Humor, a martini and philanthropy: Cardinals remember Bill Bidwill
TEMPE, Ariz. — Bill Bidwill’s ownership of the Arizona Cardinals spanned generations of players.
He oversaw the team’s move from St. Louis to Arizona and watched as the Cardinals went from plucky loser at best during their time playing at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and watched them blossom into relevant NFL team after a move to Glendale.
On-field success hasn’t been consistent since the franchise’s move to Arizona, but those inside the organization who got to know the owner saw consistent themes. He tried his best at humor, wasn’t keen on standing in the spotlight and shined through his community efforts.
Bidwill died at the age of 88, the team announced Wednesday. He left five children, 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild to continue his legacy leading Arizona’s NFL team.
Here are past and present Arizona players on getting to know Bidwill, his quirks and his philanthropic work that helped shape the Cardinals and the community around them.
Meeting Bill Bidwill
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals wide receiver: “My first (memory) was actually the first day I ever met him here at the facility (in April 2004) … it was a lot going on the first day because Pat Tillman had passed away the day before so it was just a lot. I was getting up into the office, sitting there with him, with my dad and (Bidwill’s son) Michael in the office … he was telling us stories of some of the old time players and talking about Pat Tillman.
“I look over to my right, kind of like agreeing with what he’s saying, and my dad is fast asleep, like mouth wide open. And so me and Mr. B make eye contact … I knew I was going to get along with him from day one. He had a really dry sense of humor.”
Dan Dierdorf, six-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals (1971-1983): “When I was drafted in 1971 … It’s just the two of us (in Ann Arbor, Mich., having dinner) and we sit down and the waitress comes over and she says, ‘Would anyone like anything to drink?’ And Mr. Bidwill goes, ‘Well, I’ll have a martini.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll have one, too.’
“She brings these two martinis. Bill takes a pretty good slug of his and I go, alright, and I take a pretty good one of mine. I don’t know what color I turned or whether or not my eyeballs started rolling like a slot machine … Mr Bidwill, he looks at me and I looked at him, and he went, ‘First one?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
“To this day I’ve always been grateful for what he said next. He said, ‘You don’t have to drink it.'”
Adrian Wilson, five-time Pro Bowler, Cardinals safety (2001-2012) and current team director of pro scouting: “When I first came in in 2001, I remember the first time I actually had to go in and sign my contract, he looked at me and he said, ‘I’ve never had a third-round draft pick hold out on me.’ I said, ‘Mr. B, I didn’t hold out, I didn’t have an agent.’ I didn’t know at the time I needed an agent to sign a contract.”
A quiet sense of humor
Some thought it was not funny. Others called it “dry.” In any case, Bidwill, quiet as he was, was always ready for a good laugh.
Aeneas Williams, pro football Hall of Famer, Cardinals defensive back (1991-2000): “One of the ways that he connected, at least with me, was telling a joke or some type of thing that would cause you to actually laugh.”
Dierdorf: “The one thing I got to give him credit for is he didn’t recycle bad jokes. He, somehow, had a source that would supply him with fresh jokes. They were all horrible but he never repeated himself and I always appreciated that, because the only thing worse than listening to a bad joke is listening to them twice.”
Jake Plummer, one-time Pro Bowler, Cardinals quarterback (1997-2002) and Arizona State product: “Looking at the pictures on the web and all this stuff that’s floating out there now, the videos produced, I immediately started smiling thinking back to his just real dry sense of humor and his little smile on his face. He had that little — I don’t know what kind of grin you want to call it — I’d call it a (expletive)-eating grin, but he had that little bit of that wily little grin on his face.”
Fitzgerald: “I remember he used to wear this, like, fishing vest sometimes and it would have all these pockets. He would see me coming and he would start running from me because I would always run up to him … pat his pockets like, ‘Mr. B, it’s a contract year coming up. Where’s the money at, where’s the money?'”
Ron Wolfley, five-time Pro Bowler and Cardinals fullback (1985-1991): “Invariably, I would look down and I would just rock (to Metallica), just getting ready for (every game) … suddenly there’s the wing-tip shoes, right? These dress shoes. Beautiful, black leather dress shoes.
“I’d look up, Mr. B, there’d he be, holding his cup of coffee, he’d be looking at me over the top of his glasses, and when I looked up, he’d just grin at me. And I would say, ‘Hey, Mr. B,’ and he’d turn and he’d walk away and I’d see his shoulders go like this. He obviously was laughing.”
Bidwill’s love for football
Having been born just a year before his father, Charles, bought the Cardinals franchise in 1931, Bidwill witnessed quite the historical spectrum when it came to the sport of football.
Williams: “When I was told Mr. Bidwill and Larry (Wilson) went out there to measure (an NFL record 104-yard interception return for a touchdown that was initially ruled 103 yards), that just told you how important the game was to him.”
Plummer: “He was a walking historian when it came to the game of football and where it started and how it was built. Those were the moments really that we got to be involved with Mr. B is just around the facility and Friday lunch after practice … whoever would sit with him. It was kind of funny, a lot of guys were scared of him. But I’d always go down and sit down with him and same with Pat Tillman. Pat loved to talk to him.
“He really loved to engage and talk to his players. He wasn’t going to really reach out … but if you sat down with him, he loved it. Again, that little smile would pop up on his face.”
Wilson: “He would have to come kind of find me (before games) and tell me to be the S.O.B. I’m meant to be. That was really one of the things that he kind liked about me more than anything else was I was always myself. He always used to tell me continue to be who you are and everything else will fall in place.”
Fitzgerald: “Obviously I’m disappointed we couldn’t win (the Super Bowl XLIII) for him. When I think of him, I think of that moment and just how proud he was.”
Progressive, diverse hiring practices
Bidwill is credited with hiring the first African American woman executive, Adele Harris. He also hired Bob Wallace, the first African American contract negotiator, as well as the first tandem of black leaders in head coach Dennis Green and GM Rod Graves.
Fitzgerald: “Now you hear everybody talking about diversity and minority hires. It’s something that’s preached around Fortune 500 companies … back when he first started doing it, that was not the norm. He was a forward-thinking person and didn’t care about the color of your skin or the race of the gender.”
Williams: “Getting some of this understanding of the hiring practices — a lot of people can talk about diversity but this legacy of Mr. Bidwill’s, he actually has evidence of it. Those are the things that need to be brought out. When those decisions are made by a club, the one thing the NFL is good at, that’s taking best practices from a team and spreading it throughout the league.”
Wilson: “I hope people really look back on it and really understand the history behind it. With Mr. B actually being one of the first ones to do it, I don’t know if it’s a lot of people around the league that actually understands what that meant to him and really to ask those tough questions.
“When they hire people, people are here a very long time, and they believe in family.”
Dierdorf: “(My career) concluded with me walking in and telling him that I was going to retire at the end of the season because … my knees were so bad I couldn’t get through a practice anymore. I’m in his office and it’s just the two of us … he actually got tears in his eyes and he came over and he shook my hands and he said, ‘Thank you for 13 wonderful years.’ That’s what I’m thinking about today with a heavy heart.”
Helping the community around him
Wilson: “I think when you’re genuine, it’s easy for you to reach out and help others — when you’re not looking for a pat on the back or anything like that.”
Williams: “Success is obviously when we talk about the game of football, and there’s a scoreboard and there’s wins and losses. On the field, I had one winning season when I was there. The thing that I always understood … it was the philanthropic work that Mr. B would do and he would do it in such a way where there was no fanfare, there was no attention to him.”
Fitzgerald: “I pride myself on trying to get out and just be positive anywhere I can go, any organization, nonprofit. I can’t tell you how many times I would go around the city and people would be like, ‘You know, Mr. Bill Bidwill was here two weeks ago and he made a really nice donation to our foundation.’ I’m like, this is a reoccurring theme of different places I’m going to.
“I remember going down one time to the reservation, down south, and I remember him sitting there talking with a bunch of kids. I was like, ‘Man, Mr. B, he never talks to the players that much.’ He was really passionate about this community.”
Wolfley: “You know, my father, he always taught me it wasn’t what you did for a living, it’s what you are that mattered. Though Mr. B did not experience a great deal of success as an NFL owner, he experienced a ton of success as a man. He valued love and loyalty and life, and all of that came together to manifest itself in his giving — the way that he would give giving millions and millions of dollars and nobody knew what he was giving much of the time. I cannot tell you the respect that I have personally for that.”