Undrafted, Garland Boyette overcame the odds, earning a roster spot at a position he’d never played and becoming a starting linebacker for the NFL St. Louis Cardinals in 1962.
Two years later, the Cardinals cut him, but that wasn’t the only insult he endured. Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation produced a football card of Boyette that year, but fumbled the assignment. The name on the card was Garland Boyette, but the photo was of Don Gillis, a former Cardinals center who no longer was in the league. Boyette was black and Gillis was white.
Boyette went to Canada, revived his career and returned to the United States, launching a successful stint as a Houston Oilers linebacker.
A two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Oilers, Boyette died on April 19, 2022, at 82.
Boyette played college football at Grambling and primarily was a defensive lineman. His teammates included other future NFL players such as Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, Ernie Ladd and Roosevelt Taylor. Ladd, 6 feet 9 and about 320 pounds, was Boyette’s nephew. Ladd’s mother was Boyette’s sister.
Boyette, 6 feet 1 and about 220 pounds, also was a standout track and field athlete who excelled in the decathlon.
After his senior football season at Grambling in 1961, Boyette wasn’t selected in either the AFL or NFL draft. The Cardinals signed him in February 1962 and invited him to training camp.
Ernie Ladd, who made his pro football debut with the San Diego Chargers in 1961, and a friend, Len Burnett, a defensive back for the 1961 Pittsburgh Steelers, worked out with Boyette and offered him advice before he joined the Cardinals.
“They suggested that with my speed and agility I ought to be able to play cornerback in pro football, or with more weight, maybe linebacker,” Boyette told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Ernie told me to get on the weights and get my weight up, so I did.”
Boyette firmed up to about 235 pounds, and, though he never had played linebacker in college, he “landed in an outside linebacker spot, playing behind the Cardinals’ ace outside linebacker, Bill Koman,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
With the Cardinals loaded with veteran linebackers, Boyette, 22, didn’t play much early in the 1962 season. “I found it discouraging,” Boyette told the Post-Dispatch. “I’d always played first string in college, but it gave me time to learn.”
When several linebackers, including Ted Bates, Ed Henke, Dale Meinert and Marion Rushing _ “All of whom figured to give the Cardinals a tremendous ground defense and a big rush,” The Pittsburgh Press noted _ got sidelined because of injuries, Boyette got his chance.
Against the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 25, Boyette played at left linebacker, with Koman moving to the right side, and “did a commendable job,” Cardinals head coach Wally Lemm told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Boyette started at left side linebacker in the Dec. 7 game against the Steelers and played well, sacking Ed Brown for a 15-yard loss.
“I told Bill Koman I’d learned more in that one game at Pittsburgh than I’d learned in five years of football earlier,” Boyette said to the Post-Dispatch. “I’m learning more by getting to play. I’ve found nobody ever relaxes in this game.”
After the Cardinals completed the 1962 season, the Globe-Democrat declared, “Boyette came along so well.”
On the move
The Cardinals went into their 1963 exhibition game opener with Boyette, Koman and Meinert as the starting linebackers, but, a couple of weeks later, rookie Larry Stallings was named a starter, replacing Boyette, according to the Post-Dispatch.
In October, Boyette tore ligaments in a knee. He came back in late November and made a key play in a game against the New York Giants, setting up the winning touchdown by recovering Eddie Dove’s fumble on the New York 20-yard line.
As for that football card snafu, Don Gillis wore No. 50 when he played for the Cardinals from 1958-61, and Boyette wore the same uniform number for the Cardinals in 1962 and 1963.
“The card companies would ask the team who wears what numbers,” Boyette told the Monroe (La.) News-Star, “but how the hell do you get that screwed up?”
With Koman, Meinert and Stallings returning in 1964, and Dave Meggyesy pushing for playing time as well, the Cardinals deemed Boyette expendable and placed him on waivers on Sept. 2, according to the Post-Dispatch.
A few days later, Boyette was signed by the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Montreal’s head coach was Jim Trimble. Cardinals defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis had been an assistant on Trimble’s staff when Trimble was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1954 and 1955.
Boyette played two seasons (1964-65) with the Alouettes and made a favorable impression. “He is the best athlete on my team,” Trimble told the Montreal Star. “Garland is one of the finest athletes I’ve ever known.”
After Trimble departed, Boyette signed with the AFL’s Houston Oilers, who’d hired Wally Lemm to be their head coach in 1966.
“The only reason he was cut by the Cardinals was he made too many mistakes,” Lemm told The Sporting News. “We are hoping now that he is older, and with two years of Canadian ball behind him, he will have matured.”
In 1967, Boyette became the Oilers’ middle linebacker. That same season, rookie Willie Lanier started at middle linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. According to the Houston Chronicle, Boyette and Lanier were the first black starting middle linebackers in pro football in the U.S.
A year later, Sports Illustrated described Boyette as “an exceptional athlete who can be one of the great middle linebackers.”
Boyette was named to the Pro Bowl in 1968 and 1969, and played with the Oilers until 1972.