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Almost 40 years later, Cardinals' pick of kicker in first round still baffles

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The moment Jim Hanifan heard who the then-St. Louis Cardinals drafted in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft, he dropped to the floor.

He wasn't down there in celebration. He was in disbelief.

Five years after the Oakland Raiders became the first team in the common era to draft a kicker or punter in the first round, the Cardinals selected Steve Little out of Arkansas with the 15th overall pick. Four decades later, it stands out as one of the franchise's oddest first-round picks in a history full of them.

It's been almost 40 years since the Cardinals took Little. Time, however, hasn't softened the sentiments that former Cardinals coaches and players had about his first-round selection while the team passed on a player -- any player -- who could've contributed in a full-time role.

"We had lots of needs," offensive line coach Rudy Feldman said. "There were a lot of spots we could've addressed."

There was also a bit of resentment because when Little was selected, Feldman and others felt the Cardinals had a lot of needs elsewhere -- on defense in particular.

Hanifan, who cut Little in 1980 after pitting him against Neil O'Donoghue in a competition in front of the whole team, was never given an explanation as to why the Cardinals drafted Little.

Little died in 1999 -- 19 years after he was paralyzed in a car accident the night the Cardinals cut him. He remains just one of four kickers/punters to be selected in the first round since 1967.

"I thought it was ridiculous," said Hanifan, who was the Cardinals' defensive line coach in 1978 and went on to be their head coach from 1980 to 1985. "We already had a damn good kicker in Jim Bakken. Why did we do this?"

Hanifan's reaction was a common one when Little was drafted.

Quarterback Jim Hart's thought: "Um ... why?"

Feldman said "it was probably a surprise."

Kevin Byrne, who was the Cardinals' director of publicity at the time, remembered some coaches being "not totally pleased."

At the time, the Cardinals' coaching staff and the scouting department were strictly divorced from each other. Owner Bill Bidwill believed in a separation of "church and state," recalled Byrne, who's now the senior vice president of public and community relations for the Baltimore Ravens. The Cardinals' philosophy then was that the team would provide the players and the coaches would coach them. Even today, Byrne doesn't remember the communication between the coaching staff and director of player personnel George Boone being good.

Hart, who had been the team's quarterback for 12 years by then, laughed off the idea that he was consulted on the pick.

"The draft choices were really strange back then," Hart said. "It was like, 'Who? Why?' To this day, we don't know who was in charge of picking those people."

So when Little was drafted, a sense of surprise and dismay wafted throughout the organization. That was mainly because the Cardinals already had a kicker in Bakken, a 16-year veteran at the time who was named to the All-1960s first team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the All-1970s second team. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All Pro who led the NFL in points scored in 1967 and field goals made in 1964 and 1967. He was also popular in the locker room.

Bakken had completed his 16th NFL season in 1977 making 7 of 16 attempts, both career lows. Hanifan remembered that Bud Wilkinson, the Cardinals head coach who drafted Little, was "gaga" over the kicker, who left Arkansas as a two-time All-American and shares the record for the longest field goal made in NCAA history at 67 yards.

Little had the resume and the fanfare -- as well as the attitude -- worthy of being a first-round pick.

One reason why Hart and Feldman believe the Cardinals made the pick was because Wilkinson wanted to save a roster spot by drafting a kicker who could also punt. When he arrived in St. Louis, Little was walking the walk, but not for long.

"He had a strong leg," Hart said. "He could kick it a ton.

"Coming out [of] Arkansas he was the BMOC [Big Man on Campus]. But he didn't fill the No. 1 shoes, that's for sure. He could do it in practice. Jeez, he could kick it 60 yards in practice without any trouble. Get in the game and it was ... kind of a toss-up."

Hanifan said that after a while, Little looked like "just another kid" in the NFL. Feldman remembered special teams coach Jerry Thompson remarking that Little had a "very small shoe size."

It didn't take long, Hart said, for teammates to get frustrated with Little.

"Not very long," Hart said. "Steve was not like the rest of us. He wanted to be, and he tried to fit in, but not that quickly. I'm saying that's the way we players thought: You're the [team's] No. 1 draft choice -- prove it, and then we'll welcome you into the fold.

"He had difficulty with that."