They are our national treasure. Nothing less. That was underlined again last Sunday night when NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth framed the Philadelphia Eagles winning their opening stretch of games this season like so:
“It’s not like it’s time to talk about the ‘72 Dolphins,’ he said.
The implication was more than everyone across America knows the 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only undefeated team in NFL history. It was how they’re a part of the national sports vocabulary, too, as their 50th anniversary is celebrated Sunday night at Hard Rock Stadium.
The mere mention of the ‘72 team defines the idea of perfection, of a team sitting on a resolute mountain that shouldn’t be bothered by a challenger with a trifling six wins to start a season, such as the Eagles.
And they’re ours.
They’re still all ours after all these years.
If single-name athletes are unusual in sports — Babe, Ali, Michael, Serena — singular teams that define something just in the mentioning are even less frequent. There’s the 1927 New York Yankees and baseball greatness. The Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics and modern fame. The 1919 Black Sox define corruption. The Miracle on Ice team at Lake Placid in 1980 are the patron saints of underdogs.
The 1972 Dolphins define perfection.
“It wasn’t the stars, it wasn’t the coaches, it wasn’t the trainers — it was all of us, everyone, a team,’ Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka said.
It is so easy now, a half-century after their season, living in an age of instant classics and tomorrow’s technology, to dismiss the grainy videos of that 1972 season or, worse, to consider reunions like Sunday as tiresome rituals from yesteryear.
We should treasure this time. We should cherish this team for perhaps the final time.
“This is probably our last time being together as a group,’ Hall of Fame guard Larry Little said.
Seventeen players and all seven coaches, including Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, have died. That will lead to some quiet moments of noticing the empty chairs at their meetings this weekend, even while remembering their success.
Theirs is a football story, but it’s not just football. It’s a story of failure, as their motivation as redeeming themselves from a Super Bowl loss the previous year. It’s a story of perseverance, as every offensive lineman — two of whom reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame — was given up on by another team before landing with the Dolphins.
This team was assembled in a changing America, when Shula roomed Blacks with whites for the first time upon arriving to the Dolphins in 1970. That meant a Black kid raised in rural Florida like Maulty Moore, who had never been around many white people, became lifelong friends with a white kid from rural Iowa like Vern Den Herder, who had never been around many Black people.
They played when sports operated on the human scale, too. Players didn’t make much more money than the fans watching them. The $23,000 in playoff bonuses that season more than doubled salaries for roughly half the team. That included coaches, too, as offensive coordinator Howard Schnellenberger used that extra money to pull himself out of debt for the first time in his life.
Most of all, of course, the Boys of ‘72 are a story about winning in such a unique way they’re still winning today. For years, they were criticized for celebrating their success too hard, for glaring from the sideline in 1985 as the Dolphins beat the previously 12-0 Chicago Bears, or for toasting champagne when the final undefeated team lost in a season, as neighbors Nick Buoniconti and Dick Anderson did starting in 1991.
It was just the champagne on ice, not their lives. Look at their successes after football. Buoniconti became CEO of two Fortune 500 companies before co-founding the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis when his son, Marc, was paralyzed playing football. Anderson started a string of successful companies, some of which he still operates, while becoming a state senator and community leader.
Doug Swift took his medical school exam the day before a Dolphins game in New England and retired early to become a doctor. Bob Griese became the lead analyst of college football, when he wasn’t running an insurance company. Howard Twilley owned 29 Athlete’s Foot stores in his native Oklahoma. Csonka had an outdoors show on ESPN for two decades.
Go down that roster, and keep going, and you’ll find success stories right to Shula, who became the winningest coach in NFL history.
“He was so obsessed, we thought he was on drugs,’ Csonka said.
Football and nostalgia don’t often go hand-in-hand, in part because of what you see too much looking back. Mangled bodies. Damaged minds. That’s part of this team’s story, too. Reserve quarterback Jim Del Gaizo left the locker room before each game because he got queasy seeing so many pain-killing shots administered to players.
Bill Stanfill took so much cortisone his hips had to be replaced in his 50s, and his fused neck meant he couldn’t do simple things, like tipping back to drink the last half of a soda. He was one of seven players from the 1972 team diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma that can only be detected posthumously.
So there is pain here, life-long pain, though even that became a marker for this team’s special quality as time moved on. Shula, in a wheelchair, still met Griese regularly for lunch, $5 bets and updates on children and grandchildren at Gulfstream Park in his final years. Mercury Morris drove an hour every few weeks to the assisted living facility in Broward where Jim Kiick spent his final years, just to be a good teammate to him.
Each funeral of the 1972 Dolphins, starting with the first one for tackle Wayne Moore in 1989, was met with a swell of support. Tim Foley, the former defensive back, delivered Moore’s eulogy in South Miami. A quarter-century later after defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger’s funeral, players retired to a bar in rural Kentucky to tell stories about him. Some were of his strategic genius. Some were how his clothes often didn’t match.
During that 1972 season, New York Jets running back John Riggins said that Miami team “plays more like a college team than any pro team I’ve seen. I’ve never seen a pro team with so much togetherness, so much desire.”
Fifty years later, that togetherness remains, even as their bodies ache and too many of their friends are missing. New York doesn’t get to welcome the ‘27 Yankees. On Sunday, probably for the last time, we get to celebrate our national treasure, the ‘72 Dolphins.