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Sports Then and Now

Remembering Larry Wilson – Creator of the Safety Blitz

Posted on September 19, 2020 by Dean Hybl

The NFL lost a pioneering innovator this week with the passing of Hall of Fame defensive back Larry Wilson at the age of 82.

Though only 6-foot-0, 180 pounds, Wilson developed into one of the most feared defenders of his era as the first safety to regularly rush the quarterback in a play that became known as the safety blitz.

A two-way starter at the University of Utah, Wilson was selected by the Chicago Cardinals in the seventh round of the 1960 draft (which was conducted in November 1959). The team moved to St. Louis prior to the 1960 season and Wilson soon became a defensive pioneer.

St. Louis Defensive Coordinator Chuck Drulis had developed a new defensive play that called for the free safety to be part of rushing the quarterback on certain plays. However, before the arrival of Wilson, he didn’t have a player with the toughness and speed needed to pull it off.

Despite his size, Wilson had the speed and toughness needed to make it work and soon became a defensive fixture for the Cardinals. Because offenses were not expecting a defensive back to be part of the pass rush, he often had a clear line to the quarterback. The play revolutionized how defenses rushed the quarterback as it is now common for the pass rush to come from any defensive player from anywhere along the line.

Wilson was first selected to the Pro Bowl in 1962 and was a first-team All-Pro for five straight seasons from 1966-1970.

Known for his grit on the field, in 1965 Wilson played with casts on both hands due to broken fingers. Despite the casts, he intercepted a pass and returned it 34 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1966, Wilson intercepted a pass in seven straight games and finished with a league-leading 10 interceptions while being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Though Wilson was the leader of a St. Louis team that included a number of All-Pros and future Hall of Famers, they posted only five winning seasons during his career and he never played in a Playoff Game.

He retired after the 1972 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1978. Wilson was selected to the NFL 75th Anniversary and 100th Anniversary team and was ranked as the 100th greatest player in NFL history in the Sports Then and Now Top 100 rankings in 2019.

After his playing career, Wilson spent nearly three decades in the front office for the Cardinals in a number of roles, including scouting director, general manager, interim head coach and vice president.

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