Before he played 14 years of professional football, before his name was enshrined with the greats of the game and his number 23 jersey was retired by his alma mater, Roger Wehrli was a small-town high school football player.
Playing in a town of 1,000 people seemed to offer less than promising chances for football stardom. Wehrli expected his short-lived football career to be eclipsed by basketball, his favorite sport, in college.
But a chance recruitment by MU led Wehrli to a football career that culminated with his election last summer to the National Football League Hall of Fame. Wehrli played for the St. Louis Cardinals for more than a decade.
It’s been nearly 40 years since he last suited up as a Tiger, but Wehrli will be returning this year to be Grand Marshal of the Homecoming Parade. Although it’s not the first time this Mizzou legend will return for a game, he says the atmosphere of Mizzou football is beginning to feel like it did in his heyday.
“The student body when I was there was just amazing,” Wehrli said. “When I was there the whole campus came and filled up the one side of the stadium, and I think it’s getting better.”
Wehrli first curried interest with MU football coaches after a starring performance at a track meet in Columbia caught their attention. The high school senior was surprised when assistant coach Clay Cooper offered him the last scholarship and a chance to play defensive back for the Tigers.
“I can’t say that it was a dream come true that I play because I hadn’t really dreamed about it,” Wehrli said. “I had been to a couple of football games at the University of Missouri and it was exciting to have that scholarship and get the chance to play there.”
In 1966, Wehrli started his freshman year at MU as an education major and began playing for the “powerhouse” Tigers coached by Dan Devine. In the seasons that followed, Wehrli would set Tiger records that still stand: most career punt returns, 92; most punt returns in a season, 40; most return yardage in a single game, 156; in a single season, 478; and in a career, 1,062.
Aside from making interceptions and returning punts, Wehrli was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and he was inducted into the Mystical Seven Honor Society. Aspirations for professional football didn’t come in to play until the summer before his senior year when letters began arriving from NFL teams.
Wehrli was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the NFL draft in 1969. He played 14 years as a cornerback, retiring in 1982. In 2003 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the St. Louis Ram’s Ring of Fame.
In August, Wehrli was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame after 20 years of eligibility.
“(The NFL Hall of Fame) has just been something that really I thought probably wouldn’t happen because I had been out of football so long,” he said. “To have it happen this year and be able to go through the whole thing has really been a wonderful experience.”