Thursday evening, it starts again.
For the 30th consecutive season, an NFL team that calls Arizona home will take the field, in this instance, the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The Arizona Cardinals versus the Dallas Cowboys.
The mere fact that Arizona has an NFL team is second nature to most. But on August 4, 1988 at the Kingdome in Seattle, it seemed to those living in the Valley as if man had landed not on the moon, but on Mars.
Phoenix had been the pawn of several NFL owners publicly (and who knows how many others privately) as a threatened home if they didn’t get what they wanted where they were. Before the Phoenix Cardinals, we heard names like the Phoenix Colts, Phoenix Eagles, and a group looking for an expansion franchise had already picked the name Arizona Firebirds.
The Valley’s thirst for NFL football led to staging exhibition games in the 1970’s including a game between, ironically, the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Raiders. The first such preseason clash, in 1974 between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets, was billed as a clash between Hall of Fame quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton and Joe Namath. About two series into the contest, we found out what preseason REALLY meant.
In the 1980’s, in addition to essentially being used by certain NFL owners, the Valley hosted another preseason game in 1982, this one between the Baltimore Colts and Atlanta Falcons, staged mostly due to the fact that former ASU coach Frank Kush was now the Head Coach of the Colts.
The Valley was still desperate to be a part of pro football. So desperate, in fact, that the arrival of the Arizona Wranglers was treated like it was an NFL franchise instead of being a part of the startup of the USFL. While the league was considered second-class, the Wranglers were viewed as the real deal here. In year two, George Allen took the Wranglers to the USFL Championship game, only to lose to the Philadelphia Stars in Tampa (same city where the Cardinals lost Super Bowl 43).
The USFL lasted until 1985, and between then and January, 1988, there would be rumors about NFL teams looking at Phoenix, but by this point, a lot of people here were getting more than a little sensitive about being used as leverage.
So during the 1987 NFL season when it became apparent Bill Bidwill was going to move the St. Louis Cardinals, the “usual suspects” were rounded up. Jacksonville, Baltimore, Phoenix…it was getting hard to really believe that this time things would be different. In fact, look up the Cards’ move on YouTube and you’ll see stories that had Mr. Bidwill in serious discussions with Baltimore, the theory being that his son Michael was close by in Washington D.C. It seemed to make sense.
However, the day of January 16, 1988, when Bidwill emerged from a meeting at NFL headquarters in New York with then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle, it wasn’t Baltimore. Or Jacksonville. Or Charlotte. It was Phoenix.
The understated Bidwill said he chose Phoenix because, according to the Associated Press story, “we can be more competitive there.”
Phoenix, and Arizona, have never been the same since.
YouTube also has a clip of then-St. Louis sports anchor (and former Cardinal offensive lineman) Dan Dierforf prophetically saying “I guess they will be called ‘Arizona Cardinals’.” Well, actually, it took until 1994.
Thirty years later, here we are. We’re still an NFL city, our team plays in a stadium that is still, 11 years after its opening, considered state-of-the-art. There have been five playoff appearances, one trip to the Super Bowl, coaches ranging from Gene Stallings to Bruce Arians, and a host of colorful and not-so-colorful personalities in between. Players like Ron Wolfley, Neil Lomax, Dave Krieg, Jake Plummer, Aeneas Williams, Larry Fitzgerald, and the man who will be inducted in the Hall of Fame this weekend, Kurt Warner.
And it’s all real. It wasn’t a dream.
So, here’s to those of us who lived through the soap opera that was our lust for an NFL franchise for Phoenix. May we never lose sight of how badly we wanted it, and how much it continues to mean to us.