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Wehrli gets surprise call from Hall

ST. LOUIS -- It was a natural assumption for Roger Wehrli to make. The Pro Football Hall of Fame had forgotten about him and the window to get a call from Canton was about to slam shut on the St. Louis Cardinals cornerback a quarter-century after he stopped playing.

"After I retired, you go years when you're introduced at banquets and they'll say 'future Hall of Famer,"' Wehrli said. "As the years went on it got to be 'should-be Hall of Famer.'

"But it was my 20th year of eligibility and I pretty much thought it had possibly passed me by."

Don Coryell, famous as the architect of the high-scoring, high-wire Cardiac Cards in the mid-1970s, knows his teams couldn't have won without a strong defense. He has no idea why Wehrli, his shutdown cornerback, had to wait so long.

"He was overdue, I'll tell you that," said Coryell, 82. "He's a great one. He's everything you would want in a professional football player.

"He was our best cornerback, best cover man, hell of a return man, too."

Wehrli, 59, was a five-time All-Pro in 14 seasons with the Cardinals from 1969-82. He broke in as a starter as a rookie, was a member of the NFL's 1970s all-decade squad, and once intercepted three passes by Roger Staubach in a 1975 victory over the Cowboys.

The good news came in Wehrli's final year of eligibility before going into the seniors pool. Typically, there were no complaints about all of those yearly snubs. He's just happy to be in this exclusive club.

"It's really kind of beyond words or beyond explanation," Wehrli said. "It's just wonderful and you're proud to be able to call yourself a Hall of Famer, to know that you're in there with the guys that were heroes to you when you were growing up, heroes even when you're playing.

"It just makes you feel humble, thankful and proud all in the same sentence."

As partial payback, Wehrli will be honored in ceremonies in two cities: St. Louis on Sept. 16 before a Rams-49ers game and Glendale, Ariz., on Oct. 14 before a Panthers-Cardinals game.

The Rams have honored former Cardinals stars on their wall of fame inside the Edward Jones Dome. Owner Bill Bidwill moved the franchise to the desert after the 1987 season, leaving St. Louis without a team until the Rams arrived in '95.

"It's a little bit odd, obviously," said Wehrli, who lives in St. Louis and has kept a low profile in his home state since retiring. "I guess the positive side to it, I get to have two celebrations. The Rams have been very cordial to the old Cardinal players that are here."

The Cardinals' lack of postseason success likely was the biggest factor that held Wehrli back. The Cardinals posted double-digit wins in three straight years in the mid-1970s and won two NFC East championships under Coryell.

But they did not win a playoff game and had no home playoff games during his years with the team. Super Bowl victories catch your attention, and the Cardinals never came close. Eight of his 14 seasons ended with a losing record.

"That's certainly the down side of our years here in St. Louis," Wehrli said. "We really felt like we had a great team going there in the mid '70s.

"As players, we looked at it like we could have really brought a championship home to St. Louis at that point."

Wehrli's routine excellence came to be accepted on a team loaded with more colorful stars. He's the fourth member of the Cardiac Cards to make it to the Hall, following safety Larry Wilson, tight end Jackie Smith and offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf, and in all probability the last.

Wilson, whose calling card was the safety blitz, will introduce Wehrli at his induction in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday.

"It's wonderful to be a part of that group, joining them there in the Hall of Fame," Wehrli said. "We had some great teams in the mid '70s, a lot of guys you look at and think, well, maybe they might have a chance to be in there like Jim Hart, Mel Gray, Ottis Anderson.

"But who knows. I pretty much had thought it had passed me by and all of a sudden I was voted in."

Coryell doesn't know about the theory that Wehrli's workmanlike excellence was overshadowed by teammates with more flair for the dramatic.

"On our team, we sure didn't overlook him," Coryell said. "He sure was tops on our list, put it that way."

But Jim Hanifan, the Cardinals' head coach Wehrli's final two seasons, said Wehrli was almost too smooth for his own good.

"He played with such ease, and he was so composed," Hanifan said. "The game was easy for Roger."

A major reason teammates Wilson, Dierdorf and Smith made it into the Hall long ago may have been the presence of a strong advocate. Broadcaster Jack Buck was a longtime member of the selection committee, and his words carried weight. In Wehrli's case, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz's impassioned pitch may have turned the tide.

Wehrli was an All-American at Missouri before the Cardinals took him in the first round of the 1969 draft as the 19th overall pick. There was no break-in period for Wehrli, who had three interceptions and led the team in punt returns.

He's tied for the franchise record with 19 fumble recoveries to go with 40 career interceptions, including six each in 1970 and '75. The total would have been higher if teams had challenged him more.

"They stopped throwing it his way," Hanifan said. "He really was a shutdown corner."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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