The scoreboard told the somber story: Washington Redskins 28, St. Louis Cardinals 10. Cardinal coach Bud Wilkinson was leading his battered team back to the locker room when Washington lineman Dallas Hickman sped across the field and seized Wilkinson by the hand. "I said, 'It's an honor to meet you. God bless you. Hang in there,' " Hickman recalled later. "I'd never met the man, so I beelined it over there to be able to say I shook hands with a legend."

For Wilkinson, 62, being a "legend" is both honor and burden. The label had its beginnings 31 years ago when the soft-spoken Minnesota graduate became head football coach at the University of Oklahoma. During the next 17 years Wilkinson guided the Sooners to an unparalleled 145-29 won-lost record that included four perfect seasons, three national titles and 14 Big Eight championships.

At the height of his popularity in 1963 Wilkinson hung up his clipboard to run for the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma as a Republican. In the 1964 Goldwater debacle he lost by only 20,000 votes to Democrat Fred Harris, but later joined the Nixon White House as a presidential adviser. Though besieged by coaching offers, Bud eventually took a job as commentator on ABC's college football broadcasts and stayed 12 years.

Last March, however, Wilkinson stunned pro football by signing a four-year coaching contract with St. Louis for an estimated $100,000 per year. There was speculation that a costly divorce from his wife of 37 years—his childhood sweetheart and mother of his two grown sons—had forced his return to the sidelines after a 15-year absence. Cardinal players protested that their new coach had been gone too long from the fast-changing game, but he demurred. "I missed football," he says simply. "And I don't think there have been any changes that are the equivalent of the discovery of the theory of relativity or the atom bomb."

From the start of the season, however, the Cardinals seemed destined to be the doormats of the NFL. Even before Wilkinson's arrival, star running back Terry Metcalf and several other players had left in search of bigger contracts and better teams. With many of the remaining first-stringers injured, the Cardinals limped through eight straight defeats amid a swelling chorus of fan discontent. Wilkinson remained outwardly serene. "He's always got a smile on his face," noted one veteran player uneasily. "You've got to wonder about that smile."

Finally, two weeks ago, Wilkinson's enforced optimism turned to tears of relief when his beleaguered team beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 16-10, for its first win of the year. Afterward the players presented their coach with the game ball. "I have been in this league for 17 years, and I can tell you that other coaches would have quit on us," said kicker Jim Bakken. "But you stayed with us and gave us inspiration." Said Wilkinson: "This is probably the greatest thrill of my life."

For now, Cardinal fans seem willing to give Wilkinson a chance to prove himself in the pros (though they continue to beef about Cardinal owner Bill Bidwill). Wilkinson is building a new home in St. Louis for himself and his wife, Donna, 29, a former assistant secretary of state in Michigan whom he married two years ago. "It has never bothered me, that legend nonsense," the coach insists. "Tomorrow is when it happens; that's the bottom line. You can get some understanding and insight from the yesterdays, but you live in the future."