By David Fleming
Page 2

If there are any Arizona Cardinals fans still out there, I know exactly what you're thinking right about now: We're 0-3 in a season where most prognosticators had us going deep into the playoffs. We're spiraling toward our 14th double-digit losing season in the last 20 years. Our quarterback shredded his groin on a play where he wasn't even touched. We have a toothless defense, a coo-coo coach who tried to explain away the situation by saying, heck, we're only one game behind the clubs that are 1-2, and a star wideout who admitted "you can't go any lower than this."

Geez, are we cursed or what?

Actually, uh, yeah.

The decrepit stadium, the gawd-awful new unis, the 30-year drought in division titles, Emmitt Smith, Buddy Ryan, Denny Crane, I mean, Green -- there's a reason for all of this, albeit supernatural. But the simple truth is, the Arizona Cardinals are cursed. Now, I'm not talking about some cute little double-secret pinky hex about some Babe or a goat, like in Boston or Chicago where teams have been -- boo-hoo -- shut out of world championships. Oh no, I'm talking about an ugly, nasty hex that has been simmering for 80 years and, apparently, growing stronger by the day.

I first came across a possible Cards Curse in February while working on a story about the 1925 Pottsville Maroons for the post-Super Bowl issue of The Mag.

I know a little something about sports curses. (I'm a Tigers fan, after all.) And I dropped a Flem File Curse on the Redskins in 2003 when they cut our beloved mascot, tight end Zeron Flemister, and, well, look what's happened since. So I backed off on pronouncing this Arizona thing a full-blown sports curse, knowing the 2005 season would be the true test of its power.

Pottsville Maroons
Time has certainly forgotten the Maroons, but not the Cardinals.

Arizona had a coach who had been to the playoffs eight times in Minnesota, a new QB (a two-time MVP no less), a new stadium under construction, new unis, new playmakers and a new enthusiasm that had created something heretofore unheard of in the desert: optimism. People were actually using Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence (and not as the punch line.)

But now there can be no doubt, right? There's no rational, football-type X's and O's explanation for what continues to happen to this team. No franchise could be this bad and this unlucky for this long by accident. Other forces have to be at work.

Yes indeed, a Cards Curse... is alive.

And, as most things of this nature tend to be, it's a tad complicated. So please, bear with me as I try to explain.

First, a little backstory.

OK, before they were the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Cardinals or St. Louis Cardinals, this team was the Chicago Cardinals. In December 1925, led by Hall of Fame QB Paddy Driscoll, the Chicago Cardinals (9-1-1) invited the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons (9-2) to Comiskey Park to play for what was being billed in newspapers around the country as the NFL championship. (The league did not have an official title game until 1932.)

The outcome of the game won't exactly freak modern-day Cards fans. "As far as the Chicago Cardinals are concerned, Pottsville is the champion of the league," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "In the face of a driving attack by the Eastern eleven, the Cardinals curled up and were smeared in the snow on the gridiron at Comiskey Park yesterday, 21 to 7."

After winning the de facto NFL title, the Pottsville Maroons agreed to play the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in a game at Philly's Shibe Park that some historians consider the first-ever pro versus college all-star game. In a shocking upset, the neophyte Maroons beat Notre Dame 9-7 on a last-second field goal. At the time, college football was king and the NFL was widely dismissed as barbaric and disorganized. That is, until the Maroons' victory over Knute Rockne's boys helped legitimize and popularize the fledgling NFL.

But because the game was being played in the "territory" of another NFL team, commish Joe Carr warned Pottsville three times not to play the game. When the Maroons ignored him (barnstorming for big gate receipts was simply a way of life back then), Carr fined them $500 and suspended them from the league, essentially robbing them of the NFL title they won on the field in Chicago.

The league later voted to give the title to the Chicago Cardinals, but owner Chris O'Brien refused to accept the bogus crown and the 1925 NFL championship was never formally awarded. The Maroons -- one of the most dominant, influential and controversial teams in NFL history -- never recovered from the controversy. The town and the players lost interest, and three years later the team moved to Boston before folding for good.

For the last 80 years, however, the tiny little hamlet of Pottsville has been playing David to the NFL's Goliath, desperately trying to get its title back. The folks there truly believe Pottsville could have become the Green Bay of the East had it not been for the stolen championship. And although they've been supported by, among others, Red Grange, George Halas, Jeffrey Lurie and Dan Rooney, as well as the formidable Pottsville Maroons Memorial Committee, one of the few minor concessions the NFL has ever made is a small tribute to the team as part of its 100 Years of Football exhibit. It's at the top of the Hall's rotunda, and the centerpiece is a football carved from a single piece of shiny black anthracite coal and etched with the following words: "Pottsville Maroons, NFL and World Champions, 1925."

Now, here's where the Cards and their Curse come in.

As the millennium ended, that black ball appeared to be the only prize Pottsville would ever receive. Then, at the NFL owners meeting in Philadelphia in May 2003 came a sign that pressure over time might finally transform the city's lump of coal into a Lombardi Trophy. As Rooney, Lurie, Pottsville mayor John Reiley and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell waited to plead the Maroons' case to the NFL, they came up with a remarkably simple compromise that received Paul Tagliabue's blessing: Let the Maroons and the Cardinals share the title.

As Reiley remembers, "The commissioner turned to me and said, 'Mayor, when we get this championship for you, the four of us are coming to Pottsville to present it to you personally.' I thought for sure it was finally over."

The giant wood doors to the conference room swung open. Once again, after nearly eight decades, all that stood between the Maroons and their rightful NFL crown was the Cardinals.

Pottsville Maroons
Take a closer look Cardinal fans, because Charlie Berry's cleat is the closest you're getting to a trophy for a while.

This time, though, it wasn't a fair fight. The Cards have won only one other NFL championship, in 1947, and both Reiley and Rooney believe that drought has caused owner Bill Bidwill to tighten his grip on the 1925 title. Although his franchise is something of a laughingstock, the 74-year-old Bidwill remains a power broker in the league's old-boys network. The Cardinals have been in the family since 1932 when his father, Charles Bidwill, became owner. (Little Bill was a ball boy for the team for several years.) And as a member of the three-man committee appointed to look into the controversy, Bidwill used his influence to squash the Maroons.

When the owners gathered again in October 2003, they voted 30-2 against even discussing the issue. Bidwill has twice declined an interview request to discuss the Cardinals' role in the Maroons' saga. But Reiley, for one, believes Bidwill is fully aware of what he's done to Pottsville. "It's not all that hard to argue against someone who's not there to tell their side," says Rooney. "It's not right."

And just like that, the Cards Curse was born.

Maybe it was the mayor of Pottsville who did it. A quaint little hill town that has seen better days, Pottsville was crushed beyond words. (City leaders had hoped to celebrate their new NFL crown in conjunction with the town's centennial next summer.) Or maybe it was Nick Barbetta, the elderly chairman of the Maroons Memorial Committee who has, literally, spent his entire life trying to get the Maroons' NFL championship back. Or maybe it was the spirit of Maroons running back Tony Latone, aka "The Human Howitzer" and the NFL's unofficial leading rusher of the 1920s, or Charlie Berry, the team captain who kicked the winning field goal against Notre Dame. The bronzed cleat from that kick still sits in a glass case in downtown Pottsville.

Whoever it was, let me tell you, they dropped a doozy of a curse on the Cards.

Since then the impossible has happened -- the team has actually gotten worse. Arizona has lost 25 of its last 35 games. For crying out loud, Bengals fans have begun to feel sorry for people in Phoenix.

It was all supposed to change in 2005, of course. But in three weeks the Cards have gone from division faves to virtually eliminated from playoff contention. (Since 1990 only three of the 75 teams that started 0-3 were able to bounce back to make the postseason.) The offensive line is a mess. The team's No. 1 pick has a strained knee. The defense has already given up seven rushing TDs. Warner looks rattled. Josh McCown looks worse. And now a team that's 1-20 on the road has volunteered to play the 49ers in Mexico City?

"The whole thing isn't working," Green confessed recently.

Well, that's not entirely true.

The Cards Curse seems to be working better than ever.

David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall of 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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