Don Shula says hewould appreciate Larry Csonka even if Csonka weren't Hungarian. Csonka isunmoved by his filiation. He refers to his father, a former Akron movie-theaterbouncer who once spiraled a chap through a plate-glass door, and to Shula, hiscoach, as "those crazy Hungarians," as if he were somehow exempt. WhenEdwin Pope, the Miami columnist, was chided by Shula for slipping out of aDolphin press conference to talk to Csonka, Csonka commiserated with him in avoice just loud enough for Shula to hear: "Don't worry about it, Edwin, youheard one Honky, you heard 'em all."
By the same token,Shula says he would appreciate Jim Kiick even if Kiick were not loath toparticipate in Shula's tough practices. Kiick says he hates to practice.("He's putting you on," says Shula hopefully.) Kiick particularly hatesShula's annual 12-minute run. For days beforehand friends and relatives aresubjected to his discontent. Two days before this year's run, Kiick announced,"I'm going to tell him that if I wanted to run cross-country I would havegone out for it in high school." He told Shula exactly that, and then ranthe 12 minutes ("Another clutch performance by Kiick," an observernoted), bringing up the rear in lockstep with his faithful Hungarian companionCsonka. Shula said the two are so close they even get tired together.
Shula puts up withthese insubordinations because he knows some things about Kiick and Csonka (seecover). He knows, to begin with, that they have become the best pair of runningbacks in the NFL, both in accumulative effect—the Dolphins rush for more yards,with a higher average, than any other team—and in all-round intimidation. Theyrun, do Kiick and Csonka, not fancily but with overwhelming finality, like acave-in. If foot-pounds at impact were measurable in football, it could wellprove out that at 233 pounds Csonka hits harder than any back ever hit.Consider this: he once drew a personal foul while running with the ball, havingcome close to removing the head of a defensive back with his forearm.
Kiick is cuter("I like to run where there's holes: Larry likes to run where there'speople"), but no less resolute. They both block brilliantly. They catchpasses. Kiick on third down is as sure-handed as any receiver. And they playhurt, do not blow assignments and never fumble. Well, hardly ever. One fumbleapiece in 448 carries last year.
August 6, 1972
"Kiick andCsonka. You can't spell 'em and you can't stop 'em," says a rival coach, towhich Shula would add that you can't trade for 'em, either, because he laughsat those who try. Shula admits it: Kiick and Csonka have come to represent theidentity of his team. The successful football coach adapts to his talent, andmore than anything else the blood and thunder image of the Dolphins under Shulais an adaptation to Kiick and Csonka. The components necessarily include theteam's more spectacular players, Paul Warfield, the gifted wide receiver, andQuarterback Bob Griese, the AFC's leading passer, who shake things up, but theend product is ball control—80-yard drives consuming nine or 10 minutes at atime—and the image of that is Kiick and Csonka.
"Heavyheads," the Buffalo coach called them after the two had rushed for morethan 100 yards apiece in a game last year. They were to repeat the pleasure amonth later against the Jets. "Throwbacks," Shula calls them. They aretwo manifestly uncomplicated football players who love the game for the simplethings it can do to a man. Dirty his shirt. Bloody his chin. Satisfy hisinhibitions. Relieve his tensions. Says Csonka, "It gives a man greatsatisfaction to do something people are trying to stop him from doing. Youdon't get ulcers playing football."
Shula does not"send" Kiick and Csonka to play, he "turns them loose." He doesnot take them out of a game, he calls them off. Kiick sulks when Shula spellshim. "It's my way," Kiick says. "Larry is more likely to saysomething. 'Let me back in, coach.' I never say anything. I sulk." AliceKiick says her husband's sulks are very outspoken.
Shula has afavorite scene, one he considers typical of the pair, although it involves onlyCsonka. It was captured for posterity in the highlight film of thepreposterously successful 1971 Dolphins, who did not quit kiicking and csonkinguntil they were in the Super Bowl, where they were stopped at last by theDallas Cowboys. The scene shows Larry Csonka arriving in the end zone. "Theimage of manhood," Shula says. Csonka's mustache is dripping mud. His faceand uniform are slathered with it. His helmet is twisted grotesquely on hishead. His expression is impassive: the stoic marine atop Suribachi, vaguelyaware that the battle must have been won but certain that the war is not over.In the final frame, Csonka turns and nonchalantly flips the ball over hisshoulder. "A picture I love," says Shula.
There are otherpictures, not all recorded or authenticated, but still parts of the growingsaga of Kiick and Csonka, or "Butch" and "The Kid" as they arecalled by their worshipful fans. The president of a woman's club in Washingtonstrode into the Redskins' office to buy 5,000 tickets to an exhibition game theother day, and when asked which one she wanted to see, replied, "I want tosee Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!" The association with the movieheroes, though tiresome, has been profitable. At least 2,000 posters of them inWestern costume were sold in the offseason and a TV film has been made of theirexploits, featuring them on horseback, riding into the sunset at the close ofanother tough day on the trail (actually hotel row on Miami Beach).
But that ismake-believe. The true-life adventures are more revealing. The time, forexample, when Kiick was seen biting the arm of a New York Jet. Why did you dothat, Jim? he was asked. "Because he was twisting my leg." Did you bitehim hard? "Hard enough to make him stop twisting my leg." Or the timethe two drove 20 hours straight to deliver a new car to Csonka's dad in Ohio.They had just returned from defeat at the hands of Oakland in the 1970divisional playoffs, and all the way from Miami to Ohio they talked of footballand of retribution, and how they must allow nothing to stop them in 1971 shortof a broken limb or a concussion, and they got so excited over the prospectthat Kiick nearly demolished the dashboard with his fists.
Kiick-Csonkaepisodes proliferate like hangers in a closet. In the ones involving Csonka adescription of his nose is usually included. It has been "laid on the sideof his cheek" (one side or the other) nine times. When he was a farm boy inOhio, it was kicked out of line by a steer. In a high school wrestling match,it led the way to the mat under an opponent Csonka had draped around his neck,only to lose control of. Last season he got up from a nose-to-elbow collisionwith a Buffalo Bill, streaming blood. Gauging the flow to be unfatal, hereturned to the huddle. As he leaned over, the blood dripped audibly on theshoes of Marv Fleming, the Miami tight end. Csonka said Fleming's eyes gotwider and wider. His face turned, well, white. Fleming ordinarily is black."So I leaned the other way to bleed on Kiick," said Csonka. "Heloves it. It makes him think he's been in a game."
Dr. HerbertVirgin, the Dolphin team physician, has found Csonka to be "an extremelystubborn individual." In return for his advice Dr. Virgin has learned toexpect such rejoinders as "I'll get over it" (broken nose, sprainedknee, etc.) or "I ain't going to the hospital, and that's final." In1968 Csonka suffered a concussion in a collision with a Bengal linebacker. Forweeks afterward he suffered severe headaches. His career was thought to be injeopardy. A neurosurgeon suggested he reevaluate his occupation. Knockedunconscious again in a game at Miami, Csonka came to on the sidelines to findDr. Virgin hovering over him and a photographer standing on his hand. He toldthe photographer to get the hell off. Dr. Virgin called for a stretcher and anambulance. Csonka got to his feet. "I'm not going to be carried off infront of all those people," he said. "I'm going out the way I came inor I'm not going." Dr. Virgin threw up his hands and followed Csonka to thedressing room.
Csonka wore aspecial helmet after that, with liquid and air compartments to absorb shock,but he eventually discarded it. The headaches went away. "I had absolutelyno doubt I'd be all right," says Csonka. He now runs with greaterintelligence, using his head more by learning how to use it less, and he wearshis old helmet in a fashion peculiarly his own: the suspension shifted so thatit sits forward and down over his head. Willie Lanier, the Kansas Citylinebacker, tells Csonka it looks as though his helmet's empty. "All I cansee is your mustache," he says. "Good," says Csonka. "I'd justas soon you didn't know which hole I'm looking at."
As is often thecase with conspicuously physical people, the wreckage on Csonka's face and thatwhich he causes does not in any real sense expose his true character. It is, infact, a contradiction to it. It is true, for example, that Csonka was an avidhunter, but he can no longer bring himself to kill. He speaks, rather, of themajesty of the moose he has seen in the wilds of Canada and of the cunning ofthe beavers who built a dam he fell off of last winter.
Csonka actively,vigorously objects to the notion that a brutish football player is necessarilya brute. Last year he was critical of President Nixon for putting himself intothe pro football picture, but Csonka says his message was lost intranslation.
"I have nohassle with Mr. Nixon," he says. "Who am I to knock a fan? What Iobject to is that when it comes from him, from the President, it's as if he hassanctioned all of football, that football is just naturally wonderful foreveryone. Parents start pushing a kid toward the game without realizing thedangers in it. You see it in these Little Leagues. Poor equipment, poorcoaching. Some 25-year-old frustrated jock making kids run 8,000 laps. Andgassers! A kid gets his nose broke, and the coach yells at him and calls him acoward and shames him. Hey, kids listen to adults, especially if he is a coach.They start to believe. Maybe a kid believes he can't compete, that he is acoward. If a kid's not ready to hit or be hit, he shouldn't have to."
Csonka explains,in part, his close friendship with Kiick as being a matter of relaxing in eachother's company. "No competition for attention," he says. One rainynight before a game in Boston they retired to their room to relax withnoncompetitive but expensive bottles of bourbon. The game the next day wasplayed on a field barely visible under a sheet of water, and on oneparticularly untidy run Kiick slid 30 feet in the clutches of a Patriottackler. He almost drowned, says Csonka. He came back to the huddle lookinglike a section of the field. Just as signals were called Csonka said,"Don't swallow, Kiick, or you'll spoil all that good bourbon."
Dolphin TrainerBob Lundy says Kiick and Csonka make him look good because he never has toreport them hors de combat, and he no longer worries whether they have a highor low threshold of pain because he doubts they feel pain at all. Kiick onceplayed with a broken toe, a broken finger, a hip pointer and a badly bruisedelbow. Lundy put a cast on the elbow, and during the game kept asking Kiick howit felt. "Fine, fine," said Kiick. Afterward Lundy unwrapped the elbowto find it swollen twice its normal size, and knew it had to be extremelypainful. He asked Kiick how he stood it. "Hell. I'm paid to play," saidKiick.
Last March, in abasketball game at a Miami high school, Kiick fractured his left ankle. Whilehe was at it, the doctor X-rayed both ankles and found the right one had beenbroken, too, at an earlier time, and was actually in worse shape than the left."No kidding?" said Kiick incredulously. A couple of weeks later he woreout the bottom of his cast playing basketball.
Medical recordsand love of football aside, for two men who appear to be so much alike, JimKiick and Larry Csonka are nothing alike.
James ForrestKiick is a Jersey dude who went to the University of Wyoming because his gradesweren't good enough to get him in school back East. His mother Alice objects tohis candor on the subject; a delightfully prepossessing gray-haired woman, aswell as a first-grade teacher in Lincoln Park, N.J., she wishes Kiick would saythat only Wyoming had the sense to recognize his ability.
At Laramie, Kiickwas both a star and an iconoclast. His teammates called him Nicky Newark. Hewore pointed shoes, Italian knit shirts, fluorescent pants. "All my clotheswere monogrammed, even my underwear. I always liked wild clothes. Shirts withgirls' pictures on them. I'm also a shoe freak. In high school my mother wouldsend me down to get a pair of pants and a shirt, and I'd come back with fourpairs of shoes."
If Wyoming neversaw anything like Kiick, Kiick never expected anything like Wyoming."Flying in, I couldn't believe it. Hundreds of miles of nothing. If I'dgone out there to visit first, I'd never have gone back. The fans were great,and we had good teams, but nobody back East knew we were playing except when wewent to the Sugar Bowl in 1967. My mother used to complain to The New YorkTimes about its coverage of our games. A line score on Monday mornings. I hadto call her at two a.m. after a Saturday night game to give her theplay-by-play."
Kiick's life as aWyoming undergraduate was not encumbered by serious study. Pushed into phys edcourses that bored him, he would, of a morning, start for class and make it asfar as the pool table in the student center, where he financed his dates andphone bills. Except for the love of Alice, who played hard to get, a tacticthat baffled him ("I thought, 'How can she turn me down?' "), Kiick wasnot won by the West. He rode a horse for three hours, and was cured of thedesire for a lifetime. When the team went to New York to play Army, all theplayers wore cowboy hats. Except Kiick. He held his under his arm. "I wasafraid some of the guys from Jersey might see me. When I signed with theDolphins I was written up as a 'cowboy from Wyoming.' They all laughed at thatone. I was a pool shark from Jersey."
In Lincoln Park,says Kiick. "We have the oldest kids in the world. Thirty-five. 40-year-oldkids who have found a way to do nothing in life. Just hang around, play somebasketball, drink some beer, relax. That's the way I'll be. I have theopportunity now to do it in the off-season. I don't have to preplan my day. Ido what I want. I can play basketball for hours, even by myself. Maybe go sitin a bar and relax. I'd like to have my own bar. I'd like to be able to walk inand say, 'Buy that guy a drink.'
"Alice doesn'tgo for those ideas much. She wants something permanent. She'd like me to have ajob in the off-season. Nine to five. Get me out of the house. I look around toplease her. I go out and shoot baskets, and maybe have a few beers, and comeback and tell her, 'Nothing today, honey.' I guess you'd call thatirresponsible. That's how my mother describes me."
Kiick'sPennsylvania Dutch father George played two years for the Pittsburgh Steelersin the 1940s, but did not push Jim into athletics. Mother Alice did that. WhileGeorge reminded him of his errors, Alice threw the football to him and led thecheers. He was good at everything—football, basketball, baseball—but he wastold he had a bad attitude. "I've always been what you might calllackadaisical. It makes for a bad appearance. For example, I hate exercise. Ihate sit-ups. Larry thrives on hard work. Raised on a farm, up at 5:30, milkingcows, getting the work done. I was lazy. Or looked lazy. Shula yells at me forthe way I do exercises. I just like to loosen up. I don't worry much aboutform. I don't knock myself out on the unnecessary stuff. Why run back to thehuddle? Conserve your energy. Pick your spots. Pete Rose draws a walk and hesprints to first base. Why? It'll wait.
"I was betterin basketball than football. I always wanted to be 6'5" [he is 5'11"].If I was 6'5" I'd be playing basketball now instead of football. And I wasbetter at baseball than anything. The coach and I didn't see eye to eye. Hebought me a new glove. Mine was old and floppy, but it had character. A nicepocket. This new $40 glove was beautiful, but it was flat and hard. I wouldn'twear it. We argued. One game I forgot my hat. He made me sit in the bus thewhole game."
Unlike Csonka,Kiick is a natural athlete. Put a golf club in his hands, says Shula, and he'dprobably break par. The finer points of a game, however, do not fascinate himas they do Csonka. "I'm not a student of anything," says Kiick. "Istopped growing mentally at 17. I know absolutely nothing about football. Idon't know how to read a defense. I'm always afraid they'll quiz me onsomething I'm supposed to know."
Success would seemto have left Jim Kiick totally unspoiled. Only the wrapping has changed: toLevi's and tie-dyed shirts, hair that hangs around his ears and a mustache. Thenew shoe styles delight him. He now wears clogs and red and white string-upswith two-inch heels, and is "tall at last." He also has gone along withthe fashion for "different" names ("Jim gets old after awhile") by calling his firstborn, now 16 months old, Brandon. "I'lltell you a name I used to like," he says. "There was a shot-putternamed Dallas Long. Remember him? I used to think that was a great name.Dallas."
He pauses,reflecting on the irony. "The letdown came after the Super Bowl," hesays. "Not on the next day, but later. Dallas wasn't that much better, butfootball is momentum. We lost it in the first quarter when we fumbled and theyscored, and we never got it back. The letdown came when you realized how muchit took to get there. How many things had to be right, or went wrong, thatallowed us to get there. Luck. Injuries. More luck. How many times is JanStenerud going to miss a 24-yard field goal [as he did in The Longest Game atKansas City]? So those things work for you, and when you get there, you've gotto get the job done, because you might not get back there for a while."
Jim Kiickbelieves, as a friend once told him, that "you are fortunate in life if youhave one or two good friends." He found Larry Csonka at the CollegeAll-Star camp in Evanston, Ill. in 1968. Kiick was a fifth-round draft choiceof the Dolphins, appreciated mainly by his mother. Csonka was a consensusAll-America from Syracuse, the Dolphins' No. 1 pick with a $100,000 bonus.Csonka was to be, in that All-Star Game, the Most Valuable Player. Kiick nevergot in the game. Norm Van Brocklin, the All-Star coach, said he was too fat,too slow and had a bad attitude. "I did, too," says Kiick, "when Irealized he could say all that without ever having seen me play." Csonkaobviously saw things in Kiick that Van Brocklin didn't. He introduced Kiick toMiami sportswriters as "a guy you better get to know. Maybe you never heardof him, but he's going to be a hell of a player."
Thrown together asroommates then, they have been roommates by choice ever since. "Two thingscan happen in a case like that," says Csonka. "Either you communicateand get along or you wind up hating each other. If you don't get along, it'spretty obvious. Show me the game films of a team and I'll tell you whether therunning backs get along. When Jim and I run a sweep I can sense exactly whathe's going to do, how he'll react to the defensive end or the cornerback. Wedon't have anything in common except friendship, but that makes itwork."
Kiick was awed byCsonka. "He was huge," he says. "I was embarrassed to be aroundhim. He was taller. He was stronger. I measured my thighs and thought, boy, 28inches. His were bigger. We kidded him every time he ran a pass pattern:'Lineman down field!' We were nothing alike, but we hit it off. Larry likes tofish. I hate the outdoors. But I could enjoy it with him. I like to playbasketball or shoot pool. He doesn't give a damn, but he'll comewatch."
Lawrence RichardCsonka was raised on an 18-acre farm in Stow, Ohio. His father Joseph worked atGoodyear in Akron besides doing a little bouncing on the side. Larry remembersthat his father made him hoe beans "until I wanted to hit him with thehoe," and as punishment kneel on corncobs, and that he and his brotherslept in a rough board attic where it was so cold "I could watch my breathgo the length of the room. I had a runny nose the first 10 years of mylife.
"I hated thatfarm until I was old enough to know better," he says. "Now I think howrewarding it was—growing things, having animals. Hey, there was a creek andabout 20 dogs running around, and we chased woodchucks and climbed trees to getbaby crows for pets. Think how ironic it is. My dad didn't have much money, andhere I am with two boys [Doug, 5, and Paul, 3] who are rich kids by comparison,and I'm trying to get enough to afford to give them the life my dad gaveme."
TheCsonkas—uncles, cousins and so forth—were known around Stow as a physicalbunch. "If my father liked you, he hit you on the arm." If he didn'tlike you, he was also liable to hit you. "He was always in greatshape," says Larry. "He's 53 now, and he's still got a 34-inch waist.And can hit you quicker than you can think about it."
Larry weighed 150when he was 12, and by the time he was a high school junior, he had tried everyposition, including quarterback. "There was something about throwing theball. I didn't want to turn it loose." His high school games in Stow werememorable as much for the fights in the stands as they were for the play on thefield.
Csonka's wife Pamwas his high school sweetheart and joined him at Syracuse his junior year. Theyear before, Coach Ben Schwartzwalder had converted him from fullback to middlelinebacker. "Biggest mistake I ever made," said Schwartzwalder. Csonkawas converted back to fullback. "Smartest move I ever made," saidSchwartzwalder. A Syracuse tackle named Gary Bugenhagen had told Csonka that heshould strengthen his forearms by banging them into things. Csonka was enviousof the size of Bugenhagen's forearms. That summer Schwartzwalder got a callfrom Mr. Csonka. He said to please get Larry out of his house because he was"knocking down the walls."
"Actually," says Csonka, "it was only one wall, and it was comingdown anyway. I used to leave a couple hundred pounds of weights on my bed. Mymother would raise hell. She couldn't lift them off to make the bed."
Csonka broke allthe Syracuse rushing records, surpassing the feats of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis,Jim Nance and Floyd Little. "I'm not really in their class," he says."I just carried the ball more." When he broke the last of Little'srecords, they stopped play to give him the ball. Csonka flipped it to thesidelines. "I didn't know what they were doing," he says. "Ithought it was defective or something."
Rookie camp withthe Dolphins was a special hell for Csonka. George Wilson was the Miami coachthen, and he was a traditionalist who believed that rookies were made tosuffer. Csonka was the biggest target. He suffered most. The veterans calledhim "the Lawnmower" for his peculiar lock-kneed, low-to-the-groundrunning style. They not only made him sing his school song, they made him singevery school song. They sent him out for sandwiches at two in the morning. Theydid not get him drunk one night, as is the custom, but took him out and tankedhim up 10 nights in a row. "One time they had us drink a gallon of whitelightning," Csonka says. "Kiick sat there, motionless. Sometimes hedoes that, just sits there, so I wasn't concerned. He looked sober. Then hesaid, 'We gotta go.' We made it back to the room, and he was sicker than I'veever seen a man. The next day we had to run the ropes, and we got tangled sobad you wouldn't believe it."
It was, harassmentnotwithstanding, a foregone conclusion that Csonka would be Miami's regularfullback from the beginning. Kiick soon joined him, by default. Injuries—apinched nerve in the neck of Jack Harper, appendicitis for StanMitchell—eliminated the competition. "I had a no-cut contract," saysKiick. "They had to try me."
The rest, ofcourse, is history, or getting there. As his head cleared and the games rolledby, Csonka became easier to spell (" 'C as in Carl, S as in Sam'...I'veheard him tell it to the operator 100 times," says Kiick) and tougher todefense. Last year he went over 1,000 yards, and Shula, having recognized anastonishing thing—Csonka is fast enough to run outside—has given him morelatitude. Weak-side sweeps, quick pitches. ("I always wanted to run outsidejust to prove I could," says Csonka.) The advantage he has out there, saysShula, is that "even if he's not as fast as some backs, he's bigger."(Pause) "Bigger than most backs." (Pause) "Bigger than allbacks." And Kiick, of course, continues to get his 1,000-yards-plus rushingand receiving and to remind people of such alltime all-purpose backs as PaulHornung and Tom Matte. Shula says nobody makes the third-down play—the toughtwo yards, the clutch reception—more consistently than Kiick.
The Kiick-Csonkadimension grows. Their affairs are now handled by Mark McCormack (ArnoldPalmer, Rod Laver, Jackie Stewart), and that means endorsements. Last year theyeven held out on their contracts together.
It is very easy tobe with these two. One need only watch them limp into the training room onMonday morning. "It's a pitiful sight," says a regular. "Able towalk, but barely. Dr. Virgin comes in and just shakes his head."
Csonka, theSundance Kid, takes up the oral banner for the two on this most tender ofsubjects. "No matter what your style, you have to take a beating," hesays. "If you're small and quick, it might catch up to you all at once, orif you're like me you might prefer to get it in regular doses, but sooner orlater the bill collector comes.
"It's all inthe game. I'm no masochist, but I wouldn't want it any other way. I want to bephysically involved. I don't want to be in a game where all you've done isthrow the ball and don't feel a thing on Monday. Maybe it's a way of lettingoff steam, I don't know, but afterwards Kiick and I can relax better thananybody. We can relax at a party till five a.m., just sitting in a corner,Kiick with that look on his face, not saying anything. But hey, I like people.I present the image of being a brute, of knuckles dragging. I've had peoplehesitate to come up to me because they weren't sure what I'd do. I hate that.They don't know me.
"I love thegame, that's all. I bitch, but I love the whole thing, the total experience.Mind and body. And the result is right thereat the end. Running backs figure tolast four to six years. The lucky ones last eight or 10. I'd like to go 15. Andthe only thing that troubles me is that I won't be able to playforever."
It is barelycoincidental, perhaps, but worthwhile telling anyway, if only for the fun ofit: Pam Csonka was out on the tennis court when little Paul Csonka came cryingfor attention over a slightly bloody mouth. Pam took a quick look and said,"Just dab it with something," since she was busy. "In thisfamily," she says, "you learn to live with pain."