.

Not that theydidn't try to find quarterbacks. The Cards drafted Joe Namath in the firstround in 1965, but he signed with the Jets of the AFL. They drafted KellyStouffer in the first round in '87, but he sat out for a season until hisrights were traded to Seattle. They brought in Joe Montana for a visit in 1993,when the 49ers were taking trade offers for him, but someone reportedly lostthe keys to the facility and couldn't show him inside. He went to theChiefs.

"The nightbefore the draft I would get down on my hands and knees and say a rosary,"says Hanifan, an assistant coach from 1973 through '78 and head coach from '80through '85. "I would ask God, 'Please get us somebody good thisyear.'"

Such prayers wentunanswered. First-round picks included running back Larry Stegent (1970), whodid not have a rushing attempt in his one NFL season; defensive back Tim Gray('75), who was traded after a single season; quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz('77), who started four NFL games; wide receiver Clyde Duncan ('84), who caughtfour career passes; and placekicker Steve Little ('78)—yes, the Cardinalsdrafted a kicker in the first round—who was 13 for 27 on field goal tries inhis three-year career.

Placekicking wasalways a problem. In 1983 Neil O'Donoghue missed three field goals in overtime.In '85 Novo Bojovic punctuated a 40-yarder against the Giants by running intothe end zone and spiking the ball; New York scored the next 34 points to win34--3. And in '01 Bill Gramatica tore his ACL while celebrating a 42-yard fieldgoal.

There have beengreat Cardinals through the years—their 11 Hall of Famers include halfbackOllie Matson, cornerback Night Train Lane and tackle Dan Dierdorf—but for atime the team's best-known player was likely Rod Tidwell, the fictional widereceiver played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. Gooding won an Oscar forhis role in the 1996 film, but the first time he read the script he askedhimself what every other football fan did: "Why the Cardinals?"

The franchise canlay claim to two NFL championships, but the first, in 1925, was tainted: Itcame only after the league stripped the Pottsville Maroons of the title forplaying an unsanctioned out-of-league game. What really angered the Maroons,who beat the Cardinals head-to-head, was that the Cards padded their record byplaying the Milwaukee Badgers, a team with four high school kids. "One ofthem was 15 years old," says 94-year-old Nick Barbetta, who was a guard onthat Pottsville team. "They needed one more win, and they used that dirtytrick to get it."

FROM APRIL 1947to October '48, Cardinals owner Charles Bidwill died of pneumonia, punter JeffBurkett was killed in a plane crash and tackle Stan Mauldin suffered a fatalheart attack in the locker room as his teammates looked on. And that was duringthe greatest run on the field in franchise history.

In 1947 theCardinals beat the Eagles at Comiskey Park for the NFL championship, and theywere poised to repeat in '48. But a blizzard struck on the day of the titlegame at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Players from both teams voted on whether topostpone for a week. "It was the end of the season and everybody wanted togo home," says Jimmy Conzelman Jr., son of the Cardinals' coach. "Sothey said, 'To hell with it, let's play.'" Snow was up to the players'calves. When Eagles running back Steve Van Buren plowed into the end zone forthe game's only score, Cardinals tackle Chet Bulger asked the ref, "How doyou know?" That 7--0 loss set the stage for five decades of futility. TheCardinals' 61-year title drought is the second-longest in major Americansports; only the Chicago Cubs, at 100 years, have gone longer without achampionship.

Cardinals historyis not easy to track, mainly because the team's headquarters in Chicago twicecaught fire. If some anecdotes sound apocryphal, maybe they are. The one aboutthe Cardinals getting their name from the hand-me-down University of Chicagojerseys that had faded to a shade of red? "Not true," says Joe Ziemba,a football historian and author of the 1999 book When Football Was Football:The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL. The one about the Cardinalsplaying the Chicago Tigers in 1920 with the stipulation that the loser woulddisband? "Not true either," Ziemba says. The mob links? "Oh, that'strue."

The Cardinalsleft Chicago in 1960 and St. Louis in 1988, but conditions in Arizona were onlyslightly better than at Comiskey. "You might as well have been sitting in akiln," Cunningham, the former center, says. "One preseason game againstthe Bears it was 142° on the field. I lost 22 pounds." One night a year,though, the Cards' home, Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, was the place to be: Whenthe Cowboys came to town, so many Dallas fans filled the seats that theCardinals had to use silent counts on their own field. Asked for his favoritememory of those games, current Cards guard and Phoenix native Deuce Lutui says,"Throwing a can of soda at Deion Sanders."

Bill Bidwill, whobegan as a ball boy for his dad's team and became sole owner in 1972, wasgenerous with charities but not always with players. Former safety RobertGriffith claimed the team charged him a shipping fee when it sent him hiscontract in 2005 (an assertion the Cardinals denied). Eric Hill, a linebackerin the '90s, says he was charged for catered lunches in the locker room.Sikahema says he was charged for socks. "You would go to the equipment manat the beginning of the season, and he'd give you two pairs of socks, two pairsof shoes and, oddly, an ashtray and a carton of smokes," Sikahema says."If you asked for a third pair of socks or shoes, they'd dock it from yourcheck. It wasn't unusual to walk through the mall and see teammates at FootLocker buying cleats."

Other NFL clubsalso docked players for extra socks and shoes, but with the Cardinals theslapstick stories reinforced the team's image. Consider one of the Cardinals'most memorable games. "It's Christmas Day 1995, Monday Night Football,we're 4--11, we're playing Dallas on their way to the Super Bowl, and they'refilming Jerry Maguire," says Cunningham, now an award-winning documentaryproducer. "That morning we had meetings in the hotel, and [defensive end]Chad Brown and Eric Hill get into an all-out fistfight watching film. Beforethe game we're in the locker room, and Brown decides to come back and finishthe fight. He wasn't even active. Eric was partially dressed. Our running backscoach somehow gets punched in the face and winds up with a knot on his head.And in the doorway is Dan Dierdorf—the alltime Cardinal [and MNFanalyst]—shaking his head. That was the culmination of my experience with theArizona Cardinals."

Today's playersdon't believe the stories. "You're making stuff up," says defensive endBryan Robinson. The Cardinals now play at University of Phoenix Stadium, one ofthe NFL's plushest facilities, and get all the socks they want. Credit MichaelBidwill, Bill's son, a former federal prosecutor who joined the organization in1996 to work on the stadium deal and by extension rescue the family business."This team was not as bad as people think," Michael says. "But thelosses were frustrating, and we had to get this new stadium built to puttogether a business plan that would succeed." After decades spent wastingdraft picks and hiring coaches past their prime, the Cardinals chose receiversAnquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in successive drafts in 2003 and '04 andhired the 44-year-old Whisenhunt in 2007. The Bidwills finally gave their teamtime to grow.

"If theseplayers don't appreciate what they have," Hill says, "tell them to callme."

RESENTMENT HASgiven way to nostalgia. After the Cardinals beat the Eagles in the NFC titlegame to advance to Super Bowl XLIII, Hill rose from his seat in the stadium andfixed his eyes on a sign that read I GUESS IT'S A COLD DAY IN HELL. Hanifan,once locked out of his office, cried tears of joy and then picked up the phoneto call Dierdorf. The younger Conzelman, who had a Cards logo tattooed on hisright buttock 11 years ago, promised to get another for the left cheek. AndGooding, monitoring the action from the Sundance Film Festival, said hescreamed when he saw the final score. "Rod Tidwell will ride again!" heshouted. Then he made Super Bowl plans.

So did72-year-old Richard Hayden, who was in the upper deck at Comiskey, huddledunder army blankets with his father, when the Cardinals won their last NFLchampionship. It was the first football game Hayden saw in person, and he hadno choice but to adopt the Cardinals as his team. Who could resist a winner?Hayden moved to Phoenix in 1962, and when the Cardinals eventually followedhim, he bought season tickets. "Every year I said, 'To hell withthem,'" Hayden says. "And every year I bought the tickets anyway. Wehad a lot of laughs. You know, they weren't the greatest team ever."

No, but theycould have been worse. They could have gone with Capone.

"Please," Hanifan would pray, "get usSOMEBODY GOOD this year."

After years spent wasting draft picks and hiringcoaches past their prime, the Bidwills finally gave their team TIME TOGROW.

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PHOTOCOURTESY OF ARIZONA CARDINALSA YEAR TO REMEMBER The 1947 championship proved to be the high point of the Cardinals' time in Chicago—or anywhere else. PHOTOROY DABNER/APRED BRIGADE The Cardinals' cast of characters included (from left) Michael and Bill Bidwill, Dierdorf in his glory, Gooding as Tidwell and a gimpy Gramatica. PHOTONEIL LEIFER[See caption above] PHOTOCOLUMBIA TRISTAR/THE KOBAL COLLECTION[See caption above] PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK PHOTO

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