A few days after the NFL draft in late November of 1959, Cardinals executive Bill Bidwill flew to Salt Lake City to see if he could sign the team’s seventh-round pick, a skinny running back and defensive back out of Utah.
Bidwill offered Larry Wilson a contract that included a $7,500 salary, including a $500 advance. The next day, the Buffalo Bills, the AFL team that had drafted Wilson, matched that salary offer, but declined to pay anything up front.
So for $500, Wilson became a Cardinal.
It might have been the best money Bidwill ever spent.
Quiet and mild-mannered off the football field, Wilson became one of the best safeties ever to play in the NFL. He hit offensive players with ferocity and fearlessness, and in the process helped revolutionize the game.
One of the greatest players in team history, Wilson died on Thursday night at the age of 82. He is survived by Nancy, his wife of 40 years, as well as daughter Christie, son Larry, Jr. and numerous grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Wilson spent his entire career, both as a player and administrator, with the Cardinals.
He played for 13 seasons, made the Pro Bowl eight times and was all-NFL six times.
He finished his career, which spanned 169 games with the Cardinals, with 52 interceptions and had 800 career interception yards and the single-game record for interception return yardage (152) and the long interception return (96).
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978 on the first ballot. And he was on the NFL’s 75th and 100th anniversary teams.
“Besides my father, Larry Wilson was the most influential male figure in my life,” Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said in a statement. “He was someone who truly lived his faith and demonstrated it daily in the kindness he showed every single person he met. Any of us lucky enough to be in his orbit — whether that was for a few minutes or four decades — was always better off from the experience. I will remember Larry Wilson first as a fantastic person but then obviously as one of the greatest players the National Football League has ever seen.”
Wilson became a safety only after he failed at cornerback in his first preseason game.
In his first action of preseason, Wilson was lined up against Colts receiver Raymond Berry. Johnny Unitas was the Colts quarterback.
“The first time the threw to Raymond Berry, I was 10 yards behind him, and he wasn’t very fast,” Wilson said. “He changed my career right quick. They moved me to safety, and then things started rolling in the right direction.”
Only 6-feet and 190 pounds, Wilson was fearless and tough. He once played a game with casts on both hands and intercepted a pass.
“That was, and is, Larry Wilson,” Bill Bidwill once said. “We decided to retire Larry’s number two years before he retired.”
A few years ago, Wilson laughed at how the legend of the cast had grown. Stories over the years said he played with broken wrists and broken arms. Wilson said his wife Nancy would roll her eyes and wonder if the next version would have Wilson playing in a body cast.
The true story? Wilson had broken the middle fingers on each hand in a previous game during the 1965 season.
“They put casts on up to my elbows and put this little wire thing over it,” he said in 2015. “Back then, if you could run, you could play, and I wasn’t running on my hands.”
These stories had to be coaxed out of Wilson, because didn’t enjoy talking about himself. When he looked back on his career, he often mentioned how lucky he had been and gave credit to those who mentored him.
Among those people was a veteran defensive back named Jimmy Hill, an African-American who befriended a skinny white guy who was raised in Rigby, Idaho and played at Utah.
“I hadn’t been around too many Black guys,” Wilson said. “As a matter of fact, zero. He (Hill) took me under his wing. He was a guy who played all over (the defense) so I kind of watched what he did. I owe him so much it’s ridiculous.”
It didn’t take Cardinals coaches long to figure out they had a weapon in Wilson. Offenses had no trouble blocking Cardinals linebackers when they blitzed, so an assistant coach named Chuck Drulis decided to start blitzing Wilson, a free safety.
They called the safety blitz the “Wildcat.”
“It turned out to be a lot of fun,” Wilson said. “Of course, today they blitz everyone.”
Wilson symbolized the NFL of the 1960s. He was slightly built and a ferocious hitter. Rookies were often taken aback when they saw Wilson without his false teeth.
“That’s probably the best thing that happened to me in pro football,” Wilson said of losing his teeth. “It save me thousands of dollars. I didn’t have to go to the dentist. If something was wrong, I’d just take them into the place they repaired them, and they fixed me up.”
When Wilson’s playing career ended after the 1972 season, he took a job in the team’s front office and worked in a variety of roles until retiring in 2003.
He was elevated from pro personnel director to the general manager at the end of the 1988 season, the team’s first in Arizona. He served there through the 1993 season, when he resigned with three games remaining, saying he was worn down and had lost confidence that he could get the job done.
Wilson said his greatest memory with the club was the groundbreaking for the team’s stadium in Glendale, which happened one day after he told the club he would retire.
“Do you realize that the whole time I’ve been with the organization, we’ve never had our own home?” he said at the time. “We’ve always dressed in a baseball locker room, or somebody else’s locker room. I think that’s the greatest thing — getting some place that you can call your own, finally.”
His number 8 jersey was retired by the team, and Wilson is in the ring of honor at State Farm Stadium.
Bill Bidwill hosted a retirement party for Wilson in St. Louis in 2003.
“Larry Wilson personifies what made the NFL great,” Bidwill said then. “His competitiveness was his strength, and he had a feel for the game.”
In a statement released by the Cardinals, Nancy Wilson said: “Larry Wilson was the kindest, most humble person that I will ever know. To most, he was this ferocious and fierce football player who some described as pound for pound the toughest player of his generation. To me, he was the most generous and gentle soul you would ever meet. For Larry, it was always about everyone else and what he could do for them. And especially in the times we live, that’s something that that we could use more of today.”