Larry Wilson, the Cardinals' Hall of Fame safety whose play made popular the safety blitz in the NFL and who worked for the franchise for more than 30 years after his playing days, died Thursday night. He was 82.
Drafted in the seventh round in 1960, the 6-foot, 190-pound Wilson emerged as the best defensive player – and, until Larry Fitzgerald arrived, arguably the best player period – to ever play for the Cardinals.
"In a football game, you've only got 60 minutes to prove what kind of player you are," Wilson once said. "Forty-nine minutes aren't enough. You've got to give 100% on every play."
Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said that aside from his father, Bill Bidwill, Wilson was "the most influential male figure in my life."
"He was someone who truly lived his faith and demonstrated it daily in the kindness he showed every single person he met," Bidwill said. "Any of us lucky enough to be in his orbit – whether that was for a few minutes or four decades - was always better off from the experience. I will remember Larry Wilson first as a fantastic person but then obviously as one of the greatest players the National Football League has ever seen.
"It's fitting that his passing coincides with the league's 100th birthday because his toughness and the way he revolutionized his position make him one of our game's most unforgettable figures. Whether on the field playing with casts on both hands or brightening the lives of every person he knew, Larry's selflessness defined who he was and how we will all remember him."
Wilson was drafted as a halfback, but in danger of being cut, was switched to safety before the team's final preseason game of his rookie year. Over his 13 seasons, Wilson collected 52 interceptions and was first-team All-Pro five times and a second-team All-Pro another season, and was named to eight Pro Bowls. He was named NFL defensive player of the year in 1966. He had at least two interceptions every year of his career, grabbing 10 in 1966 during the 14-game season.
Wilson famously made an interception in 1965 with casts on both hands, there to protect broken fingers. The pick, returned 35 yards for a touchdown, helped the Cardinals beat the Steelers, 21-17. He did not invent the safety blitz, but there is no question Wilson brought it into the forefront, frequently causing havoc for quarterbacks in a time in which the NFL did not keep track of sacks.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978. His jersey number 8 is one of only five numbers retired by the franchise. He was named to the NFL's all-time team last year in the league's 100th season.
"My condolences to the Wilson family and to Cardinals fans everywhere who are grieving over the passing of Larry Wilson," said former Cardinals GM Rod Graves, now the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation. "He will always be revered for his unquestionable passion and his gifts to the game. He was a man you could easily admire."
Upon retiring from playing after the 1972 season, Wilson immediately went to work in the front office. He was part of the coaching staff at times – serving as interim head coach at the end of the 1979 season – as well as director of pro personnel from 1977-1988 and then general manager from 1988-1993. He then served as a vice president of the club until his retirement in 2003.
His wife of 40 years, Nancy, recalled the last time they had gone to Canton for the annual Hall of Fame game and surrounding festivities, Wilson ended up next to Browns great running back Jim Brown and quipped, "Well, this is the closest I ever got to you."
That was the Larry she knew, always humble.
She also remembered on that same trip her husband seeing a boy sitting at a table during the Gold Jacket Banquet the night before the game. Wilson took the kid by the hand, bringing him over to meet all the Hall of Famers and making the kid's night.
"Larry Wilson was the kindest, most humble person that I will ever know," Nancy Wilson said. "To most, he was this ferocious and fierce football player who some described as pound for pound the toughest player of his generation. To me, he was the most generous and gentle soul you would ever meet. For Larry, it was always about everyone else and what he could do for them. And especially in the times we live, that's something that that we could use more of today."
Images over the years of Cardinals Hall of Famer Larry Wilson