It could have ended for Bob Kuechenberg 13 years ago when two NFL teams cut him and he wound up playing for the Chicago Owls of the Continental League for beer and pretzel money. It could have ended after Dallas' 24-3 win over Miami in the 1972 Super Bowl when he was a young, second-year left guard for the Dolphins and the Cowboys' Bob Lilly ate him up, and people wondered when Don Shula would get some help for his offensive line. It could have ended as it did for his older brother, Rudy, who'd been a journeyman linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
"Rudy'd been out of football for a while when he came to Miami looking for a job in the early '70s," says George Young, in those days Shula's pro personnel man and now the Giants' general manager. "He was wearing an old pair of Levi's. He'd played only three years, but he looked like he'd played 10. Shula said, 'Maybe we can use him for busting wedges.' I said, 'Busting wedges? Are you crazy? The wedges'll bust him.' "
It could have ended like that for Bob Kuechenberg, but instead it will end on the patio of a $3.5 million mansion on Miami Beach's Star Island, Florida's closest thing to a feudal principality, with Kuechenberg sipping a drink, looking across Biscayne Bay at the lights winking on the Venetian Causeway and saying, "Yep, it's been quite a career."
Not that it's over yet. Far from it. The Dolphins are 4-1 and heading for the playoffs again, and the 6'2", 255-pound Kuechenberg remains a dominant force at left guard. And Shula won't be quick to forget the 13 years Kuechenberg has given him, in four of which he made All-Pro, and the years he sacrificed an All-Pro shot by playing out of position at left tackle. Nor will Shula forget the way Kuechenberg came back and played after breaking two vertebrae in '77, or the way he neutralized the Vikings' Alan Page in the '74 Super Bowl five weeks after a pin had been inserted to hold together a broken bone in his left forearm. "If you like football, you've got to like Kooch," Shula says. "If there was ever a Bronko Nagurski type, a guy who'd look right playing without a helmet, it's Bob Kuechenberg. He's a throwback."
December 13, 1982
Which is what they say about every lineman who has lasted this long in the NFL. In truth, Kuechenberg is a special throwback—way back to the days when men went at each other with mace and ax. And if one of them lasted 13 years, he'd be called in by the baron, who would look at his warrior's battered features and say, "Well, Sir Robert, you've served me well and shattered a lot of helmets, and so I've picked out this nice little parcel of land for you..."
And Sir Robert would have it made. And so does Kuechenberg, except that nobody handed him anything. His mansion is the result of trading upward, starting with a $55,000 house in 1976. Buy a house no one wants, get it in shape, make it beautiful, sell it and buy another. "My wife, Marilyn, is the genius," Kuechenberg says. "We've renovated 12 homes in seven years, nine of which we moved in to and out of. We've been living ankle deep in sawdust for seven long, tough years."
In 1979 the Kuechenbergs were living in Coconut Grove, a section of Miami. "I wanted to see what $1 million houses looked like," Marilyn says, "so I spent a few days sniffing around. There was one on Star Island. It was owned by Don King. Next to it was this one. The land value was very good—three and a half acres—but the house was falling apart. It was termite infested; bums were living in it; it had had two fires. But three and a half acres on Biscayne Bay were too good to pass up. And you could tell that at one time the house itself must have really been something. So we wound up buying it."
Star Island was built in the early 1920s out of earth pumped from the bottom of Biscayne Bay and is connected to the MacArthur Causeway by a private bridge and a very well-guarded gate. The Kuechenbergs' house is at the far end, the most desirable end. It was once the site of the Miami Beach Yacht Club. In 1924, Colonel Ned Green, son of Hetty Green, "the wealthiest woman in America," as the newspapers liked to call her, bought the property and the lot next to it, and the address 46 Star Island became famous. Colonel Ned, born Edward Howland Robinson Green in 1868, was a 6'4", 300-pound giant with an artificial leg made of cork and a taste for ribald living. Deep within him were memories of a bleak Vermont childhood, of newspapers stuffed under his clothing to keep out the cold, of a mother so miserly that she wouldn't seek the medical treatment that could have saved his leg, although she was already amassing a fortune estimated at close to $150 million by the turn of the century. Ned never had any problem about spending money, especially not on the building of 46 Star Island, which took two years.
Arthur H. Lewis, in his book about the Green family, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree, describes 46 Star Island as a "cheerful sunlit mansion, only a few yards from the bright blue waters of Biscayne Bay. The architecture was glistening white Spanish mission, and the house was surrounded by a magnificent garden dotted with hundreds of royal palms. Wide windows and French doors on every side looked out on myriads of perpetually flowering tropical plants.
"There was a large central living room, two stories in height. To the east was a wing that contained a room used for showing moving pictures. To the rear of the projector was a vault containing the Colonel's library of pornographic films, which experts considered the world's choicest.
"Four balconies opened off the second-floor rooms in the east wing. Every bedroom had its own sitting room and bath. Several of the baths were especially designed by the Colonel himself, according to James A. Dixon, one of Florida's most distinguished lawyers, who represented the Green interests in that state.
" 'Each throne,' explained Dixon, 'was mounted on a pedestal about eight inches over the floor. Thus, unless the user was well over six feet tall, he would be extremely uncomfortable, with his legs dangling in midair.' "
The oversize toilets are gone now. The porno-film viewing room has been turned into a bar and den; the vault where the films were kept is now a wine closet. Ned's 12 tiny "special rooms" off the main hallway have been converted into a dayroom.
"When Green moved in he brought his wife, Mabel, and a staff of close to 100," Kuechenberg says. "Mabel had been a Chicago hooker; she'd been Ned's mistress for 24 years, and then, when his mother died, he married her. The little rooms were for Ned's protégées, a special staff of two dozen young women, all 18 to 25 and good-looking. Those rooms were a kind of bordello.
"The things that must have gone on here—the parties he must have thrown! There's an old guy who remembers Ned. He was his milkman. He says one year during the Depression, Ned threw a St. Patrick's Day party and he spent thousands of dollars on flowers alone. There was a tower of flowers in front.
"You know, it's funny. One day we were outside and a neighbor of ours was taking some people for a spin in his motorboat. They were talking over the engines, and I heard someone say, 'Jeez, who owns that place?' My neighbor said, 'Bob Kuechenberg of the Dolphins,' and the other guy said, 'Football players make that much money?' My neighbor said, 'Oh, he married a rich wife.' "
Not rich, but awfully talented. Marilyn Nix, Kuechenberg's second wife, is an actress who has played bit parts in Equity Showcase theaters and done a lot of commercials and TV work around L.A. They met in a restaurant called Busch's, north of Delray Beach, Fla. in 1975. He was wearing a T shirt. William Bendix? Marlon Brando? She said her second love was set designing, interior decorating. He was no dope. He had a B.A. in economics from Notre Dame and real-estate licenses in California and Florida, and he saw a future in fixing up houses and selling them. See that, we have something in common after all.
In 1976 they began the giddy house-to-house spiral that would end up at 46 Star Island. "When we bought this house," Kuechenberg says, "a guy two doors down who was a builder said, 'Bulldoze it. The place is too far gone. It's not do-able.' We didn't listen. We've been working for three years, and it's still not completely finished. Every wall had to be ripped out and the studs replaced. The termites even ate the oak floors. The ceiling—all that inlay work—it took eight months with six men working on it. Each little square had to be supported by copper wire and copper toggle bolts.
"There had been half a dozen owners since Colonel Ned died in 1936. The guy who really tried to ruin it was the one who put up shiny foil wallpaper with hot-pink flowers, junk like that."
The Kuechenbergs renovated everything. For two years they had their own artist, a student from Pratt Institute in New York, painting murals for the balcony overlooking the living room, which is on the scale of a grand ballroom. They laid 12,000 square feet of tile on the patio and around the swimming pool.
"We hand-carried each tile from Tijuana," Kuechenberg says. "They cost 25¢ there, $2.25 here."
Furniture was collected from 100 different flea markets and auctions: a dozen French dining-room chairs from the Jacobean era, a bedroom set inscribed VIENNA 1805, that sort of thing. Four trips around the world have produced a stunning array—rugs from Bombay; parasols from Bali and Jakarta; ceremonial gowns from Japan, spreading across walls like giant, exotic flowers. And on the living-room balcony is the showpiece, a dazzlingly ornate wooden horse from Tibet. "We bought it in a little shop on the western slopes of the Himalayas," Kuechenberg says. "It's 300 years old. A guy said, 'Come to my warehouse, I'll show you something.' The warehouse was in this little alleyway...."
"With little rat toenails scampering across your sandaled foot," says Marilyn.
"It's physical work, hard physical labor, transporting these things," Bob says. "You go hunting for stuff in Bombay during the monsoon season. Well, it's not like going to the Marriott or Hilton. You put on your oldest clothes...."
In an auction in Atlanta the Kuechenbergs found a bathtub that had once belonged to J.C. Penney. "It wound up in a marine salvage store," Kuechenberg says. "The owner would rent it out for parties. People would put champagne in it." In a garage in West Virginia they found two magnificent old bars. In the den is stained glass from Wallace Beery's house in Hollywood. "I think he still stalks within these walls," Bob says. "There are all these unexplained noises at night."
A year and a half ago the Kuechenbergs stepped back and took a long hard look at things. They were knocking themselves out. For what? There were 35 workmen constantly underfoot, and Marilyn was pregnant. Then, in July 1981, she lost the baby. Little voices started: Sell it...sell it...go back to living like human beings again.
"We put it on the market," Marilyn says, "and the day that the house found out we were selling it, some strange things began to happen. A tree fell across the courtyard, and both knobs on the front door fell off."
"In the off-season we got away to the South Seas for a vacation," Bob says. "We hadn't been able to see the forest for the trees. Hey, we said, the work's almost done, let's enjoy it. So we took it off the market. This is where we stay."
August 1982. The Dolphins have just won an exhibition game that evening. The players' strike is still a rumor. A soft breeze has come up, and the Kuechenbergs, who have a new daughter—their first child, Alexandra—and some friends are sitting on the patio.
"There's a great book to be written, but nobody's ever done it," Bob says. "Butkus. Dick Butkus. Why was he who he was? If only someone could get into his brain. He weighed 245, he didn't have great speed, he wasn't a 500-pound bench presser, but he ate up people who ran 4.6s and bench-pressed 500. What made him so frantically wild? I always thought about getting hold of people like Butkus and Ray Nitschke and Jim Brown, the alltime greats, the people who seemed like they came from another planet, not only in sports but in contemporary life. I'd like to find out what separates them from everyone else. I'd like to sit down with some of these people and, well, maybe I'd find a key, something I could use myself."
"Well, what made you what you are?" someone asks. Shula has always said that in evaluating the great offensive linemen, Kuechenberg would have to be right in there.
"I don't know," Kuechenberg says. "Hunger, pride, fear, fear of getting humiliated, of failing. The usual things."
"Never reach out," says Marilyn, and Bob smiles because this is the trigger phrase for a family legend.
"It's something my father once told me," he says. "Pound-for-pound the toughest man I ever knew. He'd been a professional fighter, won 27 out of 30 fights, and a rodeo man. He was from Iowa, and he was raised in Melbourne, Fla. By the time I was born, he was working in the steel mills in Indiana. But when he was still in Florida he got a job as the human cannonball in the circus. He got shot out of the cannon once a day, twice on Saturday, day off on Sunday. They'd shoot him over a couple of rides, into a net.
"I asked him about it, and he said that when you come out of the cannon you're unconscious. Then at the apex of your flight you gather your senses and your instinct is to reach out and try to get to the net quicker. That's where it's important to know what you're supposed to do. The trick is to stay relaxed, to never reach out, because you could land wrong in the net and break something.
"Well, one night my Uncle Al subbed for my dad. On his maiden voyage he missed the net completely and landed in the top seat of the Ferris wheel. The doctors grafted some skin off his butt and used it to sew his face together. He doesn't look very good, but he's alive and well. Anyway, at that point the Kuechenbergs called it a career in the cannonball business.
"You know, I saw that cannon once about three years ago. It was in somebody's backyard in Malabar, Florida, with weeds all over it. I was thinking of buying it. I should have. It disappeared about a year ago."
As a sophomore at Notre Dame, Kuechenberg was the starting offensive right tackle facing Bubba Smith in the famous 10-10 tie against Michigan State in 1966. The next year he took over as left defensive end when Kevin Hardy got hurt. "Good for the team, not so good for Kuechenberg," he says. "The guy who replaced me on offense was George Kunz. I figure it cost me a shot at getting drafted in the first round."
The Philadelphia Eagles, a 2-12 team, drafted Kuechenberg as a guard in the fourth round in '69. "I'd just been married, I was homesick, I had about six excuses, none of which amounted to anything," he says. "I went through the motions, I got cut, and Atlanta, another 2-12 team, picked me up. The Falcons told me, 'We're going to Canton for the Hall of Fame game. You can't learn our system in one week, but we like you. Go home to Chicago, get your wife and come back and settle down'—which is what I did. Norm Van Brocklin, the Falcons' coach then, cut me a week later. He didn't even have the decency to tell me himself. I never talked to him. But I'll tell you one of the great accomplishments in my pro career. I helped get him fired. It was in 74, my fifth year with the Dolphins, and we beat Atlanta 42-7. I loved it. He got fired two days later. It was one of my Top 10 highlights. I wanted to run a sweep to their bench so I could put spike marks in his neck."
When the Falcons cut Kuechenberg in '69 he went back to Chicago and found a job selling business forms. "I got $600 a month, plus sales commissions I never made," he says. "I was home at three o'clock, fighting with my wife, my first wife."
It was at this point that he signed on with the Owls. "The illustrious Chicago Owls," he says. "I figured, 'If I can't fly with the Eagles I'll play with the Owls.' I made $200 a game for the first three games, zero for the last six. We'd draw 3,500 fans in Soldier Field, and in that place they were just about invisible. It was before the Bears moved in there, and there were rats in the tunnels—big rats. To kill the rats they got cats, and to keep the cats in the stadium, to keep them fed, they'd have a square piece of wood with raw meat on it. That's what I'll remember about the Chicago Owls, a big old pile of raw meat outside the locker room door.
"I got the needle quite a bit for aches and bruises. Pain and painkillers and speed, 300-pound garage mechanics punching you in the head. Get drunk, have a pizza—that's what it was all about. On road trips they'd give you a little box lunch with a sandwich and a banana and a bag of pretzels. But nobody cared. Tonight we're going to play a ball game. It was fun!" Joe Thomas, then Miami's personnel chief, found Kuechenberg in the off-season and signed him to a Dolphin contract. The year with the Owls had put a hunger in his belly. He had gone to the Eagles' camp a boy. Now he was a man.
"I didn't pay any attention to him in camp," Shula says. "He had the stigma of being cut by two teams. I started Maxie Williams at left guard, ahead of Kooch, and it was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. Maxie was a holdover, a holler guy, but looking back on it, he couldn't hold a candle to Kooch. Bob took over when Maxie got hurt in the ninth game in 1970, and just about that time our offensive line took on a new dimension of toughness. Kooch had been a defensive lineman at Notre Dame, and you could see it in his temperament. A street fighter, a clawer and scratcher.
"In the years that followed, he and our center, Jim Langer, would always be the guys who'd come up to me on the plane home, after they'd had four Schlitzes, bitching that we didn't run the ball enough. Mike Webster, the Steelers' center, is the same way. Crusty, hard-core, the kind of guys who love their work and take pride in it."
Kuechenberg didn't support the strike, not from the very beginning. In fact, he wouldn't even go out and shake hands when that was part of the September pre-game ritual. He says he didn't feel that union head Ed Garvey really represented the best interests of the players. Some of his teammates felt that Kuechenberg was looking at things from a very narrow angle, too narrow. There was a residue of bitterness that Shula feels will blow over now that the teams are back on the field. "Kooch is Kooch," Shula says. "I know it. They know it. What can you say?"
Right now, Kuechenberg holds the Dolphin record for games played (184) and starts (171), and he's still counting. He says the team he remembers best is '73, the second of Miami's two consecutive Super Bowl winners. "It was better than our undefeated team in '72," he says. "We would have kept on being great, but the WFL did something no one else ever could do, and that was to break up the Dolphins. It took away Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. Where would the Steelers have been if they'd lost Franco and Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann?
"Paul Warfield—people don't realize how great he was. O.K., Lance Alworth and Raymond Berry could catch the ball, so can John Jefferson, but Warfield was a vicious blocker. I saw him decapitate middle linebackers. Warfield was the best player I ever played with, Butkus was the greatest I ever played against."
That was in 1971, a 34-3 runaway for the Dolphins. Butkus was trying to survive on a deteriorating knee. "The word was to take Butkus low and you'd have an easy game," says Kuechenberg. "I said no, I'm not going to do it. Out of honor I'll take him high. That's what I did, early in the game. It was a bad decision. He almost took my head off. I reevaluated my thinking. I thought, hmm, as much as I respect him, there's a matter of survival here."
Shula sees Kuechenberg at 35 as "a guy who gets by more on know-how now. He ran his best 40 in five years this summer. He's more aware now, so he works harder. He's done a lot for us; he's played hurt, he's played out of position. I'll give him rest in games, I'll spell him. But I'll have a hard time replacing him."
"I think I can break it down, what it means to play at 35," Kuechenberg says. "Your mind controls your body, and there are different ways of getting the job done just as effectively. You don't have to stick your helmet in Jack Lambert's rib cage every play to get by. And I still have personal goals, team goals.
"It's easy to be average and normal. That's not what I want. On my tombstone I want written, DON'T CALL ME NORMAL."
Colonel Ned Green couldn't have said it any better.