Earl Morrall thought he was going to be a quarterback for the St. Louis football Cardinals.
It might have happened if the team he was with, the New York Giants, had been less cautious.
Rather than replacing, or substituting for, the Cardinals’ Jim Hart, Morrall went on to play for the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins, filling in for Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese with astounding success.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Morrall was the NFL’s answer to a brilliant Broadway understudy.”
Born in Muskegon, Mich., Morrall excelled in athletics at Michigan State. A shortstop and third baseman in baseball, he played in the College World Series. In football, he was a consensus all-America at quarterback and led Michigan State to victory in the Rose Bowl.
The San Francisco 49ers selected Morrall in the first round of the 1956 NFL draft. In his rookie season, Morrall backed up Y.A. Tittle. After the 49ers took Stanford quarterback John Brodie in the 1957 draft, they traded Morrall to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At Pittsburgh, Morrall was the starting quarterback in 1957 and his backups were Len Dawson and Jack Kemp. Harry Gilmer was the Steelers’ backfield coach and Buddy Parker was head coach.
Parker, a former Cardinals player, had been head coach of the Detroit Lions and led them to two NFL championships before joining the Steelers. His quarterback in Detroit was Bobby Layne and Parker wanted him in Pittsburgh.
During the third week of the 1958 season, the Steelers traded Morrall to the Lions for Layne.
Returning to his home state wasn’t a treat for Morrall. He mostly was a backup to the likes of Tobin Rote, Jim Ninowski and Milt Plum. “I was at my lowest ebb,” Morrall told The Sporting News. “I thought about giving up the game.”
An exception was in 1963 when Morrall made 10 starts and threw 24 touchdown passes, but the next year he hurt his shoulder and the Lions reinstated Plum as the starter.
A positive from Morrall’s time with Detroit is he made a connection with Don Shula, a Lions assistant coach for three seasons (1960-62). Shula joined the Lions as a defensive backs coach and became defensive coordinator. “When I was in Detroit, I always had a lot of respect for the way Earl could come in off the bench and win games for you,” Shula told The Sporting News.
In August 1965, the Giants, seeking an experienced quarterback to replace Y.A. Tittle, acquired Morrall from the Lions.
Morrall, 31, threw 22 touchdown passes as the Giants’ starter in 1965, but the next year he broke his wrist and was limited to seven starts. After the season, the Giants got Fran Tarkenton from the Minnesota Vikings and declared him the starter for 1967.
The Cardinals’ quarterback for 1967 was supposed to be Charley Johnson, who’d been their starter since 1962. His backup was Jim Hart, who spent his rookie season in 1966 on the sidelines until getting into the final game as a substitute.
In August 1967, the Cardinals’ plans got scrambled when Johnson, a reserve Army officer, received orders to report for military service.
With Johnson unavailable, the Cardinals were looking at Hart as their starter unless they could acquire a veteran quarterback before the Sept. 17 start of the season.
“If there’s anyone I’d like to have, it would be the Rams’ Bill Munson,” Cardinals head coach Charley Winner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Cardinals contacted the Rams, who decided to keep Munson as their backup to Roman Gabriel.
“Earl Morrall might be available,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
A matter of timing
The Giants needed a defensive lineman. With second-year pro Tom Kennedy groomed as a potential backup to Tarkenton, published reports indicated Morrall was available in exchange for a defensive tackle or end.
Harry Gilmer, the Steelers’ backfield coach when Morrall was their quarterback, was in his first year as Cardinals quarterback coach in 1967 and was thought to be advocating for Morrall.
“I thought they would try to trade for an experienced quarterback because I didn’t think they thought I was ready,” Hart told Sports Illustrated.
In the 1977 book, “The Jim Hart Story,” Hart said, “You can’t tell me the Cardinals didn’t try to go after another veteran quarterback. I’ve since learned they were willing to beg, borrow or steal somebody with experience.”
When the Giants didn’t play Morrall in exhibition games, speculation suggested he was being kept out to prevent the chance of an injury while trade talks were held.
One proposed deal was for the Cardinals to send defensive lineman Don Brumm to the Giants for Morrall, the New York Daily News reported.
“The way I understand it, I would have been sent to St. Louis earlier (in the exhibition season),” Morrall told The Sporting News, “but the Giants were reluctant doing it too soon because we were going to open the (regular) season against the Cardinals and they didn’t want me revealing too much information.”
The Giants’ stalling worked in their favor. In the Giants’ final exhibition game, against the Green Bay Packers, Kennedy fractured a collarbone and separated a shoulder. With Kennedy out for the season, the Giants needed to keep Morrall as backup to Tarkenton.
“Morrall believed he was pegged for a trade to St. Louis,” The Sporting News reported. “He says he heard the deal was practically made, but was called off when Kennedy (was) injured.”
In “The Jim Hart Story,” Cardinals defensive tackle Bob Rowe said the subject of who would start at quarterback dominated discussion among the players.
“One guy wanted to know if anybody had heard who they were going to get to replace Charley (Johnson),” Rowe recalled. “Somebody else said he was pretty sure they were going to go with Hart. Then everybody in the group said, ‘Oh my God!’ “
In the 1967 regular-season opener, the Giants beat the Cardinals, 37-20, at St. Louis. Tarkenton threw three touchdown passes and wasn’t intercepted. Hart had one scoring throw and was intercepted four times.
(In retirement, Morrall and Hart both resided in Naples, Fla., and became friends. In 2014, the Naples Daily News shed a different light on the 1967 trade talk. “According to Hart, the quarterbacks nearly were traded for one another,” the newspaper reported.)
Morrall spent the 1967 season as Tarkenton’s backup. In August 1968, the Colts’ No. 2 quarterback, Jim Ward, got hurt in an exhibition game. At the urging of Don Shula, who had become their head coach, the Colts acquired Morrall from the Giants to back up Johnny Unitas.
The minor transaction turned out to be a big deal for the Colts.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 7, 1968, Unitas severely injured his right elbow in the Colts’ final exhibition game. Morrall, 34, became the Colts’ starter and led them to a 13-1 record in the regular season. Morrall’s 26 touchdown passes were the most in the league and he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
The Colts advanced through the playoffs before losing to the New York Jets and their flashy quarterback, Joe Namath, in the Super Bowl.
Two years later, the Colts returned to the Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys. Unitas left the game after injuring his ribs. Morrall replaced him, helping the Colts to victory.
Don McCafferty was the Colts’ head coach then. Don Shula left after the 1969 season to become Miami Dolphins head coach.
The Colts placed Morrall on waivers before the 1972 season and the Dolphins signed him to back up Bob Griese.
Just like with the Colts in 1968, the timing was superb.
After winning their first four games, the 1972 Dolphins were playing the San Diego Chargers when Griese suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle. Morrall, 38, could feel the tension from his teammates as he entered the huddle. According to lineman Bob Kuechenberg, Morrall took a look at the worried faces staring back at him and said, “All right, anyone know any dirty jokes?”
The relaxed confidence of the unfazed old pro calmed the Dolphins. With Morrall the starter, they completed the regular season with a 14-0 record. He led them to a win in the first playoff game and started the second before Griese replaced him. Griese was the starter when the Dolphins capped their perfect season with a Super Bowl victory against the Washington Redskins.
Morrall played for the Dolphins until he was 42. At the invitation of University of Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger, Morrall later mentored Hurricanes quarterbacks Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde.