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Folktales: When Arizona Met The Cardiac Cards
In first year in the Valley, a stunning rally over the 49ers nearly started amazing debut season
By Darren Urban Dec 12, 2023

The newest episode of Folktales premieres Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. Arizona time on the Cardinals' YouTube channel and on

As Roy Green hauled in the touchdown pass with a couple of seconds left on the clock, the moment was glorious – for a franchise in a new state, for players who felt rejected from the team's previous city, and for a new fanbase that had long waited for the NFL.

The newly arrived Phoenix Cardinals had knocked off the powerful San Francisco 49ers, 24-23, at Sun Devil Stadium – trailing 23-0 at one point – and first place in the NFC East attained the next week with another home win over the Giants.

"We're already in our heads for what we're going to do," Green said.

But for as high as the Cardinals felt, they also knew quarterback Neil Lomax hurt his knee against the Giants, an issue exacerbated by a hip problem that was only getting worse.

The Cardinals, 7-4, ended up losing their final five games. A team that looked like it was headed for the postseason in an electrifying first year in the Valley came up short. An upset of an NFL powerhouse, rather than a steppingstone, ended up simply as a noteworthy victory over the eventual Super Bowl champions.

But in that moment, fans screaming, a team celebrating an improbable victory, the NFL had found its spot in the desert.

"We're talking about the 49ers game, and there must've been 200,000 people there because I've had more than 200,000 people tell me they were there," Lomax said. "When I go back down (to Phoenix) even now, 34 years later, they bring that up.

"The fans loved us. I just feel sorry we didn't finish that off getting to the playoffs."

Phoenix had long been a potential destination for a National Football League team. Before it was the Cardinals, it looked like it would be the Eagles. In the final two weeks of the 1984 season, the Phoenix Eagles were a real possibility (and a story broken by Arizona Republic columnist Bob Hurt.)

Philadelphia ended up holding on to their franchise, eventually providing a Super Bowl defensive coordinator that the franchise that did move to the Valley – the then-St. Louis Cardinals – ended up hiring as head coach.

In 1987, the Cardinals couldn't find a path to get a new stadium built. There were rumors of a move to Memphis, or Jacksonville, or San Antonio, or Phoenix. It made playing in St. Louis at the end hard, with the fans understandably upset.

Once owner Bill Bidwill got assurances from the Phoenix power brokers that a stadium could eventually be built in the Valley, it was decided the Cardinals would move to Arizona in 1988.

"We were run out of town in St. Louis and they had pitchforks and torches, metaphorically speaking," Pro Bowl special teamer and fullback Ron Wolfley said. "Yet we were welcomed as conquering heroes here in Phoenix."

At the time, the Valley had Arizona State football, which was popular. The Phoenix Suns had long secured their spot in local hearts as an NBA franchise. But the NHL was eight years away from sending in the Coyotes, and Major League Baseball was a decade away from starting up the Diamondbacks.

Wolfley, Lomax and defensive tackle Bob Clasby all bought houses in a new development off the I-10 freeway well south of the city in an area called Ahwatukee. For years the area just west of the freeway around Warner Road has been packed with houses and businesses. Then, it was mostly desert – and a place to view NFL players in the wild.

Wolfley said when the trio moved into their houses after the team moved to town, cars would slowly drive by to look – "Like a Hollywood tour" – and try and get a glimpse of these athletes.

"I was disappointed (with the move) because I knew all the friends and relationships I had had," Green said. "Once you knew it was a business and knowing that we were going to move there, it was amazing, the way we were received."

Coached by Gene Stallings, the Cardinals that came to Arizona weren't bad, their struggles their last season in St. Louis connected to uncertainty. They had a slow start in 1988 with two losses – the second, their home opener on "Monday Night Football" against the Dallas Cowboys, famously showcasing an ill-advised fake field goal run by kicker Al Del Greco right before halftime – before rattling off four straight wins.

Their defense was solid but it was the offense that could do it big. Stump Mitchell and Earl Ferrell could run the ball. More importantly, Lomax – with targets like Green, J.T. Smith, Rob Awalt, Jay Novacek and rookie Ernie "Indiana" Jones – could throw it. The two-time Pro Bowler was a franchise QB as he played his eighth season, a guy who had thrown for an amazing 4,614 yards in 1984 in the days when that just wasn't done in a running league.

"Neil Lomax and his arm talent were exceptional," Wolfley said. "Not only that, he was like having an offensive coordinator at the quarterback position. Photographic memory. A guy that was honestly a savant."

The Cardinals fell back to .500 with losses in their next two games before a crucial road win in Dallas pushed them back to 5-4 with the 49ers coming to town.

San Francisco was in their heyday with Joe Montana at quarterback, although they had a backup in Steve Young who looked promising as he awaited his turn at the controls. That factored into the visit to Sun Devil Stadium, with Young in the lineup. (Montana, has great as he was, was actually being benched by coach Bill Walsh to take a look at the high-profile No. 2 QB, which is a story in itself if the 49ers want to do their own Folktales). Wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig were still there as the Niners' main weapons; eventual Hall of Famers Charles Haley, a defensive end, and Ronnie Lott, a safety, led the defense.

And the Cardinals helped make them look just that legendary as the game that first Sunday in November, a gorgeous 82-degree day, unfolded.

At halftime, the Cardinals were losing 16-0 and it should've been worse. They lost three fumbles, and the Niners could only turn them into two field goals. Craig was running the Cardinals over – 109 yards and a TD on 16 first-half carries – while Lomax had just six completions while being sacked four times. A fifth sack ended the Cardinals' three-and-out initial possession of the second half, and then the 49ers drove down the field for a TD and a 23-0 lead.

"I mean, what the hell?" Lomax said. "What were we doing? Our offense was pretty good. … That's the memory. It's 23-0. I mean, this ain't happening. We're gonna kick it in gear here. And we did."

People were already leaving in the third quarter, and that incensed Wolfley. The sidelines at Sun Devil Stadium back up to a fence, with a dropped down walkway running alongside the stands.

"I remember I got up and hung over the fence for the first and only time of my NFL career," Wolfley said. "And I was yelling at (the fans), 'You're gonna miss the greatest comeback in this history of this team!'

"Even as I walked away from yelling at these people that we were going to come back and win this game, I knew how stupid it was."

Stupid, perhaps. But eventually proven correct.

Lomax and Green had long had an excellent relationship. When Lomax was a rookie, Green would invite him over to his house in St. Louis once or twice a week, and the bond was developed.

By the time the Cardinals got to Phoenix, Green's days as a two-way star – he played cornerback when he got to the NFL as well as receiver – were done, but his production wasn't. His nickname "Jet Stream" still meant something down the field. It definitely did on a 35-yard Lomax-to-Green TD pass to finally et the Cardinals on the board the next drive.

"We could have easily been down two more touchdowns," Green said. "But our defense stopped them in the red zone twice and forced field goals. We were like 1-for-13 on third-down conversions. It's like, 'They won this game?'"

The Cardinals added a Del Greco field goal, but the scoring dried up until about four minutes left in the game, when Wolfley's prediction was at peak vulnerability.

Yet it only took 1:52 off the clock for the Cards to go 50 yards for a touchdown, Indiana Jones hauling in a 5-yard pass for the score and giving the faithful fans hope.

"I haven't seen the game in a long, long time," Lomax said. "Someone put it up on YouTube about 10 years ago at a function I was at. And you know, I was kind of getting goosebumps and was kind of like, 'Damn, man, we came back.'"

The Cardinals needed a three-and-out. They got it with one of the most memorable defensive plays since the team moved to the Valley. On third-and-4 at the San Francisco 21, Young kept the ball himself getting to the sideline and the first-down marker at the same time as Cardinals linebacker E.J. Junior.

The ball was spotted just short, much to the anger of Young and coach Bill Walsh. It was reviewed as upheld, and the 49ers had to punt the ball back to the Cardinals with 1:27 left.

"It was short," Wolfley said.

The Cardinals were on their own 34, an upset for the taking.

"We were very good at the hurry-up," Green said. "That's kind of what Lomax was about when he was at Portland State. We all communicated very well."

The Cardinals needed only six plays – the last a Lomax spike to stop the clock at six seconds – to get to the San Francisco 9. Lomax, who had been sacked seven times in the game, was never close to being touched on the drive. Smith had two catches for 17 yards, Jones had two for 40, including a 25-yarder on third-and-2 to set up the last play.

To win the game, Green was the obvious choice.

"Roy basically called that play," Lomax said. "He knew they were going to blitz. They call timeout. We come to the sideline and he goes 'They're coming. Put me in the slot.'

"They brought Cover Zero. They had a little corner on Roy, Roy makes a littler swim move and that beautiful move made for an easy throw."

The 64,544 fans – or at least those that stuck around, which were plenty -- saw for the first time their own version of the "Cardiac Cards," a nickname the franchise had earned a few years earlier in St. Louis for their heart-stopping ways.

"You saw us all jumping," Green said. "Me and J.T. tried to jump, you know, but we were so tired. But yeah you're excited. That's what it's about, man."

"I'll never forget the unbelievable feeling that stuff can happen," Wolfley said. "If you just believe stuff can happen and the fact it actually came to fruition, when I allow myself to think about it and it's 2:30 in the morning and the shadows are creeping across the ceiling, it feels good."

The following week, the Cardinals beat the Giants on the same field, 24-17. Lomax was excellent, throwing for 353 yards, two more touchdowns (including a 44-yarder to Green) and running one in.

The Cardinals were 7-4 and leading the NFC East. But it came with a significant caveat. Late in the game, Lomax hurt his knee. Backup Cliff Stoudt finished off the win. But Lomax missed the next two games and when he returned, he wasn't the same as the Cardinals lost their final five games of the season.

"That was brutal," Wolfley said. "I'll never forget Neil going down. That was heartbreaking."

The knee injury wasn't significant, a partial MCL tear that didn't need surgery. But the hip injury he was already living with was the specter that loomed.

"All of us really had no idea how problematic and serious my hip was," Lomax said. "I was taking some injections, taking some cortisone, getting medication. Nobody really knew I was bone-on-bone. I had to have a total hip replacement a year later. It was a very difficult time."

Lomax combo

Lomax never played football again after 1988. He had been excited about the desert rebirth for both he and the team, but the version with him in it was already over.

"I was never prepared for that one," Green said.

Lomax said he does wish he could have stayed healthy to pay off the fans that had embraced the team so well in 1988. But he doesn't pine on a personal level.

"Whatever St. Louis fans think, it was a great move for us," Lomax said. "I love the Cardinals. They're my team, so I don't have regrets. I'm not bitter at all."

The 49ers fell to 6-4 after losing in Sun Devil Stadium and lost the following week to the Raiders before winning seven of their last eight – including three postseason games culminating with a 20-16 Super Bowl win over the Bengals.

The Cardinals needed what turned out to be a decade in the desert to reach the playoffs for the first time. Had Lomax not gone down, it would come sooner. The epic 49ers win was proof of that ability.

"A lot would've changed," Green said. "There's no question we'd have made a run for that, for that playoff and that Super Bowl. That's just how good we were."

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