After long, rocky past, Cardinals find way to the top

Shortly after watching the Arizona Cardinals clinch a Super Bowl berth with a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, Roger Wehrli called some of his former St. Louis Cardinals teammates. They were happy that the franchise for which they played finally shed the "Scarlet Label" of never having reached the Super Bowl.

But they also were conflicted.

These were the Cardinals, wearing pretty much the same uniforms they did in St. Louis, with the same profiled Cardinal on the helmet, but this was Arizona's team. The Rams are St. Louis' team, but Wehrli, Jim Hart and Dan Dierdorf or Jackie Smith, Terry Metcalf and Ottis Anderson didn't play for them.

To some degree, they felt like NFL veterans on an island.

"The Cardinals have been gone for 20 years," said Dierdorf, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle and currently an NFL broadcaster. "The reality is that they were the only franchise I ever played for. That franchise is my franchise, and when something like this happens, I'm really happy for them. I'm really happy for the Bidwill family (the franchise's owners). It's just strange when your team is gone from the city where you played. Until you've experienced it, you really don't know how different that dynamic is."

Players, coaches and team staffers had little to do with the Cardinals' relocation from St. Louis, where they spent 28 seasons after moving from Chicago, to suburban Phoenix in 1988.

They did have something to do with what took place on the field, though, and that typically was a lot of entertaining losses featuring highly skilled players who, at some point of each season, stumbled over themselves. There was a brief run under coach Don Coryell from 1974 to 1976 when the Cardinals reached the playoffs twice and lost in the first round, but that was short-lived.

"We didn't have long to keep our hopes high for a Super Bowl championship since we got knocked out right away," Smith quipped.

What the Cardinals lacked in production, they made up for in personality, with players such as offensive linemen Tom Banks and Conrad Dobler, linebacker E.J. Junior and dazzling skill players Mel Gray, Metcalf and Anderson, before he moved on to the New York Giants. Coryell introduced must-see aerial football to the world before moving on to the San Diego Chargers in 1978. It was ABA basketball-style football played in old Busch Stadium on rock-hard AstroTurf.

Immediately after Coryell's departure, futility again became the norm for the Cardinals.

"Back then, we were thankful for small miracles, like even getting ourselves into playoff position," said Smith, who went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys and is known more for his infamous end-zone drop in Super Bowl XIII than his years of great play in St. Louis.

"The big thing was the guys we did it with," Smith added. "We were a group of guys that stayed together for so long and did so much. To be able to get to the Super Bowl is something all those guys (who) played back then really deserved. I'm happy to see the Cardinals finally get there."

Said Wehrli, who like Smith and Dierdorf is in the Hall of Fame: "There's no doubt that it was always frustrating not being able to get farther in the playoffs than we did. We had our ups and downs in my career throughout the '70s. We had some really good teams, and we thought we had a chance of going all the way a few times, but it didn't work out for us.

"We lost two years in a row in the first round to Minnesota and to the Los Angeles Rams. Then we went 10-4 and didn't even make the playoffs. It was frustrating. Every year as a player, you go into training camp and you'd think, 'This could be the year that we'd go all the way.' Things just don't work out that way.

"It's been a long haul for them to make it to the Super Bowl. They're one of the last teams to get there, but they're there."

The first few years after the Cardinals moved from St. Louis, Wehrli said there was an awkward detachment. The team moved on to new soil, and it was so far away that it was really hard to keep a connection. The organization never froze out the old-timers, but at the same time, it had more important affairs to get in order.

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"It was a real hard thing to get used to hearing the Phoenix Cardinals and Arizona Cardinals," Smith said. "Then, it was a hard thing listening to the St. Louis Rams. It didn't seem to fit. There were a lot of the guys still living here when the team left. We felt like we were left a lurch a little bit."

Former players from the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams had to have felt the same way after their teams relocated, Dierdorf said.

"We do have a great group of guys in the NFL alumni group, where we got together and we always have charity events," Wehrli said. "In that way, we were able to stay together as a group. Still, you feel out of the loop. The team (was) in another city, and then the Rams came in, and it was hard and still is hard for us to think of them as a home team. That said, the Rams were just great to us."

The Rams, who left former players and fans in Los Angeles feeling the same way many in St. Louis did, moved to Missouri in 1995 -– seven years after the Cardinals left.

"I don't believe that a team could have come into a market and embraced the local alumni from another team more than the Rams did," Dierdorf said. "Their hospitality really surprised me. I'm on the Rams Ring of Honor at the Edward Jones Dome. They had a ceremony where they put me in the Ring of Honor, as they did with Larry Wilson, Jackie Smith and Roger Wehrli, alongside Deacon Jones and Jack Youngblood, guys who played for the Rams. That's an amazing sign of graciousness. They realized that some of those 65,000 people in the stands were the same people that rooted for us as Cardinals. It was still awkward because I did not play for the Rams. I played for the Cardinals, and the Cardinals are gone."

Dierdorf then firmly drove his point home.

"What I felt bad about is, it affected me the least," he said. "As a broadcaster, I got to go to an NFL game every week. I stayed involved in the game. I wasn't in a position like all these guys in St. Louis, where they lost out on the opportunity to take their sons and daughters or their grandchildren to games and say, 'That's the team I used to play for.' That opportunity was taken away from these guys."

Dierdorf, Wehrli and Smith, along with several other former St. Louis Cardinals, still live in the city. With the Rams alienating the home fans by winning just two games this season and going through a coaching change, much of the town has adopted the Cardinals, Smith said. Some of it stems from nostalgia, but a lot of the love comes for the affinity for Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, who led the Rams to two Super Bowl berths and one championship in 1999.

"Kurt's a really religious guy, right?" Dierdorf asked. "If he leads the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, he might be known as Moses. Talk about leading a franchise out of the desert."

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