For The Birds — Steve Jones and the Cardinals

Steve Jones, from his days as one of the greatest Duke Blue Devils of all time.

Steve Jones, from his days as one of the greatest Duke Blue Devils of all time.


I’m posting last week’s column in this space because, well, because I was pretty pleased with how it came out, and as a writer, that doesn’t always happen. So allow me to feel good about myself for a bit. And if you missed the column about local sports star Steve Jones and his ties to the NFL’s Cardinals, here you go:

For The Birds

They get together every year now.

Before 2007, that didn’t happen. After all, the morning after the team he owns, the Arizona Cardinals, punched its ticket for the franchise’s first Super Bowl, notoriously frugal owner Bill Bidwill drank day-old coffee — grounds that were made 24 hours earlier, and rewarmed twice.

But he said he drank it smiling, so there’s that.

Since Bill’s boy Michael took over football operations, though, former Cardinals, be they of the Chicago variety, who last won the franchise a championship in 1947, or the St. Louis form, who shared a name and a city for nearly three decades with the more popular — and certainly more prolific — baseball team, are treated like the heroes dads of the X-Generationers wistfully believe they are.

Steve Jones is one of those guys. One of these birds of a feather.

And so when he was invited in the fall to fly out to Phoenix for a weekend bash of Old Timers, he jumped at the opportunity. Put up in a swanky hotel, Jones rubbed shoulders with the men who opened holes for him, a unit that once included the still-mountainous, thoughly slightly softened blocks of granite like Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf and three-time Pro Bowler Conrad Dobler, considered by lore as the one of the game’s dirtiest players. 

On that Sunday, they went to a game at the palatial University of Phoenix Stadium. Astroturf, the stuff that doesn’t look like grass but does indeed feel like rock, the knee-grinding mistake that blanketed the concrete and served as the playing field for many of them, was nowhere to be found.

And there, before him, Jones could see it.

That same logo, on that same helmet.

That same red jersey, though maybe a slightly different — let’s call it cleaner; brighter, definitely — shade of crimson. 

And those white lines, charting the gridiron. White lines that were the same as the ones he played on and in between in Sanford. In Durham. In Buffalo backing up O.J. Simpson for a year.

In St. Louis.

Steve Jones may be Lee County’s most decorated athlete. Some may say NASCAR champion Herb Thomas, and they could make an argument. But Jones’ case would hold water. He led Paul Gay’s Sanford Central teams to three state championships from 1966-to-1968. His high school record as the standout running back? 42-2-1. From there, Jones ran roughshod over the ACC at Duke, setting a school record with 2,951 yards rushing, a mark that stood for 31 years until Chris Douglas finally came along and broke it in 2003. Duke honored Jones by enshrining him in the University’s Hall of Fame in 1992.

“He could have been a college star as a linebacker, could have played there in the pros,” Gay said when Jones was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. “He was a great athlete, a hard worker and one of the most knowledgeable players I ever coached.”

But Jones kept running — on offense. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fifth round of the 1973 draft, the 129th player selected. He was traded to St. Louis, though, and later waived to Buffalo, just in time to see Simpson’s rewriting of the record books with the historic 2,003-yard season.

Jones, after starring in Sanford and Durham, graced this 1977 Topps football card.

Jones, after starring in Sanford and Durham, graced this 1977 Topps football card.

Jones joined the Cardinals a year later. And get this — the Cardinals were good.

Yes, the Cardinals. The team that has now lost 674 regular season games, or, as ghastly as it may seem to point out, 105 more than the Detroit Lions. The team that, should it beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and win Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday, would double the 88-year-old franchise’s previous number of playoff wins in a single postseason.

Jones didn’t tote the rock much in ’74, but he rushed 54 times for 275 yards and two touchdowns in ’75 when the Cards and coach Don Coryell won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. That put Jones and Dierdorf and quarterback Jim Hart in elite Cardinals company — Cardinals players with a playoff resume. Sure, St. Louis lost to the Rams 35-23 in the divisional round, but Jones scored a touchdown on a 3-yard scamper.

It was the last Cardinals’ postseason touchdown for seven years. 

Jones was even better in 1976, rushing for a career-high 451 yards and eight touchdowns as the Cards missed the playoffs, but finished 10-4 and second in the division. Two years later, however, even after rushing for 392 yards in 1978 as the Cards spiraled into mediocrity, Jones was out of football because of a neck injury. He played in 63 games, covered 1,204 yards of NFL real estate running the football, and 629 yards of it after catching the ball. He hit paydirt — the end zone — 17 times.

The Cardinals played on without Jones, who would remain in the St. Louis area and work later for Anheuser-Busch. They would make the playoffs just twice more, winning only once, and trail only baseball’s lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, in the most dreaded of all professional statistics — years since its last championship. Even a move to sun-drenched Arizona in 1988 couldn’t put a shine on the Cards, whose title-drought clock is ticking at 61 years.

But here they are now, these Cardinals. Armed with smart draft picks, a ring-wearing veteran quarterback and a no-nonsense and skilled coach, the Birds clinched the NFC West division title two-thirds of the way through the season. And then they clipped a wing, limping into the playoffs having lost four of their last six games.

But, out of nowhere it seemed, the team rose like a… well, like a phoenix. Three improbable playoff wins later, the Cards are, for a change, on the doorstep of history, not the doormat of it. 

And Jones, from his perch in the St. Louis area, retired from football and from work, is still watching.

“I am so glad to see them make the Super Bowl, especially after they played so poorly at the end of the season,” Jones said by telephone from his home. “To come back like they did, and the long, long layoff from any playoff appearance, to make their first Super Bowl, I’m happy for the franchise and for the players.”

The franchise. It began in Chicago, lesser appreciated than the crosstown Bears, but loved by the Mob. A franchise that once fired a coach by changing the locks on his office at halftime of a game. 

The players. They make millions now, many of them do. Some of them celebrate first downs. Have groups of hangers-on some call posses. One might even scream at his offensive coordinator as the team wins the NFC Championship, angry that he wasn’t on the field for the game-winning drive that clinched the Super Bowl berth.

Very different than in Jones’ day.

But very similar, too. 

That logo.

That helmet.

That jersey.

That franchise.

“It’s like I heard Dan Dierdorf and Jim Hart talking,” Jones said, “we never thought we’d ever hear ‘Cardinals’ and ‘Super Bowl’ in the same sentence.”

He’ll watch the big game with a few family and friends, the 57-year-old grandfather of two will. He likes to hear the announcers, follow the action and keep from being distracted from the exploits on the screen by the crush of a crowded party.

Here in Sanford, you don’t have to dig deep into the soil, even under the most manicured of football fields, like the one in the stadium that bears Coach Gay’s name, to find clay. 

And like that clay, with a few short strokes, there underneath the mild manner, the softly spoken words, even the grounded anticipation of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, in Steve Jones, still to this day, even with them some 1,500 miles west of his home, you will find the Cardinals.

His Cardinals.

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Filed under Arizona Cardinals, College Football, Designated Hitter, Duke Blue Devils, Lee County High School, N.C. playoff brackets, N.C. State Championships, NFL, NFL playoffs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Sports, Sports columns, Steve Jones, Super Bowl

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