Some of the most unassuming players in NFL history made the biggest impact, literally.
Standing barely 6’0” tall and weighing roughly 190 pounds, Larry Wilson was a punishing safety for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Although the Cardinals weren’t the most successful team during Wilson’s tenure, he stood tall in the St. Louis secondary.
Wilson popularized the safety blitz and took down his fair share of quarterbacks.
He was also adept at intercepting the ball, even going so far as to make a pick in a game with casts on both hands.
He once intercepted a pass with both hands in casts. True story.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) March 24, 2016
Wilson would eventually become an NFL Hall of Famer and would be named as one of the league’s best-ever players.
This is the incredible true story of Larry Wilson.
Early Life in Idaho
Larry Frank Wilson was born on March 24, 1938, in Rigby, Idaho.
When he was ten, Wilson’s mother died of spinal meningitis.
Since his father was a truck driver, Wilson was left to help raise his younger brother, John.
To help his father make ends meet, Wilson would work ten-hour days harvesting potatoes.
Thankfully, in order to have some semblance of a normal life, Wilson’s father encouraged him to play sports.
It turned out he was a natural. As an athlete at Rigby High School, Wilson earned 16 letters.
— Braden Erickson (@berickson_23) September 18, 2020
Not only was he a star on the gridiron, but Wilson also excelled as a baseball, basketball, and track athlete.
At one point in his high school career, Wilson broke the state record in the high jump.
Football was Wilson’s first love, however, and he demanded only the best effort from himself and his teammates.
“He was tough as nails,” former teammate Chupe Brizzee said, laughing. “He really was. He was very serious on the football field in practice, even with friends. You didn’t goof off in practice with him or he’d nail ya pretty good with a block…”
Wilson’s exploits on the field brought interest from nearby colleges.
A University of Utah coach came for a home visit and made an impression on Wilson and his father.
“The coach sat Whitey (Wilson’s father) and Larry down and said, ‘Well if you do nothing but come and get on the team, we can give you an education. If you don’t make it in the pros or in football, you’ll get an education from it,'” Dick Broulim, a life-long friend of Wilson’s, recalled. “And at that point, Larry’s dad said ‘Larry, you’re gonna go here.’”
Star for Utah
Wilson matriculated to Utah and played for coach Jack Curtice and then Ray Nagel.
After sitting as a freshman in 1956, Wilson would become a star on both sides of the ball.
In 1957, he rushed for 172 yards and caught nine passes for 122 yards and nine touchdowns.
Curtice’s final year with the Redskins (the team would change their name in 1972) in ‘57 would see the team finish 6-4.
Originator of the safety blitz and member of the Pro football Hall of Fame, Utah legend Larry Wilson with the Nielsen Fieldhouse behind him pic.twitter.com/8r6shPm68Y
— Classic Utah Pictures (@PicsUtah) October 9, 2020
Nagel was hired the following year and Utah went 5-7.
However, Wilson increased his rushing total to 489 yards along with three rushing scores.
He also grabbed 13 passes for 256 yards and another touchdown.
During his senior year in 1959, Wilson ran for 559 yards and eight touchdowns, including a program-record five touchdowns during a game against Arizona.
Wilson also caught 21 passes for 215 yards and four more scores.
His stats ranked Wilson eighth in the nation in rushing touchdowns and fourth in touchdowns from scrimmage.
He also led the Skyline Conference in scoring and received an invitation to compete in the East-West Shrine Game.
After the season, he was named a Third-team All-American.
Along with his work on offense, Wilson was a solid cornerback for the Redskins as well.
It turned out that experience would come in handy at his next stop.
Drafted by Two Leagues
Wilson’s versatility got him noticed by both the NFL and the American Football League.
With the 74th pick in the seventh round of the 1959 NFL Draft, the Chicago (soon to be St. Louis) Cardinals selected Wilson.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) November 30, 2021
However, the Buffalo Bills of the AFL drafted Wilson in the first round of their draft.
Honored by his draft position, Wilson was ready to sign with the Bills.
Not to be deterred, then Cardinals Vice President Bill Bidwell flew to Salt Lake City to visit Wilson.
He offered Wilson a non-guaranteed $9,500 contract to sign with the team, payable only if he made the Cards.
Believing he had the talent to make the squad, Wilson signed with Bidwell.
“I came awful close to signing with Buffalo,” Wilson told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “The Cardinals really never contacted me until Bill came out.”
Wilson is Switched to Defense
As Wilson was being courted by St. Louis, then Cardinals defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis was putting a new wrinkle in his defensive scheme.
Drulis’ idea, which he codenamed “Wildcat,” was to have his free safety blitz the quarterback occasionally.
The only problem was, he didn’t have anyone capable of playing the part.
Meanwhile, Wilson signed with the Cardinals and prepared to play running back.
Not long into his first training camp, the coaching staff decided to move Wilson to corner.
During the Cards’ first preseason game against the Baltimore Colts, eventual Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry torched Wilson repeatedly.
Wilson would soon find himself on the bench and he was sure his short pro career was over.
Thankfully, the next preseason game against San Francisco was much better as Wilson contained 49ers receiver R.C. Owens.
Drulis was impressed with Wilson’s athletic ability and convinced head coach Pop Ivy to switch him to free safety.
The defensive coordinator finally had his wildcat.
Wilson Finds his Rhythm
Wilson learned the free safety position quickly and started 11 games his rookie year in 1960.
During the season, he collected two interceptions and made three fumble recoveries.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) October 2, 2021
The following year, Drulis finally decided to try his “Wildcat” play.
In the 1961 season opener against the New York Giants, Wilson blitzed and caught Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly off guard.
At the time, defensive backs were not known to rush the quarterback.
Their job, at least in the eyes of most coaches, was to cover receivers and make tackles.
Wilson would sack Conerly twice and force a fumble as well.
His timely tackles would help lead to a 21-10 victory.
Wilson would eventually get 3.5 sacks and a safety during the 1961 season. He also picked off three passes for 36 yards.
In 1962, Drulis unleashed Wilson a little more often and the result was five sacks for the year.
Wilson intercepted two passes as well and returned one for a touchdown that led to a victory over the Cowboys.
By then, opposing NFL offenses had to account for Wilson.
Two All-Decade, Hall of Fame studs grapple in the Milwaukee dirt: Cardinals Larry Wilson and Packers Jim Taylor.
September 1962. pic.twitter.com/DdLQb5iNEy
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 21, 2021
Not only could he intercept a pass or two, but he could also lay ball carriers on their backsides with authority.
The league noticed Wilson’s play and voted him to his first Pro Bowl after the season.
In 1963, Wilson didn’t gather any sacks, but he did have four interceptions for 67 yards and he recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned 42 yards for a touchdown.
He was again voted to the Pro Bowl and was named First-team All-Pro for the first of six times.
During the ‘63 Pro Bowl, then Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle looked at Wilson and noted his short stature.
“Good God, if I’d known you were that small, I wouldn’t have been so scared of you,” said Tittle.
Wilson and the Cardinals Reach the Postseason
St. Louis won nine games in 1963, the most since 1948, (when they won 11 games and lost the NFL Championship).
However, nine wins were only good for third place in the Eastern Conference and the Cards missed the postseason.
A year later, the team managed nine wins again. This time, the team finished second in the conference.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) June 21, 2021
That led to an appearance in the short-lived Playoff Bowl against Green Bay at the season’s conclusion.
The Playoff Bowl was a third-place game that was played from 1960 to 1969.
In the 1964 version, St. Louis dumped the Packers 24-17. It was the Cards’ first postseason victory since 1947.
That same year, Wilson had three picks including one for a score, four sacks, and one fumble recovery.
A Remarkable Play and Defensive Player of the Year
Instead of taking the next step in the win column in 1965, the team took a huge step back.
That year, the Cardinals finished 5-9 and fifth in the conference.
One of the few bright spots was Wilson. He had six interceptions that season for 153 yards and a touchdown.
One of his picks would become the stuff of legend.
On Halloween, St. Louis played the Giants and Wilson broke both hands on two separate plays.
Instead of missing the rest of the season, Wilson suited up the next week.
With both hands in casts and wrapped in bandages like a mummy, Wilson picked off Steelers quarterback Bill Nelson late in the game.
“I just knew Larry Wilson was going to get an interception,” Nelson said after the game. “Lying awake the night before the game, I was thinking there was no way he could catch one with his hands wrapped up to protect his fractures, but I knew he was going to get one.”
Cradling the ball close to his chest, Wilson wormed his way inside the Pittsburgh five-yard line.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) March 25, 2020
On the next play, the Cardinals scored to win the game 31-17.
In 1966, Wilson was seemingly everywhere.
He had a career-high ten interceptions for 180 return yards and two touchdowns.
The interception mark led the NFL and included picks in seven straight games.
Wilson would be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year after the season.
Wilson continued his excellent play for the next three years after being honored by the league.
In 1967, he collected four interceptions for 75 yards and also picked up 4.5 sacks.
The next season, the Cardinals reached the nine-win mark again under coach Charley Winner but missed the playoffs.
#FBF of No. 8, Larry Wilson.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) March 24, 2017
Wilson grabbed another four picks for 14 yards.
Then, in 1969, St. Louis dipped to four wins while Wilson had two interceptions for 15 yards and returned a fumble 88 yards for a touchdown.
That mark would lead the NFL in that category for the ‘69 season.
1970-1972 and Retirement
The year Wilson turned 32 he would post the third-most interceptions in his career.
His five picks for 72 return yards, along with 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery, would lead to his final Pro Bowl appearance and last First-team All-Pro nod.
In 1971, Wilson pulled down another four interceptions for 46 yards, but observers noted that he was slowing down.
He returned for a 13th season in 1972 and grabbed three picks for 35 return yards, one fumble, and two fumble recoveries.
For the second year in a row, the Cardinals finished fourth in the NFC East with a dismal 4-9-1 record.
Once the ‘72 season concluded, Wilson retired.
“Larry Wilson is not able to do the things that he did three or four years ago,” Wilson said during the 1972 season. “It’s not right for the Cardinals to have me out there anymore. They need more speed and more quickness out there. Let’s not blow smoke, Larry Wilson’s not cutting it anymore.”
In his career, Wilson played in the postseason only one time.
RIP Larry Wilson
S, #Cardinals 1960-72
• PFHOF (1978)
• NFL100 All-Time Team
• NFL 75th Anniversary Team
• 2x All-Decade
• 8 Pro Bowls
• 5x AP First-Team All-Pro
• 1966 NFL Defensive Player of the Year (NEA)
• In 1965, played a game (and had an INT) with 2 broken hands pic.twitter.com/uJTgK98LWT
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 18, 2020
He had a total of 52 interceptions for 800 return yards and five touchdowns.
Wilson also added 14 fumble recoveries for 173 return yards, two touchdowns, and 21 sacks.
He was a Defensive Player of the Year, NFL interceptions leader, eight-time Pro Bowler, six-time First-team All-Pro, and a one-time Second-team All-Pro.
Wilson would later be named to the NFL’s 1960s and 1970s All-Decade Teams as well as the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time teams.
His number 8 would be retired by the Cardinals and Wilson is also a member of the team’s Ring of Honor.
Second Career as an Executive
After retiring, the Cardinals asked Wilson to be their secondary coach. He served in that capacity for a year then stepped down.
Wilson then moved to the Cardinals’ front office, eventually being named general manager in 1977.
Roger Goodell remembers HOF safety Larry Wilson, who died Thursday at 82: "For more than 40 years, Larry Wilson played a remarkable role in the history of the Cardinals and National Football League as a Hall of Fame player and team executive"https://t.co/QGOV7rVYWj pic.twitter.com/Ak1OZ9fjcL
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) September 18, 2020
In 1978, Wilson was elected as a new member of the NFL Hall of Fame. His Hall bio contains a quote that summed up Wilson’s career.
“In a football game, you’ve only got 60 minutes to prove what kind of player you are. Forty-nine minutes aren’t enough. You’ve got to give 100% on every play.”
After coach Bud Wilkinson was fired with three games remaining in the 1979 season, Wilson took his place for the rest of the year.
Returning to his executive role in 1980, Wilson would be the team’s GM until 1993.
The following year he would be named a team vice president.
Wilson would retire a second time from the NFL in 2003.
Wilson was married to former sportswriter Nancy Wilson for over 40 years. The couple had two children.
Wilson had three other children from his first marriage to Dee Ann Hansen, his high school sweetheart.
— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2020
On September 17, 2020, Wilson passed away at the age of 82.
“Larry Wilson was the kindest, most humble person that I will ever know,” Nancy Wilson said. “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.”