Nothing about young Jim Hart of the Cardinals is exactly as it is supposed to be. Maybe that is why the rookie has ripened into a pro quarterback several years ahead of schedule
By Mark Mulvoy
Hart, in fact, has had to rally the Cardinals from behind in practically every game they have played. They were losing to the Lions 14-0; then he threw a couple of touchdown passes, and they won 38-28. Against the Vikings in Minnesota, the Cardinals were losing 24-13 in the final quarter before Hart threw a touchdown pass that helped bring about a 34-24 win. On Hart's scoring pass, a 40-yard bomb thrown to rookie Dave Williams, he fell down in the pocket, got up, rolled to his left and lofted the ball into Williams' arms.
Hart certainly does not qualify as a normal quarterback. He has tried to throw a football through a tire only twice in his life—and he missed both times. They loved him at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., but neither The Bear nor Darrell nor any of the other big-time college coaches pursued him with much fervor, so he went down to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "I could have gone to a bigger school, I guess," he says, "but I figured if I went to Southern Illinois I'd be a big fish in a small pond and get to play a lot." Southern Illinois, with some 12,500 students, was more like a Great Lake, but Hart did get to play a lot. Unfortunately, all three of his seasons on the varsity were regarded as rebuilding years. The Salukis won eight games and lost 21 during that span. "We did beat Louisville twice," Hart says.
Then came the pro draft in November 1965, and for two days 22 teams, with agents in motel rooms all over the country, selected the nation's best college football seniors. They did not, of course, include Jim Hart. "I was really let down," he says. "Several teams had contacted me and told me not to worry, that they were going to take me. The Rams seemed really interested, but then they already had Billy Anderson, the quarterback at Tulsa, as a future. He's not around now."
A few days after Shroyer's call the Cardinals signed Hart as a free agent and gave him a little money, enough for an economy import, perhaps, but certainly not a super-octane convertible. And to complete that fantasy of a pro quarterback, Hart married the girl who sat down next to him on a train taking Southern Illinois students back to Carbondale after an academic recess.
Although almost everything about Hart seems miscast, many football people are beginning to consider him the best young quarterback to play in the NFL since Johnny Unitas took over for George Shaw in Baltimore back in 1956. And he still is so young that he does not even know how to dress like a star quarterback. In contrast to the veterans, who wear conservative businessmen's suits and look as though they have just come from a client's meeting in the conference room at Batten, Barten, Dursten and Osborn, Hart arrives for practice every day looking, for the most part, like a college sophomore. His slacks are cuffed; he wears cordovan wingtips with laces and pulls cashmere V-neck sweaters over button-down oxford shirts, open at the top. And he's a brown-bagger: for lunch at Card practice he carries two ham sandwiches and a bag of potato chips packed by his wife Mary.
Hart has a double personality, the one he exhibits on the field—confidence and cockiness, but never with a swagger—and the one he shows everywhere else—concern for his contemporaries and regard for the proper way to live.
"He's a cocky kid when he puts on that uniform, but not that kind of cocky," says Ken Gray, the Cardinals' good offensive guard. "I mean, he's confident, and he's the boss. Johnson was confident, but he never showed it. This boy shows it to us. We kid him in the huddle and everything, but we want to make sure he never gets hit."
Against Philadelphia, Hart took a little too much time to throw a pass, and a defensive lineman enveloped him in a gorilla hug and threw him to the ground, bruising one of his ribs. Hart walked back to the huddle, shaking his head, and said, "Gee, guys, that hurt." Bob Reynolds, the tackle, muttered, "Kid, you can't take 10 seconds back here," and everyone laughed.
"He hasn't chewed us out yet for anything," says Irv Goode, the other starting guard, "but you know he will one of these days. Just like Charley used to do on occasion. I expected this kid to be scared and nervous, just a bit, you know, like any other 23-year-old would be, but he wasn't."
His youth does not make Hart humble. "They have a job to do," he says, "and I have a job to do. And the quarterback has got to be the boss on the field." He does not scare, either, as Ray Nitschke, the middle linebacker for the Packers, found out when he tried to intimidate Hart in Green Bay territory. "We had a fourth down and one," says Hart, "and when I came up over center there was Nitschke, dancing around and daring me to 'come right at me, kid." You should have seen him—that big gap in his mouth behind his face mask yelling at me. No, I didn't run at him. We went the other way and got the first down."
Each week, while Hart has been learning to turn such challenges into advantages, Charley Johnson, free from his military duties on weekends, has been suited up on the sidelines, but now as the Cards' No. 2 quarterback. In constant contact with Hart, Johnson has counseled him about the defenses, what plays might work and other intelligence. But he has played only a few minutes as Hart's understudy.
"I see him standing there on the sidelines, all alone," says Hart, "and I know it hurts him not being out on the field. This was his team. He grew up here with these same players. This was going to be their year, and now he is doing his military service."
Hart heard. "I've only been married a few months now," he said, "and you can't tell brides what to do right off. It's got to be 50-50—a compromise." Gambrell, shaking his head, said, "I don't know. We asked him to play golf with us a few Mondays ago, and he said he'd have to check with Mary first. Imagine. Our fearless leader having to ask if he can play golf on his one day off. He'll learn."
But Hart does worry about what people think of him. He played on the taxi squad a year ago, and now when he walks past members without speaking cab boys might say to him, kiddingly, "Fame. Look what it's done to Jim Hart." It may be a joke to them. It is not to Hart, who wonders about himself and frets that he may be forgetting some of his old friends.
Oddly, the pressure of a game does not bother him; anyway not the night before, when he sleeps soundly. It is Friday night that kills him. "I play the game over at least three times," he says, "deciding what I'll call. I wake up tossing and turning, and one night I was awakened by my wife screaming. She said I was squeezing her head and holding it like a football. Really weird."
Nightmarish is the word that sprang to the minds of some when it was learned that the Cardinals were forced to replace their No. 1 quarterback with a lazy-faced kid the team called Peach Fuzz ("They always ask me if I've shaved yet this week," says Hart). The standard procedure with quarterbacks such as Hart has been to condition them to the subtleties of professional play by having them relay instructions from spotters in the press box to the coaches and players on the field. After a year or two of wearing a telephone headset they were supposed to be ready to put on a helmet and take their first tentative steps on the playing field. Gary Cuozzo, George Mira, Jack Concannon and Dick Shiner, among others, were brought along this way, and Coach Winner saw no reason to change the process for Jim Hart.
"You could see that someday he would be a good quarterback," says Winner, "because he did everything a good quarterback does. I was with the Colts when Unitas took over, and although Jimmy is not a Unitas—there'll never be another Unitas, not in our time—he certainly was the best young quarterback I had seen."
Then, in November of last year, Johnson suffered what had come to be regarded as his annual injury—this time to his right knee. Terry Nofsinger, an experienced back-up man, became the regular quarterback, and Hart began his apprenticeship as a telephone operator. He became a player for the first time in the fourth quarter of the final game, when St. Louis was losing by four touchdowns.
As promising as Hart was, the Cardinals were not nearly ready to rely on him. In the off season they traded Nofsinger to Atlanta and tried to acquire Bill Munson from the Rams, or Cuozzo, still with the Colts, to back up Johnson. Neither, however, was available, and St. Louis suddenly found itself in the precarious position of opening training camp with only a brittle Johnson and an untested rookie.
Hart's reaction to his promotion by default was, as his teammates were soon to discover, typical. Rather than being awed, he was determined to be a good guy. "At camp, I made up my mind to be patient and try to learn all about quarterbacking," says Hart. "I was not going to be like some other No. 2 quarterbacks and go around asking to be traded or else. Personally, I felt that we'd get far enough in front of some teams that I'd be able to play quite a bit."
That, it soon developed, became pro football's understatement of the year. To the horror of Cardinal fans, Johnson was called into the Army, and it seemed that disaster had struck. Even Hart, with all his confidence, did not expect to remain the No. 1 quarterback for long. "Right off," he says, "J thought they would try to trade for an experienced quarterback, because I didn't think they thought I was ready."
Hart always could pass. He throws a very light ball that receivers like to catch because it does not hurt their hands, and he can throw the ball as far as necessary with considerable accuracy. He has completed close to 50% of his passes this year, above average for a young quarterback, and he is not afraid to pass despite those interceptions.
"My high school coach in Skokie, Mike Basrak, who used to be a center for the Steelers, put all the thoughts about quarterbacking in my head," says Hart. "He told me what happens to quarterbacks who run all the time. He told me to stay in the pocket. Drop back fast. Set up. Release quickly. And that's what I try to do." ("It's damn disheartnin" for us linemen to be there, ready to hit him, and then have him get that ball off so fast," shrugged Willie Davis of the Packers.)
Hart himself worked particularly hard to refine his timing on passing. Still, he threw as many as three interceptions a game during the exhibition season. Then on opening day against the New York Giants he threw four more, and the Cardinals suffered an upset.
"I think we all wanted things to come too fast," Hart says of that game. And maybe the purists were right. Kids can't play quarterback.
If the last thought crossed Cardinal minds, it was soon forgotten, as everything began to work better. Hart and his receivers synchronized their timing, and he and rookie receiver Williams, the leaper from the University of Washington who was regarded as so fine a prospect that St. Louis felt safe in trading off former All-Pro Split End Sonny Randle to San Francisco, made a slight technical adjustment that has meant touchdowns for the Cardinals. "We weren't clicking," says Williams, "and I knew something was wrong. Jimmy was throwing his deep passes on a fairly low trajectory. I told him I'd rather have him throw the ball up and let me run under it, and since then that's what we've been doing." So, against the Packers, Hart lofted two long passes that Williams stole away from Herb Adderley for touchdowns. And his interceptions, despite the five he threw Sunday in a bad game against Chicago, are about normal for the NFL.
Hart also has begun to call automatics more frequently, and the coaches now send in fewer plays from the bench. At the start of the season, for instance, the coaches called about 50% of the Cardinals' offensive plays, whereas Charley Johnson was left on his own at least 80% of the time. When the Cardinals were inside the 10-yard line during early games the coaches called all the plays, but against Washington, a few weeks ago, Hart himself signaled for a look-in pass to Bobby Joe Conrad that went for a touchdown. The experienced quarterback—say a Unitas or a Starr—might switch plays at the line of scrimmage 20% to 25% of the time. At the beginning Hart rarely checked off. Now he does it on every fourth or, at most, fifth play.
It is possible that the pressures will mount on the 23-year-old Hart and that he will lose his poise, at least temporarily, before he becomes the compleat quarterback. Possible, but not probable. Saturnine Vince Lombardi, for one, is not counting on Hart to panic. "He's a professional quarterback right now," the Green Bay coach says, and he has been on the receiving end of the young mover's own style of hippiness.