Pat Tilley is one of the seemingly forgotten wide receivers who played in an era when the National Football League was mostly based upon the running game.
Despite being a star for a lackluster franchise, he gave its fans hope for a playoff berth each season while leaving them with some lasting memories.
Tilley was lacking when it came to his physical abilities, but he managed to have a long and productive career as a pro football player.
Early Life And College Career
Patrick Lee Tilley was born in Shreveport, La., a medium-sized city in the northwest corner of Louisiana, on Feb. 15, 1953.
He was from a family that has had success in athletics, in particular football, as Pat’s brother Chris would go on to play college football at Louisiana Tech University.
Pat also has a niece named Becca Tilley, who became well-known after competing on the 19th and 20th seasons of the popular reality TV show “The Bachelor.” She went on to become a social media influencer, and her mother Nancy was a basketball and softball player in high school.
Pat attended Fair Park High School in Shreveport, and his performance there led to him playing for Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, a small town towards the northern border of the state.
Although it wasn’t a powerhouse football program, when Tilley arrived there, it had recently enjoyed the services of a quarterback named Terry Bradshaw, who would go on to win four Super Bowls and reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Early on, it looked like Tilley may not have had much future potential as a serious wideout. Although as a freshman he contributed to the Bulldogs’ 9-2 record and Pioneer Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan to claim the Midwest Regional Championship, Tilley, by his own admission, was not giving it all when it came to his craft.
Luckily, Mickey Slaughter, a member of the Bulldogs’ coaching staff, got Tilley to become passionate about football while helping him to hone a strong work ethic.
“Coach Slaughter’s favorite phrase was ‘can of corn,’ meaning an easy catch,” Tilley said. “I was running a deep route, dropped a perfect throw – a can of corn – and Coach Slaughter yelled, ‘If that ball had Budweiser written on it, you would have caught it.’”
At just 5-foot-10 and about 180 pounds, Tilley was diminutive by gridiron standards. It meant that if he was going to have a shot at starring in the NCAA, let alone the NFL, he would have to outwork his taller, bigger and more athletic brethren.
Tilley readily admits that Slaughter helped mold him into the player he would become in the coming years.
“He made me realize my priorities were out of order, and it was then that I decided to take football seriously,” Tilley said. “He made me better. I’ll always be grateful to him because of that. He had such a commanding presence. … But I don’t think I would have made it in the NFL had it wasn’t for everything Coach Slaughter taught me.”
As a sophomore, Tilley helped the Bulldogs go undefeated in the regular season and defeat Western Kentucky University in the championship game of the first-ever Division II playoffs. In that game, he had seven catches for 106 receiving yards and one touchdown.
From there, he started to emerge as a difference-maker for Louisiana tech. As a junior, he tallied 29 catches for 497 yards and four touchdowns, and he caught 53 balls for 926 yards and six touchdowns in his senior season.
As a result, Tilley earned All-Southland Conference honors both seasons.
In his senior year, he led the Southland Conference in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. That same season, he reached the 200-yard mark in a contest against Southeastern Louisiana, and on five other occasions in his time as a Bulldog, he surpassed the 100-yard mark.
Mike Barber, a fellow wideout on those Bulldogs teams, remembers how Tilley’s approach towards his craft helped him progress so much throughout his college career.
“On the field Pat was a very disciplined player,” Barber said. “Meaning, —and a quarterback always loves this — if a route was a 10-yard out, when he ran it, it was never nine-and-a-half yards. It was never 10-and-a-half yards. It was 10 yards and out. When you get a receiver like that, it creates great confidence for your quarterback, because that receiver is going to be where he’s supposed to be.”
As 1976 began, Tilley became eligible for the NFL draft.
A Cardinal To Remember
Tilley was not a very sought-after prospect coming out of college, and he had to wait until the fourth round of the 1976 NFL Draft to be selected when the St. Louis Cardinals took him with the 114th overall pick.
He was fortunate in the sense that he was going to a team that was already successful. The Cardinals had won 11 games in 1975 and 10 contests in ’74, making the playoffs both seasons.
Under head coach Don Coryell, St. Louis used an offense that had elements of the one he would go on to use later in San Diego that would take the NFL from “three yards and a cloud of dust” to the exciting, pass-happy game it has become in modern times.
Back in the 1970s, teams often used two backs and run the ball considerably more than they passed it. Under Coryell, the Cardinals would use those backs to block, while instead focusing on a vertical passing game.
Today, many, if not most teams use at least some elements of the sets Coryell started running in St. Louis when Tilley arrived there.
“Air Coryell was dynamite — it was explosive,” Tilley said. “And it was a lot of fun to play in that system.”
As a rookie, Tilley wasn’t used a ton. He started just five of the 13 games he appeared in, and he registered 26 catches for 407 yards and a touchdown.
#OTD 1976: Jim Hart throws TD pass to rookie Pat Tilley in #STLCards 30-24 win. It was the #Seahawks inaugural NFL game at Kingdome. pic.twitter.com/PUbTQE7afN
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) September 12, 2017
The Cardinals went 10-4 that season, but they missed the playoffs, becoming the only NFC team to ever miss the playoffs despite winning 10 games. A Thanksgiving Day contest against the Dallas Cowboys was a big culprit, as St. Louis tight end J.V. Cain was illegally shoved out of the end zone while running the game-winning route, but no penalty was called, and the Cardinals ended up losing.
Tilley had something of a sophomore slump in 1977. He played in all 14 games, but he started in none of them and ended the season with just five catches and 64 yards.
The Cardinals won six straight games at midseason, giving them hopes of returning to the postseason, but they lost each of their last four contests and finished 7-7 and out of the playoffs.
Coryell left as head coach at the conclusion of the campaign, and he was replaced by Bud Wilkinson, who had lots of success in the college ranks at the University of Oklahoma.
As far as Tilley was concerned, the biggest move Wilkinson made was making the wideout a full-time starter for the 1978 season.
That year, he had 900 yards and three touchdowns on 62 catches. He (and other wideouts) was aided by the passage of the “Mel Blount rule,” which made contact by a defensive back on a wideout illegal more than five yards from the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately, although St. Louis ranked fourth in passing yards and seventh in total yards, it had trouble scoring points. The team would rank just 23rd in that category, and it played a big role in its 6-10 record in ’78.
Flying To A Peak
Tilley’s production continued to improve in 1979. That year, he put up 938 yards and six touchdowns on 57 receptions.
But his team continued to struggle, winning just five games, and Wilkinson became a causality, as he was fired late in the season and replaced by Larry Wilson.
The Shreveport native would then produce perhaps the best season of his career in 1980 with 966 yards and six touchdowns on 68 catches, earning him a trip to the Pro Bowl for his first time.
He managed to put up such strong numbers despite being shelved for the last two games of the year with a groin injury.
On Oct. 26 against the Baltimore Colts, Tilley made what was arguably the greatest catch of his life. Running a left-to-right cross pattern, he made a backhanded one-handed catch and ran into the endzone for a touchdown.
1980: Pat Tilley with a tremendous one-handed grab of a Jim Hart pass at Baltimore. #HartToTilley #BigRed1980s pic.twitter.com/BAINVSsXoV
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) February 15, 2022
That season, his new head coach was Jim Hanifan, who had been the Cardinals’ offensive line coach several years earlier, and the two would develop a strong relationship, as Tilley would later admit that Hanifan was his favorite coach.
Hanifan would gain a tremendous amount of respect for the wideout.
“He’s one of my all-time favorite players,” Hanifan said of Tilley. “He gave it everything he had. Pat was a consummate professional. He wanted to be the very, very best.”
Tilley was already the Cardinals’ leading receiver, and Hanifan would go to him time and again when things mattered most.
“I remember at nut-cutting time, where we needed a first down, or needed a score, the guy I would go to was Patty,” said the coach. “… And he came through. And a couple of times it was unbelievable.”
The Cardinals again finished just 5-11 that year, but it was hardly Tilley’s fault.
In 1981, he followed up his stellar outing with another one of 1,040 yards and three touchdowns on 66 catches, and the Cardinals improved slightly to a 7-9 finish.
That year, veteran quarterback Jim Hart was benched and replaced by Neil Lomax. Tilley didn’t like the move, and he was likely also frustrated at the lack of progress the team was making.
It made him want to leave the team, and he asked a big name for a rescue.
“When I got home to Shreveport (after the season), I called (Dallas Cowboys coach) Tom Landry and asked him for a trade,” Tilley said. “He said he’d love to have me.”
But the Cardinals had no intention of even considering trading him, and he ended up staying in Missouri.
The 1982 season was interrupted by a player’s strike that shortened the schedule to nine games. As a result, the NFL used a 16-team tournament for the playoffs, and this expanded field would be of great help to St. Louis.
Under this one-time format, teams were seeded one through eight based on their regular season record, and division winners received no sort of advantage.
St. Louis had a 5-4 record that year, which was only third place in the NFC East, yet under the expanded format, it advanced to the postseason for the first time in Tilley’s career.
There, the Cardinals were trounced by the Green Bay Packers, 41-16. Tilley did his part with five catches for 55 yards and one touchdown.
With Lomax maturing into a solid QB, St. Louis remained competitive in 1983. Tilley put up 690 yards and five touchdowns in 16 games that year, and the Cardinals finished 8-7-1, causing them to narrowly miss the playoffs.
The 1984 season was much the same story. With Tilley continuing to play well despite now being 31 years of age, the Cardinals went 9-7, tying them with the New York Giants for second place in the NFC East.
However, St. Louis lost the tiebreaker, sending New York to the postseason and the Cardinals home for the winter, despite Pro Bowl seasons from Lomax and fellow wideout Roy Green.
But the Cardinals could not maintain their modest success, as they fell to a 5-11 record in 1985.
In Week 1 of the 1986 season against the Los Angeles Rams, Tilley suffered a back injury and went on the injured list. It turned out that a disc was rubbing against his spinal nerve, and he underwent surgery to rectify the problem, ending his season.
The great Pat Tilley with the last reception of his career against the Rams OTD in 1986. He would have back surgery a few weeks later and retire the following year. He's still top 10 in franchise history with 468 catches, 7005 yards and 37 TDs.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) September 8, 2021
He ultimately decided against returning for the following season, and with that, Tilley’s NFL career was over.
There is no doubt that Tilley had high-level NFL talent as a wide receiver, and one only needs to look at his career stats for evidence. In 11 seasons he surpassed the 7,000-yard milestone while catching 468 passes and scoring 37 touchdowns.
But luck, as much as some would never want to admit as much, is a factor in how successful an NFL player will be, especially on offense. Football is the epitome of a team sport, and not having the right support can shortchange a player’s individual success, as well as the success of his team.
Cardinals fans who remember Tilley’s career can only wonder what could’ve been if the team had found a way to bring in an elite QB who could’ve maximized him.
What if the Cardinals had said yes to coach Landry and traded Tilley to the Cowboys, a team that had a strong QB in Danny White and a legendary running back in Tony Dorsett to take the pressure off Tilley?
After he retired, it took about two decades and a move to the Phoenix area for the Cardinals to become a very competitive squad. Behind former league MVP Kurt Warner and All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald, they reached the Super Bowl during the 2008-09 playoffs, and about a decade later, a new star QB named Kyler Murray would make them into a consistent playoff team.
Tilley’s college teammate Mike Barber once speculated that Tilley could’ve ended up as a legend if he had landed in different circumstances.
“I compare him often to Steve Largent,” Barber said. “… All the records Jerry Rice later broke, they were Steve Largent’s. And Pat Tilley was every bit as good as Steve Largent. He was a great receiver, very reliable with glue hands. He’d go up for the ball. He didn’t hear footsteps.”
After his pro football career ended, Tilley became heavily involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, eventually becoming an area director for the organization. He would travel throughout his native northwest Louisiana and give motivational speeches as part of his role.
But sometimes one’s sport has become so ingrained in who they are that they simply cannot stay away from it. That was exactly the case for Tilley.
In 1989 he joined the coaching staff at his alma mater, Louisiana Tech, starting out as a receivers coach and then getting promoted to offensive coordinator.
While there, Tilley got to coach Troy Edwards, one of the school’s greatest receivers ever who went on to play in the NFL, as well as Bobby Slaughter, the son of his old mentor Mickey Slaughter.
Years later, Tilley moved on to coach in the Arena Football League, a defunct indoor football league that became better known when Kurt Warner, a former Arena League player, became an NFL superstar and Super Bowl MVP. Tilley was the head coach of the Shreveport Battlewings, which played in the AF2, a developmental league for the Arena League.
In 2017, Tilley was honored for his stellar play as a college player by being inducted into the Louisiana Tech Hall of Fame, placing him alongside legendary Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw, NBA great Karl Malone and WNBA superstar Teresa Weatherspoon.
At home, Tilley is married to his wife Susie. He has three daughters from a previous marriage: April, Lee Ann and Joni, as well as a total of six grandchildren.
Now approaching age 70, Tilley has battled some serious health problems in recent years, including a heart attack and at least two strokes.
One of his strokes happened at an inopportune time, as he was on vacation in Cabo San Lucas.
He woke up one morning and found that he was unable to speak. Once taken to a small hospital in Cabo, he was diagnosed with a stroke, but it got worse.
Doctors found that fluid had gotten into his lungs, and he was also diagnosed with pneumonia. He required open-heart surgery to fix a valve, as well as two years of speech therapy to help him deal with the verbal and communication deficits caused by the stroke.
Just as he had to do as a college football player and in the NFL, Tilley is continuing to overcome obstacles to live his best life.
Scott Denham says
I read Lomax’s book Third and Long many years ago and he spoke highly of Tilly as a player and a person of high moral character.