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Roger Wehrli, who had an interception that day, has no recollections of the game. Nor does tight end Jackie Smith, wide receiver Mel Gray or running back Terry Metcalf. However, Dan Dierdorf sure does. For good reason, which we will get to shortly.
The day we are talking about is Nov. 6, 1977, the last time the Cardinals defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis.
The Vikings had entered the NFL in 1963 as an expansion team and the Cardinals, playing in St. Louis then, owned them early, winning seven of the first nine regular-season games, including four straight on the road. The fourth was on that 1977 Sunday afternoon.
Since then, beginning in 1991 because they didn’t play for 13 seasons, the Cardinals have lost 13 of the 18 games, including all 10 away from home.
That 1977 season began with promise after a spectacular three-year stretch with Don Coryell as head coach. Coryell, who is the coach finalist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 and will be voted on by the full selection committee in January, was surprisingly hired by then-owner Bill Bidwill in 1973 after the Bob Hollway-led team was 4-9-1 in his only two seasons as head coach.
The Cardinals had another 4-9-1 year in Coryell’s first season, but then reeled off records of 10-4, 11-3 and 10-4 and winning two NFC Eastern Division titles, but failing to qualify for the playoffs in 1976 because of a tie-breaker at a time when there was only one wild-card team in each conference.
In ’77, a six-game winning streak after the first three games put the Cardinals at 7-3, but injuries led to a four-game losing streak and 7-7 finish that included a season-ending loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which was their first home victory in franchise history.
The Bucs had entered the NFL in 1976 and promptly lost 26 consecutive games before defeating New Orleans on the road 33-17 before holding the Cardinals to one touchdown in a 17-7 loss.
In that six-game winning streak was the game against the Vikings, a team that won the NFC Central Division that year with a 9-5 record and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but lost to the Dallas Cowboys, which then won the Super Bowl.
That Vikings team featured six future Hall of Famers: coach Bud Grant, quarterback Frank Tarkenton, tackle Ron Yary, defensive tackle Alan Page, defensive end Carl Eller and safety Paul Krause.
But on that November day, they were no match for the Cardinals, which had the future Hall of Fame cornerback Wehrli, tight end Smith and Dierdorf, the outstanding right tackle.
Coincidentally, that year’s Sunday dates match up precisely with this year and prior to Nov. 6, the Cardinals defeated the Eagles 21-17 on Oct. 16 (they lost this season to the Eagles 20-17 on Oct. 9) and beat the New Orleans Saints 49-31 on Oct. 23. Last week, of course, on Oct. 20, the Cardinals defeated the Saints 42-34.
In the win over the Vikings, quarterback Jim Hart attempted only 14 passes, completing 10 for 143 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions for a passer rating of 104.2. The ground attack was king that day as the Cardinals rushed for 316 yards on 51 attempts. Leading the way were Wayne Morris with 27 carries for 182 yards and Metcalf with 11 for 83. Morris and Metcalf each scored touchdowns rushing and receiving.
The Cardinals totaled 459 yards to Minnesota’s 237. Tarkenton was 18 of 30 for only 137 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and a 42.6 rating.
Wehrli, along with Lee Nelson and Mike Sensibaugh, had the three picks.
That game was also part of a stretch of six games where Morris and Metcalf played at the same time, which wasn’t the norm. In those games, five of which were victories from Oct. 9 through Nov. 13, Morris rushed for 563 yards and Metcalf 383.
Metcalf didn’t recall specifics of the game, but did mention that sequence of games where they produced together.
Asked about getting in touch with Morris, he said, “I haven’t seen him in 45 years.”
That’s not surprising because 1977 was Metcalf’s final year with the Cardinals. Contract issues led to him signing with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 1978.
But, back to Nov. 6.
None of those results were why Dierdorf has the game vividly etched in his brain.
When I left a message for him after Wehrli, Smith and Gray drew blanks, I said “I’ll probably be 0-for-4, but hoping you’ll have some recollections of the 1977 game.”
Little did I know what would occur. When we made contact, he laughed and said, “I sure do remember that game, but it’s not for the reason you think.”
I mentioned some of the statistics from the game, and he said, “Did Jim have an interception?” When I said he had three, Dierdorf responded, “I’ll tell you what happened after one of them.”
It was late in the fourth quarter and Hart was intercepted by linebacker Scott Studwell, who was tackled quickly by wide receiver Mel Gray. The box score confirms it was a 4-yard return. As the players left the field for the change of possession, Dierdorf said he noticed Vikings linebacker Matt Blair running toward him from about 20 yards away.
Dierdorf recalled, “He T-boned me. Everything had stopped. The play was over. Our defense was coming on the field. I saw it coming and I thought to myself, ‘He’s not going to hit me.’ Well, he did. He tattooed me a good one. The hit was so late it wasn’t even late.”
The upshot was that Dierdorf’s jaw was broken in two places: cracked on one side and below the eye tooth on the left side. As he went to the sideline, he said (offensive line coach Jim) “Hanifan asked me what was wrong and before I could say anything, I spit blood on his shoes.”
There was no penalty flag and no fine for Blair.
The remarkable aspects of the tale are what happened over the next few weeks and months.
He continued to play with his jaw wired shut and a specially designed facemask and helmet that is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Teammates called him “Darth Vader.”
However, more trouble came when his wisdom teeth became abscessed and had to be pulled because of the infection. He spent five days in the hospital and sadly watched the Cardinals be trounced by the Miami Dolphins, 55-14, on Thanksgiving Day.
Oral surgeon Dr. George Shuert had to re-break the jaw to remove the infected part of the bone and he was administered massive doses of antibiotics.
A month after the game, he told the New York Times that “Shuert somehow extracted them with my jaw wired shut. He had only a half-inch gap to get to them and when I woke up, I asked him how he did it. He told me, ‘You don’t want to know.’”
Dierdorf missed only two of the final six games afterward and he noted that Shuert traveled with the team for road games with a wire cutter in case it was needed if he got hit in the wrong place during the game.
Dierdorf joked, “He loved it; being in the locker room on the team plane!”
After a Dec. 4 loss to the Giants, he told the Times he had “no problems except for the whiplash effect in my teeth. On any blow to the head, the tremors went down into my teeth.” We should all have “no problems” like that.
As for eating, there wasn’t much happening and told me he lost 55 pounds in six weeks.
Dierdorf told the Times then, “I’ve become a connoisseur of soups. I’m lucky to have lost my two front teeth. I can suck liquids through that gap instead of having to use a straw. The last food I had was some Bouillabaisse for dinner last night. I had all the broth but John Zook and Jackie Smith had my lobster and clams. They were waiting for it like vultures.
“I also had a dozen oysters. I cut ‘em up into four pieces and sucked ‘em through the gap in my teeth. Emily Post wouldn’t approve of my style. And now, going home on the plane, I’ll have a couple of beers.”
He also told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during his recovery, “I have to close my eyes every time I drive past a Steak ‘n Shake.”
He did admit to me, “I should never have come back and played. But times were different then. That’s the way it was.”
Perhaps the topper of the story was when Dierdorf and teammates, guard Conrad Dobler and center Tom Banks, were at the Pro Bowl after the season.
“We’re walking somewhere and walking in front of us is Blair,” Dierdorf recalled. “Dobler said, ‘Isn’t that the mother f-er who hit you?’ He was being followed closely by the three of us and let’s just say that he picked up his pace. Dobler wanted to beat the s— out of him right there at the Pro Bowl. It was their mission to make him feel uncomfortable.”
Dierdorf said Blair never contacted him and he added, “We never had a Kumbaya moment.”
Hart, who along with Wehrli and Dierdorf are in the Ring of Honor at State Farm Stadium, said the only thing he recalls about the game was what happened to his good friend “because I felt responsible for it. I felt so bad; I was distraught.” Still, all Hart did was throw an interception; it was Blair that crossed the line.
Dierdorf and Hart owned high-end steak restaurants, aptly named Dierdorf and Hart’s for 30 years in St. Louis, but after going back in time, Hart said, “I’ll have to give Dan a call; I haven’t talked to him for a few months.”
Now, Hart remembers winning the game, something the Cardinals did in resounding fashion.
There is also a sneaking suspicion they will all be paying closer attention to Sunday’s game than they might have been planning.
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