Mon, 06 Feb 2023

Folktales: Lassiter's Legacy

Arizona Cardinals
07 Dec 2022, 04:03 GMT+10

The second season of Folktales continues this week, with "Lassiter's Legacy" premiering on the Arizona Cardinals YouTube channel Wednesday at 7 p.m.

The NFL record for most interceptions in a game is four, a mark held by 13 players.

But only once did someone make four interceptions in a game that propelled his team to the playoffs for the first time in forever, by a guy who clawed his way into the NFL and never let anyone forget it.

That's who Kwamie Lassiter was.

"Kwamie was not shy about letting you know, 'Hey, I'm here,' " said Hall of Fame cornerback and Lassiter teammate Aeneas Williams. " 'I'm going to be here, and I have contributed to everything that's happening good here.' "

That Lassiter was the hero was somehow fitting for that time and that team, a one-time undrafted free agent who battled his way on to the roster of then-coach Buddy Ryan. The Cardinals needed to win their final three games in 1998 to make the playoffs for the first time since moving to Arizona; the "Cardiac Cards" won each time on a field goal in the final seconds, the team an underdog all season - just like Lassiter.

The safety had gone to community college before landing at Kansas. He found a place with the Cardinals, although even in 1998 he didn't start until the final month of the season. In a secondary with Williams and rookie Pat Tillman and Corey Chavous, among others, Lassiter's personality and leadership was as big as any.

The celebration after Chris Jacke's field goal gave the Cardinals a 16-13 heart-stopping win on the final play of the regular season was rightfully about finally reaching the postseason. But Lassiter's quartet of picks were a big reason they got there.

"For a DB to get two interceptions, that's special, right?" said Frank Sanders, a wide receiver on that team. "But three? All right, now God's on your side. Four? Jesus is in your pocket."

Said Williams, "I wasn't surprised of Kwamie rising up to that moment and having a game of a lifetime."

Sanders first met Lassiter at the Blue-Grey college all-star game in 1995. Sanders was an expected high draft pick - the Cardinals took him in the second round a couple of months later - and Lassiter previewed their eventual relationship while the players were out for "evening festivities," as Sanders called it.

Sanders had been playing well in practice, and with the game in Alabama, the Auburn product was seen as a host for players from around the country.

"You're supposed to be the man," Lassiter told Sanders. "You need to be poppin' bottles."

Sanders smiles at the memory, noting that Lassiter convinced him to indeed use his name to ensure a good time in the club.

"To watch his plight and his steps ... you always have to get much love and much respect to it because you just don't know how it's going to happen," Sanders said.

Lassiter was brash, but no one called him cocky. He was a fighter who graduated from being just a jersey number for coach Buddy Ryan to a key component to the secondary a couple of years later. He wore the No. 42 in honor of his idol Ronnie Lott (and never would've given it up, which is why Tillman ended up wearing 40 with the Cardinals after wearing 42 at Arizona State.)

"He would come and sit next to me as a rookie and say, 'Hey, Bankston, you better know me before I blow up,' " said defensive end Michael Bankston, who played with Lassiter for three seasons.

Eventually, Lassiter did. In his last four seasons with the Cardinals, he started every game. He had nine interceptions in 2001, tied with Williams' 1994 season for most picks in a year since the team moved to Arizona.

He played well enough to earn the franchise tag after that season - Lassiter wasn't thrilled about that, wanting a long-term deal instead - and became a mentor to Adrian Wilson, who was drafted in 2001.

But in 1998 he was still battling for his role, starting half the games while the Cardinals - at 6-7 with three games left - were fighting for their season.

They beat the Eagles, 20-17, in Philadelphia in overtime, with Chris Jacke booting a 32-yard field goal to win it after missing a 34-yarder that would have won it with six seconds left in regulation. They came home to Sun Devil Stadium beat the Saints, 19-17, on a 36-yard Jacke field goal on the final play after a 73-yard drive from their own 8-yard line.

There was no reason to think the finale against the Chargers would be different.

"We got the name 'Cardiac Cards,' because we just kept coming back and getting wins," Sanders said. "You had a chance to get into the playoffs, and if you want those last three games, you had to do something pretty special."

Something special, like making four interceptions in a game.

"We knew internally what it was we were capable of doing," Williams said. "(Kwamie) would say these things in practice. We'd be sitting on the sideline when the offense is doing defensive scout team, and he would be prophesying so to speak. 'I'll intercept three balls.' He probably said in practice he was going to intercept four passes in the game."

Ryan Leaf was on the Chargers roster in 1998, but the quarterback that day was the legendary Craig Whelihan - and only wide receiver Ryan Thelwell (five receptions) caught more Whelihan throws that day than Lassiter.

The first pick Lassiter perfectly read on a pass over the middle, short-circuiting a potential Chargers scoring drive (Lassiter grabbed the ball at the Arizona 23-yard line) and setting up a Cardinals drive that ended with a Jacke field goal and a 10-0 lead.

The second interception came over-the-shoulder on a Whelihan Hail Mary to end the first half. The third pick was also over-the-shoulder, Lassiter perfectly running with tight end Mikhael Ricks down the sideline at the Cardinals 12. That too set up a Jacke field goal try, although this one sailed wide.

The fourth interception should've sealed a win, with the Cardinals nursing a 13-6 lead. Whelihan took a deep shot to Thelwell, who had to reach low to try and pull in the bomb. He couldn't handle it, and reacted as if he assumed it was a drop. Instead, Lassiter, trailing right behind, had the ball pop right into his hands.

"By the time it got to the fourth one I think my head was exploding and I was just like, 'What in the world just happened?' " said Lassiter's wife, Ericka, who was in the stands that afternoon.

The Cardinals drove the field, ready for Jacke to kick the game-sealing field goal - except he missed again, wide.

That proved killer, as Whelihan found Thelwell for a 30-yard touchdown - on fourth-and-20, no less - to tie the game with 16 seconds left. The Cardinals were again going to need overtime to win a game and finally reach the playoffs.

Except they didn't.

"We just want to keep everybody on their toes," defensive end Andre Wadsworth said after the game. "We want to keep it until the last second because if we would've stopped them, people would've started leaving. We had to keep them in the stands."

Eric Metcalf picked up the squib kickoff and raced 46 yards to the San Diego 44 with seven seconds left.

Then Sanders was up.

"It's, 'Hey Frank, you gotta run a 12-yard hook, turn around, get down and hit the ground.' " Sanders said. "Then you run off the field and see what happens, right? I hate kickers, but I love you Chris Jacke."

Sanders surpassed 100 yards receiving in the game by grabbing a 10-yard pass from Jake Plummer in the middle of the field and dropping to the ground. Timeout, and Jacke was up yet again.

This time, from 52 yards, Jacke was true, and the crowd of 71,670 erupted.

"I did my job. He did his job," Sanders said. "And then boom, here are the fans carrying the goalposts off and everybody down the field and we're hugging and crying and it's a good moment."

Ericka Lassiter and her family were swept up in the emotion of the moment - "We wanted to jump down there too," she said - and later, before the Lassiter family convened their normal postgame meal at the P.F. Chang's on the corner of Mill a couple of blocks from Sun Devil Stadium, she called in to the Cardinals' radio postgame show, screaming her excitement like any other fan.

Her husband was a bit more lowkey postgame. Asked if he was in the zone, Lassiter deadpanned as only he could that he'd have been in a zone only if he had made a fifth interception.

Mostly, he understood his career accomplishment, while great, played a supporting role to the Cardinals' magical playoff run.

"I don't follow that history stuff too much," he said in the game's aftermath. "Today, the Cardinals made the playoffs."

Adrian Wilson was a rookie in 2001, Lassiter by then an established veteran starter playing alongside Tillman. Wilson was the raw rookie who would eventually be tabbed to replace Tillman in the lineup. But when he first arrived, he too had to learn what it was like to work with a personality like Kwamie Lassiter.

"I didn't sign my contract right away and I came in late," Wilson said. "Kwamie looked at me and said, 'What took you so long?' I'm like, 'Who is this dude talking to me like this?' We ended up becoming great friends."

In 2002, when Wilson and Lassiter were starting together at safety, Wilson had three interceptions in a home game against the Cowboys. Lassiter was happy for his young teammate, but "also really trying for me not to get the fourth interception on a Hail Mary at the end."

That Wilson hadn't tied Lassiter's big performance, "it was always a conversation," Wilson said.

The Cardinals ended up getting to play the Cowboys in the 1998 playoffs, upsetting their then-division rivals in Dallas the following week.

"The four interceptions didn't really hit me until today," Kwamie Lassiter said a few days after the Chargers game. ''I'm thinking about guys like Larry (Centers) and Aeneas finally getting to go to the playoffs. That's what made those four interceptions special -- that I was a part of that.''

Lassiter left as a free agent after the 2002 season, but the Lassiters made their home in Arizona, raising their kids while creating the Kwamie Lassiter Foundation, set up to raise awareness for Sickle Cell Anemia and otherwise help children with life challenges.

Lassiter suffered a heart attack while working out in January, 2019, passing away at the age of 49.

"A lot of people shared stories about Kwamie at the memorial service that I had no clue about, like he secretly helped, he secretly gave, he was secretly there to motivate the younger generation," Ericka Lassiter said. "It really just speaks to the person that he was."

And that, ultimately, was what Kwamie Lassiter's legacy was, a person who developed such strong bonds with so many of his Cardinals teammates that many still call and check in on Ericka and her children, that still take part in the Foundation's golf tournament, that still can't wait to talk about Kwamie when asked.

"If something tragic like that happens to you, you want to make sure you're leaving a lasting legacy in terms of the type of person you were and not so much, you know, how much money you made or how many Pro Bowls you made," Wilson said. "It's about the type of person that you are."

"He was one that believes in himself," Sanders added. "You've got to be a believer in yourself, you've got to believe that you deserve where you are supposed to be."

On that late December day at Sun Devil Stadium, Lassiter was where he was supposed to be - four different times.

"He wasn't really wanting to talk about football at home too much," Ericka Lassiter said. "But if people were over and they all get to talking and we were all having a good time, he would talk more about (the four interceptions).

"He loved being the superstar, and that was his game. But all games were kind of his games, if you let him tell it."

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