I barely remember the St. Louis football Cardinals. I was only eight years old when they left; the extent of what I really have of them is an old nylon backpack in burgundy and a glass mug with the gridbird logo on the side. Even so, the team has a special little place in my heart. I suppose it probably has a place for most of us, regardless of our actual feelings for the team and its -- ahem -- owners.
In that weird collective way that cities have of assimilating sporting teams, the Cardinals are a part of the St. Louis experience, a part of the unconscious mind of the city. The ending of the story may have been ugly, but the journey to get there was still something special. Slide Show
Dan Dierdorf and Jim Hart
Any discussion of the history of St. Louis football has to start with the city's' favorite sons, Dierdorf and Hart. After their on-field careers ended, both chose to stay, as so many former pro athletes do, in the city. Together they founded one of the most successful restaurants in St. Louis, Dierdorf and Hart's
Sadly, the landmark downtown location is now closed, leaving us only with the Westport location. I remember once, when I was seven years old, my entire family went down to Dierdorf and Hart's for dinner, to celebrate some sort of special occasion. For the life of me, I cannot today recall what the occasion was, but I do know there were about twelve of us going.
I had never been in a place that fancy before, all mirrors and dark wood, and I was more than a little bit intimidated. The food was wonderful (I think), but what I remember most was that feeling that I was getting a glimpse of the grown-up world, a world full of women in sleek evening gowns and men in tailored suits, a world that seemed bright and shiny and impossibly distant.
Dierdorf was there that night, a mountain of a man with a deep, rumbling sort of voice that frightened me more than I was willing to admit. He came by our table, thanked us all for coming, and asked me specifically, in that way that adults have of talking to the very small, if my steak was okay. I summoned up all my courage and told him it was magnificent. It was the most complimentary word I knew, having just learned it earlier that week from the vocabulary flashcards my grandmother had bought me.
Dierdorf laughed aloud, said what a little gentleman I was, and how glad he was that I enjoyed it. He spoke a bit more to the adults at the table, but I had no idea what was being said. I could only marvel that I had forayed into that rich and sleek society, and had come back with the laughter of a giant in my ears. Life could not have been better.
I know all the statistics from both Hart and Dierdorf, and I've heard all the stories from my father about how great each were, but I honestly don't recall seeing either of them play. To me, when I hear either name, I think only of that night when I was seven, eating in a restaurant fancier than anything I had ever imagined before. If any players could ever claim to be a true part of the city, these two could.
Slide ShowNeil Lomax
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the pair of Dierdorf and Hart is the gridbird villain, Neil Lomax. He was taken in the 1981 draft, the heir-apparent to Jim Hart, who was beginning to show his age.
From the start, the relationship between the fans in St. Louis and Lomax was a rather contentious one. Lomax was a collegiate legend, holding 90 NCAA records by the time his career at Portland State University was over. Perhaps most impressive, Lomax once threw for seven touchdowns in a quarter. The only problem was, when Lomax got to the pros, he never quite managed to live up to his hype. Of course, the fact that he was following the legendary Hart, leader of the Cardiac Cardinals of the '70s, didn't help matters any, nor did the fact that Lomax was often seen as a first-rate prima donna and often criticized the fans for what he felt was their half-hearted support of the team.
Perhaps the most famous rant of Lomax' career came when he complained that Fredbird was more popular than he was, because the mascot hit more home runs than he did. Most in the city simply dismissed Lomax as having a first-rate case of sour grapes; the product of unfulfilled expectations, a terrible team, and a need for attention that approached pathological proportions.
At the tail-end of Lomax' time in St. Louis, before he accompanied the Cardinals on their move to the desert, he penned a biography, Third and Long. In it he alternately talked about how supportive the fans of St. Louis were, his deep religious convictions and how lousy a football town it really was. St. Louis fans were disappointed, but not all that surprised, given that the book was mostly a continuation of what Lomax had been saying for years. Much more disappointed were the dozens who bought the book believing "third and long" to be a sexual euphemism.
Steve Little and Neil O' Donoghue
You want pathos? Consider the story of Steve Little, the kicker that the Cardinals took in the 1978 draft. Much like Lomax, Little was an absolute beast in college, but failed to translate that success well to the pros. He was best known for missing fourth-quarter field goals, at least while he was on the field.
Off the field, Little was known for having a serious problem with both alcohol and the drug of choice for athletes everywhere in the late '70s early '80s, cocaine. While his career foundered, his personal life careened out of control.
Finally, one day in 1980, Jim Hanifan, then the coach of the Cardinals, decided to have a competition. He pitted Little against a kicker Hanifan had invited to practice by the name of Neil O' Donoghue. Bottom line, O' Donoghue wins, and Hanifan cuts Little right there on the field in front of the whole team.
That night, Little goes out with a friend of his (there were rumors that it was Jim Hart, but no one has ever been able to pin down whether that's true or not), and gets trashed, as only a cocaine-addicted alcoholic can. On his way home, he smashes his car into a signpost on I-270, nearly killing himself. Little ended up paralyzed from the neck down, and spent the rest of his days, from 1980 until his death in 1999, in a hospice in Little Rock, Arkansas.
As for O'Donoghue, he became the new scourge of St. Louis fans, missing just as many, if not more, field goals as his predecessor. In one particularly famous game, a 20-20 tie with the New York Giants on a Monday night in 1983, O' Donoghue missed three separate field goals, including one of nineteen yards. That's right, nineteen. Chew on that for a bit.
Dobler is today perhaps the greatest poster boy that Mike Ditka and his efforts to get a fair shake for retired NFL players could ever hope for. During his heyday with the Cardinals, Dobler was known as, quite possibly, the dirtiest player in the NFL, and one of the dirtiest ever. He was also one of the best offensive linemen in the league.
Dobler was taken by the Cardinals in the 1972 draft, and immediately stepped in and began contributing. Jim Hart, the quarterback during Dobler's tenure with the Cardinals, has said before in interviews that the only reason he can still walk around with relative ease is because Conrad cannot. Doing the job in the pits year after year, Dobler took tremendous amounts of punishment. He was elected to the NFL Pro Bowl three consecutive years, from 1975-1977, all the while building his reputation as one of the most vicious and tenacious players in all of football. You want to know about Conrad Dobler? This very Riverfront Times profiled Dobler in a story
that says it all.
Like so many of his brethren, Dobler has paid the price for his on-field exploits. He is 90 percent disabled today, a result of the battering he took all those years ago. He has had numerous surgeries, and still needs more, to try and repair some of the damage that had been done. Unfortunately, also like so many others, Dobler hasn't been able to get disability benefits from the NFL Player's Association. His wife Joy was paralyzed after falling out of a hammock in 2001, and the combination of medical bills from the two of them have nearly destroyed the Doblers.
In 2007, Phil Mickelson, the professional golfer, learned of the Dobler family's plight, and offered to pay for their daughter, Holli, to attend college in Miami, Ohio. When Dobler asked Glenn Cohen, Mickelson's lawyer, why he was willing to pay for Holli's education, Cohen answered, "Because he can."
And so I'll leave you with that, the story of Conrad Dobler. I didn't meant to turn this into a tirade against the NFLPA, but hey, it happens. We have a franchise going to the Super Bowl for the first time in its history, a league that continues to rake in the profits, and a sport that couldn't be healthier, and then on the other hand you have Dobler.
The Cardinal franchise was built on the backs of men like him; the NFL as a whole was built on men like Dobler. Yet while the Cardinals are enjoying a new era of prosperity the likes of which they've never known, a man like Conrad Dobler still needs additional surgeries in order to continue walking. His wife is wheelchair bound. And the NFLPA doesn't want to do fuck all for him.