My First Training Camp with the St. Louis Cardinals, Volume #2
It’s been over 41 years since my first professional football training camp, but it is still worth talking about. The head coach for the Cardinals was the legendary Bud Wilkinson. Bud had already established his hall of fame coaching career before he landed at St. Louis. As the coach for the Oklahoma Sooners, he won numerous national championships. Yet, his first professional coaching stint while he was in his 60’s landed him in St. Louis. He was also a good college athlete at the University of Minnesota. He was the first infamous “Bud” who had a career that was above his peers as the University won three national championships.
Astonishingly, Wilkinson was the college teammate at Minnesota of another legendary coach named Dwight Reed. Reed was the rare African American student athlete at a Big Ten school in the 1930’s. Reed would move into coaching after college eventually landing at Lincoln University, an historically black school in Jefferson City, Missouri. As head football and track coach for over 40 years the son of St. Paul, Minnesota would recruit my father who he mentored when dad was a youngster.
I was one of the five rookies from Missouri who started training camp the first week. None of us made the team before the regular season started! But there were several veteran Cardinals players who were also former Mizzou athletes. NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Roger Wherli was closing out his career as was the original Mel Grey, the speedy wide receiver. Backing up All-Pro starting quarterback Jim Hart was my college teammate Steve Pisarkiewicz, the Cardinals former first round draft choice.
The Cardinals first round choice in 1979 was running back Ottis Anderson. Anderson became famous in New York as he helped the Giants win the Super Bowl in 1987. Also, in the rookie draft class was all-pro receiver Roy Green. Green started training camp as a defensive back but had deceptive speed as a kickoff returner. He would then play wide receiver when the team needed more talent at the position. Another All-Pro for the Cardinals was offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf. Dierdorf would spend most of his post career as a profoundly articulate television analysist for various television and radio networks. The man had the largest pairs of hands that I ever saw on a person! That is why I believe Dierdorf finished his playing career at center after spending a considerable time at tackle.
We were owed a day off as part of the collective bargaining agreement between the players and management. However, there were only two days during those six weeks of training camp that gave us relief. Each event gave us a half a day to stay off the field and out of the locker room. Wilkinson invited another legendary coach to speak to us one afternoon. Well known Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes came to training camp as a guest after his tumultuous end to his coaching career. Hayes would be fired after he belted a Clemson defensive player in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Hayes was also known for his military advocacy. Well, he unloaded one of those war stories and completely lost us on his long, dramatic, and negative position he took. Little of his talk was about football. We could have been in our dorm resting!
Lastly, I will end with the saddest event of my professional playing career. James Victor Cain was a promising tight end from the University of Colorado. The five-year veteran, the Cardinals first round choice in 1974 was absent the previous season due to an Achilles tendon injury. Consequently, at the age of 28, he started the 1979 Cardinal training camp with the rookies and younger players. Due to the heat, we were afforded a rare night practice one day. I returned to the huddle after being involved in the previous play. Cain was also in the play, but a commotion ensued as I witnessed him lying on the field close to the line of scrimmage. Cain had collapsed due to an apparent heart failure. It was the most tragic sports fatality I have ever witnessed. JV Cain died on the field, on his birthday. The young husband and his wife were also expecting their first child. The most tragic circumstance that can occur on the playing field. To expect an ambulance to arrive soon enough and in time to save Cain became futile. The innocence of highly competitive sports can become apparent at a moment’s notice and reminds us of what is really important. That day, July 22, 1979, was tough for me to overcome emotionally. Cardinals’ management gave us the entire next day off to commemorate JV Cain. A team memorial was eventually scheduled.
This tragedy reminds me of a similar event that occurred when Korey Stringer died of heart complications at the Minnesota Vikings training camp in 2001. Professional football players are human too. My first professional football training camp in 1979 will remind me that the culture of professional football presents for its participants a very unique experience. I will always have something to say about that!