The Curse

Here's why the Cardinals have sucked forever, and why they might never suck again

"The league was going in a different direction than the Old Man," Tobin says. "And if 10 other teams are playing the new game, you're going to get left out. We just had a terrible time signing players, and even if we did, we had a terrible time getting them signed on time."

(Neither Bill nor Michael Bidwill returned calls to be interviewed for this article.)

This was especially true of draft picks, Tobin says. Years of bad records makes for years of high draft picks, and most every year, several young stud players would miss training camp because of prolonged contract negotiations. (This is assuming they actually were studs; the Cardinals are league leaders in high-draft-pick busts.)

Michael Bidwill (left) appears to have more of a drive to win than his bow-tied father, Bill.
AP/Wide World Photos
Michael Bidwill (left) appears to have more of a drive to win than his bow-tied father, Bill.
Vince Tobin was the first Cardinals head coach to win a playoff game in 51 years.
AP/Wide World Photos
Vince Tobin was the first Cardinals head coach to win a playoff game in 51 years.

Seasons would unravel before they began.

That is, the Cardinals would head up the mountain to prepare for the season without key players in place and without time to evaluate and prepare new talent. And this meant they came back down the mountain unprepared for the beginning of the season.

And the season always began on the road because Sun Devil Stadium was deemed too hot for football in the first week of September.

Many years, it was too hot for football the first week of November.

So when the Cardinals came home from that demoralizing thumping on the road, they walked into a boiling stadium in which everything — from the name of the edifice on down — was geared toward firing up fans of the Arizona State University Sun Devils.

"You always felt like a visitor in the thing," Tobin says. "ASU ran everything around you. And trust me, the players felt that."

Between games, the players met and worked out in a training environment that suggested they were playing for a cost-crazed losing franchise with a dearth of winning tradition.

Around the league, the great franchises have facilities that celebrate their history. Staff, from top to bottom, is focused on winning first, cost second. Tobin coached in Chicago and Green Bay, where "it's awe-inspiring to realize what you're a part of." In Green Bay, for example, the team meeting rooms are plastered with images of the franchise's procession of great players. There, he says, "everyone on the staff is about winning. And that's something you can't help but feel."

"In a lot of places, a player comes in and he's hit with the idea that he's part of something great and has to live up to something great," Tobin says. "That's a powerful motivator. And you just never felt that with the Cardinals."

After a few weeks of losses, sports fans all around town would be mumbling the old mantra: "same old Cardinals." And everyone involved with the organization, players included, heard that.

But back to Sun Devil Stadium. Except for a few bigwigs in luxury sky boxes, fans were walking into what looked more like an L.A. drainage canal than a pro football stadium. The typical early-to-mid-season experience was: The skin would begin to bake, the Cardinals would get down by a touchdown or two, seats would empty to the point that you could see heat rising off the exposed bleachers, heat would transmit across the makeshift solar panels to your butt cheeks. Swamp-ass wasn't out of the question.

College kids and zealous ASU alums can take it, but this was supposed to be high-dollar NFL football.

You needed a drink. But by this point, you'd rather crawl all the way home for a beverage than put one more penny into Bill Bidwill's pocket.

So, fans left. And Tobin and every player on the sideline saw them leave. With heads full of abandonment issues, the players would put on a helmet that was 130 degrees inside and return to the field to mount (ahem) a rally.

"The fans have a huge impact on the players," Tobin says. "To look up and see a half-empty stadium just takes the gas out of a guy that's working that hard. It wore guys down. Simple as that."

But, somehow, that 1998 team did rally. After two losses on the road to begin the season, then a slow climb to 6-7, the Cardinals rattled off a series of last-minute victories to make the playoffs for the first time in 16 years.

More than 71,000 people turned out for that regular-season final home game against the San Diego Chargers.

"The fans helped us win that game," Tobin says. "At the same time, it proved that the fans were there very quickly if we could give them something to cheer about."

Then the Cardinals beat the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys for their first playoff win since the 1947 NFL Championship Game.

And that was the team's only championship, other than the 1925 travesty that gave the Cardinals the title over the team that crushed them in the league final — the amazing upstart sensation from the tiny and perhaps magical town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

After the Dallas game, the Cardinals lost. Just like they had lost 73 years before against Pottsville.

Then the 1998 team's leaders were traded away.

Then players missed camp.

Then they lost their first games the next season.

Then key players went down with season-ending injuries.

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William Cress
William Cress

I am the great-nephew of Charles Francis Berry, the Pottstown Maroon's kicker who kicked the winning field goal.He taught me how to throw a baseball and foot ball. I played a little high school football in Latrobe my senior year, though the other quarterback in town wearing number 12, Terry Bradshaw is somewhat better known...

I still greatly enjoy the Pottstown curse on Phoenix, especially as I live in Pittsburgh and my brother in law lives in Phoenix. Also, my boss went to Notre Dame.

And I'm sure the black cat we saw sitting on great-grandmother Berry's grave when we visited is purely cooincidence.

 
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