Roger Wehrli was one of the greatest defensive backs who ever wore St. Louis Cardinals red and white.
Wehrli and free safety Larry Wilson anchored a Cardinals secondary that made life miserable for quarterbacks and wide receivers in the early 1970s.
After Wilson retired following the 1972 NFL season, Wehrli became the Cardinals’ premier defensive back.
Wehrli, who was St. Louis’s starting right cornerback for twelve seasons, racked up 40 interceptions and 22 fumble recoveries in his legendary pro football career.
Wehrli’s favorite victim was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, whom he picked off three times during a crucial regular-season game on December 7, 1975.
Wehrli was so good, Staubach believed the term “shutdown corner” originated with the Cardinals’ seven-time Pro Bowl defensive back.
Other quarterbacks knew better than to throw passes the cat-quick Wehrli’s way during the pinnacle of his NFL career.
Behind Wehrli’s emergence as one of the league’s best cornerbacks, the Cardinals became a force under the leadership of Don Coryell in the mid-1970s.
In the summer of 2007, Wehrli eventually took his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is Roger Wehrli’s remarkable gridiron journey.
Roger Russell Wehrli was born in New Point, MO on November 26, 1947.
Wehrli comes from a family of educators. Both of his parents were teachers with athletic backgrounds.
Russel Wehrli, Roger’s father, was a district superintendent who had been a football and basketball player in his younger days.
Roger’s mother, Margaret, played basketball and tennis before embarking on a high school teaching career.
Russel’s busy schedule allowed Roger to play basketball for hours on end every summer, per MtShastaNews.com’s Mike Popovich.
When Roger received his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH in 2007, he regretted the fact his mom and dad did not get to see the day he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Roger Wehrli attended King City High School in his home state of Missouri. He was a three-sport star who excelled in football, basketball, and track for the King City Wildkats.
When Roger became a Hall of Famer, he gave credit to Wildkats head football coach Richard Flanagan for molding the team into a cohesive unit.
Flanagan was a tough coach who employed a take-no-prisoners approach. Many years later, Roger appreciated the toughness Flanagan had instilled in him. It served him well in his legendary pro football career.
According to the Columbia Missourian‘s Brad Almquist, Roger Wehrli grew stronger during his high school days by baling hay in the summer months.
There’s No Future in Football for Roger… Or Is There?
Wehrli’s strength and speed eventually became two of his biggest assets on the football field.
23 Days until Missouri Football Kickoff
Roger Wehrli – DB – 1966-1968 – King City, MO pic.twitter.com/l9OJ6r26hL
— Nate Edwards (@NateGEdwards) August 10, 2017
As Roger’s high school athletics wound down, he did not expect to play football in the collegiate ranks.
When Wehrli addressed the crowd in Canton, OH in the summer of 2007, he told them he remembered removing his football pads after his last game in his senior year in 1965.
Wehrli told himself that was the last time he would play football. He was wrong. He was just getting started on the gridiron.
At that point, Roger felt he would emerge as a college basketball phenom at nearby Northwest Missouri State University. Some lesser-known college basketball programs even offered him scholarships in the mid-1960s.
However, it was Wehrli’s blazing speed on the track that got the attention of Missouri Tigers defensive backs coach Clay Cooper.
Wehrli initially sent an 8-mm football highlight reel to Cooper and Co. Unfortunately, the coaches had a hard time dissecting the grainy footage.
Roger Wehrli did the next best thing. He did a private workout for the Tigers, per Almquist.
Cooper also witnessed young Roger Wehrli dominate the long jump, high hurdle, and low hurdle events in the 1965 state track championships in Columbia, MO.
Before long, an impressed Cooper offered Wehrli a football scholarship at Missouri. It was a fortunate turn of events considering it was the last scholarship for the incoming freshman class.
Wehrli, who thought he didn’t have what it took to excel in college football, accepted. It was one of the best decisions Wehrli ever made.
Roger Wehrli remained in-state and became one of the greatest defensive backs in Missouri Tigers football history.
College Days with the Missouri Tigers
Roger Wehrli attended the University of Missouri from 1966 to 1968. He suited up for Missouri Tigers head football coach Dan Devine.
Devine led a coaching staff that also included defensive coordinator Al Onofrio, defensive backs coach Clay Cooper, and assistant coach John Kadlec.
When Wehrli entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, he described that group as “second to none.”
Attending a big school such as the University of Missouri was no small feat for Roger Wehrli.
“It was a big adjustment for me,” Wehrli told Almquist in the fall of 2016. “From such a small school to go to a place like Mizzou, where you are out on your own. I figured, well, let’s give it a shot.”
The NCAA forbade true freshmen from playing on their respective varsity teams until 1972. Consequently, Wehrli spent the 1966 NCAA season working on his game behind the scenes.
Roger’s efforts eventually paid huge dividends. The coaches asked him to scrimmage with the varsity squad leading up to the 1966 Sugar Bowl.
Earning the Nickname, “Roger the Dodger”
Wehrli’s lightning-fast speed prompted his Missouri Tigers teammates to call him “Roger the Dodger” during his college days. It’s a moniker people still call Roger today, per the Columbia Missourian.
Devine assigned Wehrli to the defensive side of the ball in his sophomore season in 1966. That move paved the way for one of the greatest cornerbacks in pro football history.
Wehrli also played special teams as a kick and punt return specialist for the Tigers.
Roger gave props to Cooper, the man who recruited him out of King City High School in 1965, as the coach who transformed him into an elite defensive back.
Wehrli, who thought he was going to play basketball in college, was a natural at cornerback. He was a ballhawking defensive back from the get-go.
Roger Wehrli…played entire HS, college & pro careers in Missouri. Consensus All American (‘68) and 2-Time Big 8 Player of the Year. 14 yrs w/STL Cardinals earning 7 Pro Bowls. Inducted into both the College & Pro Football Halls of Fame. Truly one of the Program’s best ever! pic.twitter.com/k7VxgA4KbL
— Mizzou For The Win (@MizzouForTheWin) April 25, 2022
He set eight program records during his three-year tenure at Missouri, including the most picks in a single season (seven as a senior in 1968) and most picks in a game (three against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in 1968).
A Collegiate Phenom
Wehrli earned All-Big Eight Conference honors as a junior and senior. He also earned Consensus All-American and Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1968.
Wehrli also held his own on special teams. After a stomach ulcer forced Roger to sit out for a month during his junior season in 1967, he scored a touchdown on a kickoff return against the Iowa State Cyclones when he retook the field.
Roger told Popovich his sheer exhaustion due to a weeklong stay at the hospital almost prevented him from scoring that memorable touchdown run.
With Roger Wehrli at the top of his game, the Tigers averaged seven wins per year from 1966 to 1968.
Wehrli ended his college football career emphatically. He had a critical interception in the Tigers’ 35-10 rout of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1968 Gator Bowl.
“Whipping up on them was the perfect way to end your career,” Wehrli told Almquist some forty-eight years later.
Wehrli’s emergence as one of the best defensive backs in college football earned him trips to the Senior Bowl, Hula Bowl, Coaches All-America Game, and College All-Star Game during his senior season in 1968.
Wehrli’s iconic pro football career with the St. Louis Cardinals essentially began during the 1968 Hula Bowl in Hawaii.
According to the Columbia Missourian, Wehrli impressed a Cardinals scout who was watching the game from the stands.
It was a throwback to Roger’s high school days when he impressed Mizzou defensive backs coach Clay Cooper during the state track championship meet in 1965.
This time around, the St. Louis scout approached Wehrli and asked him to run the 40-yard dash after the final down.
Wehrli obliged and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds still wearing his full pads. That performance convinced the scout that Wehrli was a possible first-round selection in 1969.
Roger Wehrli married his girlfriend, Gayle Kenward, during his senior year at Missouri. They had met on a blind date in 1966, per the Columbia Missourian.
Wehrli also received letters from several NFL teams about the upcoming 1969 NFL/AFL Draft the same year he tied the knot with Gayle.
His new bride wasn’t much into sports. She only watched football whenever her husband took the field.
When Roger began receiving feelers from various NFL teams, Gayle Wehrli thought the draft meant the Army was going to enlist Roger for the Vietnam War.
Roger put her at ease and told her it was a football draft for rookies. She then relented as long as it was the NFL that featured the likes of Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, the only player she knew, per ProFootbalHOF.com.
Little did both of them know at the time that Roger would eventually join Starr in the Pro Football Hall of Fame almost four decades later.
Roger Wehrli remained in his home state of Missouri where he became an elite cornerback for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals from 1969 to 1982.
Pro Football Career
The St. Louis Cardinals made Roger Wehrli the 19th overall selection of the 1969 NFL/AFL Draft.
Wehrli found out about his selection during a sports banquet the day before the draft festivities.
According to Popovich, Cardinals head coach Charley Winner approached Wehrli and told him they would take him off the draft board if he was still available in the first round.
Wehrli entered the pro football ranks during the latter years of Cardinals free safety Larry Wilson’s career.
Wilson took Wehrli under his wing and became Roger’s mentor for his first four seasons from 1969 to 1972.
Wilson eventually became Wehrli’s presenter when the latter entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame almost four decades later.
“I couldn’t have had a better mentor my first four years in the league than Larry Wilson—somebody to look up to and try to emulate,” Wehrli said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2007.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) January 28, 2020
When Roger Wehrli joined the Cardinals before the 1969 NFL season, he felt he was in good hands. Cardinals’ owners, Bill and Charles Bidwill, took care of him and his family during his 14-year tenure in St. Louis.
Bill’s and Charles’s kids were still young when Roger was a rookie. Fast forward some four decades later, they have been playing an active role in the now-Arizona Cardinals organization.
Bill’s sons, Michael and Bill Jr., are currently the team president and vice president of the Cardinals, respectively.
Right Where He Belongs
Roger Wehrli fit in perfectly with St. Louis Cardinals head coach Charley Winner’s system. Wehrli started at right cornerback for Winner and became the Cardinals’ punt return specialist in 1969.
The first indication of his fitting in was Wehrli taking his rookie hazing in stride. When Wilson presented him into Canton in 2007, he remembered Roger smiling whenever the Cardinals veterans hazed him.
When Wehrli took the field, he was all business. Not only that, but it also did not take him long to make a profound impact on the Cardinals’ secondary.
Wehrli was the perfect example of a “shutdown corner” in the 1970s. He racked up a combined eleven interceptions through his first three NFL seasons, from 1969 to 1971.
Consequently, Roger made the NFL’s All-Rookie selection in 1969. Wehrli also earned two Pro Bowl berths as well as one First-Team All-Pro and one Second-Team All-Pro selection during that three-season span.
Speed was Roger Wehrli’s strong suit. A former high school track star, Wehrli knew how to beat wide receivers with his speed on the gridiron. Before long, quarterbacks had second thoughts about throwing the ball in his direction.
Despite Wehrli’s best efforts in the secondary, St. Louis was a below-average squad that averaged just five wins per season from 1969 to 1972.
That all changed when Don Coryell became the Cardinals’ new head coach before the 1973 NFL season.
Coryell’s high-octane offense, which was predicated around quarterback Jim Hart and running back Terry Metcalf, turned the Cardinals into postseason contenders.
The Cardinals had never made the postseason since they moved to St. Louis from Chicago, IL before the 1960 NFL campaign. It was a drought that reached fourteen years in Coryell’s first season as head coach in 1973.
With Coryell in charge, St. Louis won an average of ten games and two division titles from 1974 to 1976. Those were the only division titles the Cardinals won during their 28-season tenure in St. Louis from 1960 to 1987.
Despite the Cardinals’ emergence in the mid-1970s, they never made it past the NFC Divisional Round.
The football Cardinals hit their stride during a time their baseball counterparts in St. Louis were struggling. It was a welcome sight for the city of St. Louis, which had always been a baseball city.
“It was a great time in St. Louis to play because the fans were wonderful,” Roger told Popovich in 2007. “The baseball team was down a little bit in the mid-70s. We really had the fan backing.”
As for Roger Wehrli, his game reached unprecedented heights during the Don Coryell era from 1973 to 1977.
Wehrli earned four Pro Bowls and four First-Team All-Pro selections during that memorable five-year period.
Wehrli also recorded the first of his two career pick-sixes in the 1974 NFL season. He picked off a pass from Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown that year.
Wehrli had his second career-pick six at the expense of the Minnesota Vikings’ Tommy Kramer in 1979.
Wehrli’s five picks led the Cardinals in Coryell’s last year at the helm in 1977. Wehrli had an interception in four consecutive games. To nobody’s surprise, St. Louis won all four of them.
All Good Things Must End
When Coryell left to become the San Diego Chargers head coach before the 1978 NFL season, the Cardinals regressed considerably.
St. Louis averaged barely six wins per season in Roger Wehrli’s last five seasons in Cardinals red and white from 1978 to 1982.
Nevertheless, Wehrli ended his pro football career with a bang.
Wehrli, who was in his second season playing left cornerback, scored a touchdown on a fake-field goal attempt in the regular-season finale against the Washington Redskins on January 2, 1982. The Cardinals won with a laughable score of 28-0.
The victory propelled St. Louis to a postseason berth for the first time in seven years.
Although the Cardinals made the postseason during the strike-shortened 1982 NFL campaign, they lost to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Wild Card Game in embarrassing fashion, 41-16.
Roger Wehrli, one of the greatest defensive backs in St. Louis Cardinals history, retired following the 1982 NFL season.
Wehrli had 40 interceptions, seven forced fumbles, and 22 fumble recoveries in his legendary fourteen-year pro football career.
No less than Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach considered his namesake Roger Wehrli the greatest cornerback he ever faced.
Staubach, who threw three interceptions to Wehrli in a game against the Cardinals on December 7, 1975, knew better than to throw in his direction.
It was the first time in nine years since a Cardinals player recorded three picks in the same game. St. Louis free safety Larry Wilson, Wehrli’s presenter in his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2007, pulled off the gaudy feat in the 1966 NFL season.
“The term ‘shutdown corner’ originated with Roger Wehrli,” Staubach said (via MUTigers.com). “There wasn’t a better cornerback I played against. He was a great, great defensive back. You have to be aware of him all the time.”
Roger Wehrli and his wife Gayle currently reside in the St. Louis, MO area. They have a daughter, Shannon, and a son, Michael, as well as several grandchildren.
According to Almquist, Wehrli became the vice president of a local manufacturing company after he retired from pro football following the 1982 NFL campaign. He remained with the company until he retired in 2013.
Roger Wehrli became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 2007. His former St. Louis Cardinals teammate and Hall of Fame free safety Larry Wilson was his presenter.
Before Wehrli’s selection, he sat on pins and needles waiting for the official announcement several months earlier.
On the day, the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee made the final selections, they told him if he did not receive a phone call by 2 p.m., he did not make it.
Wehrli waited. By the time 2:00 struck, nobody had called him. A disappointed Roger waited for another fifty minutes.
Hall of Fame and Other Accolades
Lo and behold, his phone finally rang. The man who called him was a radio show host from New York City, per the Columbia Missourian.
OTD 2007: Big Red great Roger Wehrli was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/0BFVqYyjfe
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) August 4, 2022
The host introduced himself and asked Roger if he could interview him about the Hall of Fame.
A perplexed Wehrli asked him if he actually made it. The host, in turn, was astonished the selection committee had not rung him up.
The host put Wehrli on hold for a few seconds to confirm his selection with a co-worker. To Roger’s relief, the host confirmed his induction into Canton, OH.
Wehrli had no doubt he made it. For the next six hours, his phone rang non-stop as people called him with congratulatory messages.
Part of Wehrli’s enshrinement speech reads:
“The Hall of Fame is never a given. Being nominated over the years has put a sense of hope and ‘what if’s’ in my mind, but I never for once took it for granted that I should be or would be here.”
Wehrli is a fixture in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies. He and his fellow NFL legends roll out the red carpet for the new inductees every year.
Roger Wehrli is also a member of the University of Missouri Athletics Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor, and the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team.
Wehrli became a member of the SEC Legends Class in the fall of 2015. He is also one of just seven former Missouri Tigers football players to have their numbers retired.