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Decades In The Making: How The Arizona Cardinals Have Finally Arrived

Larry Fitzgerald
(Photo by Jeffrey Beall - CC BY 3.0)
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald

Nearly three decades after making the desert their home, the Cardinals may have finally arrived in Arizona.

This Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals face off against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

But First, An NFL History Lesson

The Rams' recent decision to move back to Los Angeles has its roots here in Arizona.

Back in 1987, ESPN broadcast Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill's decision to move his franchise from St. Louis to the Valley of the Sun.

“We made the decision to move to Phoenix, and we’re not going to explain why,” Bidwill said.

But everyone knew the reason why: attendance.

The team averaged only 28,000 fans in their final season in St. Louis before becoming the Phoenix Cardinals the following season.

The void in the Midwest would be filled in 1994 when the Rams abandoned Southern California for Missouri, only to return a little more than a decade later.

Also that year, the Cardinals adopted the more inclusive first name of Arizona, and they’ve now been in Phoenix as long as the old team was in St. Louis.

Longtime Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin says it’s taken that long for the Cards to find a fan base and an identity in the Valley.

"I think the big thing was the stadium gave it a new identity, a new respect, new income. That changed things a lot," she said, pointing out you don't see many of the visiting teams' fans when you go to a Cardinals game these days.

Location, Location, Location

The Cardinals moved from the Arizona State University campus in Tempe to their own state-of-the-art football palace in 2006, and after a couple of rough seasons, have thrived here.

They’ve sold out every game since moving to Glendale, making it to the Super Bowl in 2009, and have now acquired multiple generations of fans who’ve watched some of the most memorable games in franchise history.

"It's partly the NFL, it's also a group of fans who are growing up watching this team win. Players that have an identity, someone they can connect with — the Larry Fitzgeralds of the world," Boivin said. "All those things have added to their relationship with this community."

And that relationship was only strengthened this past Saturday night when the Cardinals beat the Green Bay Packers at home in what was easily one of the wildest games in NFL history.     

NBC sportscaster Al Michaels declared it "insane" as the 32-year-old veteran wide receiver Fitzgerald managed to journey 80 yards during overtime to score a touchdown and finish off the Packers 26-20.

"It was a great game, hard fought. Going back and forth. It's a playoff atmosphere, that's what you're looking for," Fitzgerald said after the game.

The Makings Of An Arizona Football Legend

Boivin said Arizona now has its own Larry Legend in Larry Fitzgerald.

"He's reinvented himself and for him to be the key figure in this last victory is pretty remarkable," she said. "Just because the team feeds off him when he succeeds and the fans love him because there's such a humility to him."

The community of football fans in the Valley has also embraced Carson Palmer, the introverted and soft-spoken quarterback in the midst of a similar career revival.

“I'm very private as you guys know, and you guys talk about a lot. We've been so well received in this city and this state, and the fans have been so great and gracious and welcoming,” he said.

The 36-year-old Palmer won his first ever playoff game Saturday.

Looking Ahead

This Sunday’s NFC title game matchup is easily the former college Heisman Trophy winner’s biggest as a pro.

While Palmer has never been this far before, his teammates and coaches that have are teaching him how to act like he’s been here before.

"I've gone through it mentally as much as you can," Palmer said of his strategy.

And Bruce Arians, trying to make the big game as a head coach for the first time, he said the routine remains the same.

"This feels like any other game really," Arians said. "It's exciting but as far as the week of preparation, nothing ever changes."

But that routine will certainly change if the Arizona Cardinals win again and make their second-ever Super Bowl trip — with a chance at their first championship in two weeks.

Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.