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BenFred: Bidwill comes through again for St. Louis football group

BenFred: Bidwill comes through again for St. Louis football group

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Cardinals Football

Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill and head coach Steve Wilks watch the team run drills during a voluntary team activity Tuesday at the Big Red's training facility in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo)

Michael Bidwill could have walked away.

The Arizona Cardinals team president had already saved the day once.

Some would have accepted their pats on the back and turned the page.

Bidwill was cheered here last year after he came to the rescue of the Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation. When the departure of the Los-Angeles-bound Rams left the St. Louis group without a key piece of funding for its annual high school football awards dinner, the son of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill cut a $10,000 check to make sure local kids got a chance to dress up nice and celebrate a job well done.

What a story it was, a Bidwill reestablishing his connection to St. Louis after Rams owner Stan Kroenke slithered west.

You first read this story last March in the pages of the Post-Dispatch.

In case you missed it then: The Rams were gone, no looking back. The Chiefs, despite their highly publicized attempts to capitalize on the St. Louis market, declined to recover the fundraising fumble. But the Cardinals, the team that pulled out of St. Louis when Bill Bidwill left for Phoenix in 1988, came through.

Bob Bunton will never forget Michael Bidwill’s three-word response.

“Send the invoice,” Bidwill told the executive director of the Tom Lombardo Chapter after Bunton mailed a letter to Arizona that was co-signed by former Cardinals Johnny Roland, Dan Dierdorf, Roger Wehrli and coach Jim Hanifan.

Bidwill’s charity earned him a Musial Award in November. He attended and received a standing ovation in a city still suffering from a pigskin-shaped sore spot.

It could have ended there.

To be honest, Bunton feared it would.

The worry that gripped him when the Rams departed stirred once again when he began planning for this year’s dinner.

“We would not have had the wherewithal to continue the top 25 program,” Bunton explained Wednesday afternoon after Mizzou football coach Barry Odom spoke to the chapter during a fundraising lunch at a local Italian restaurant.

“We fight to raise money,” Bunton said. “We do not have a big sponsor.”

He does have a partner.

Bunton told another story, the new one about Bidwill jumping back on board. He explained how he had started to wonder if his one-time hero might turn into something more. He had made a call out to Arizona. No answer.

Bunton left Bidwill a voicemail. Then he held his breath.

For nearly three decades, the Tom Lombardo Chapter has promoted and aided youth football. Its signature event is the awards dinner, which hands out scholarship money to college-bound student athletes. In addition, the dinner honors the top 25 high school players in the area, a talented crop of locals selected by an independent recruiting service. It’s a big deal for the kids. For some, it’s the first and last football award they receive.

If no one filled Bidwill’s shoes, the chapter would have to call an audible.

Football is in a tough spot. Especially in St. Louis. Participation rates are declining. Kroenke’s reptilian nature and the deceit his minions spread soured some of us on the sport. And then there are the elephants in the room. Concussions. We must discuss the safety of the sport.

But the benefits of the game, especially at the amateur level, should not be lost in this discussion. Football in the purest form forges lifelong bonds. It sees beyond race and socioeconomic status. It opens doors to college educations. It changes lives.

The Tom Lombardo Chapter exists to help. It scrapes to come up with $25,000 worth of scholarships for players who excel on the field and in their communities. Continuing that tradition in addition to recognizing the area’s top 25 players would have been impossible without some assistance. There would not have been enough money for plaques, let alone dinner for the recipients and their parents. Ten grand might not be much to NFL executives. It means the world to this bunch.

The chapter’s fretting over what to scale back ceased when Bunton’s phone rang recently.

Michael Bidwill was returning his call.

“So you don’t have to go through this every year, why don’t we put together a three-year contract?” Bidwill told Bunton.

Bidwill reminded Bunton of a conversation the two shared during the Musial Awards. It centered around another three-word sentence.

“I’m your partner,” Bidwill said then.

Easy to say. Meaningless without intent. Bidwill delivered. Again.

“This is a significant weight off our shoulders,” Bunton said.

When contacted by the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, the Cardinals confirmed Bidwill’s $30,000 agreement. A request to speak with him about it was politely declined. Bidwill does not want the attention. (Sorry, Michael.)

Because of Bidwill, the dinner will roll on. The scholarships and awards will be handed out May 6 at the Sheraton Westport Chalet Hotel. What used to be called the Golden Horn Elite 25, a nod to the Rams, has been renamed the Big Red Top 25.

Michael Bidwill didn’t just save the day. He saved four years. At least.

Bunton said he asked his partner one more question after he received the good news.

“Michael, can you picture Stan Kroenke calling me?”

Both men laughed at that thought.

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