Before the Miami Dolphins-Kansas City Chiefs game Sunday in the Orange Bowl, everybody wondered how Chiefs nosetackle Bill Maas would sack his brother-in-law, quarterback Dan Marino. Would he gently lay Danny Boy down? Would he mash his wife's brother flat? Would Cindy Marino Maas cheer, weep, if her husband did either? Neither?
Unfortunately, nobody listened to Dolphin center Dwight Stephenson. What the sixth-year pro from the University of Alabama said was, "I'll try to keep Maas out." Translated from Stephenson humblespeak to English that meant, "Flog me, beat me, strap me down and play Twisted Sister till I foam at the mouth, but Maas will not get through."
He didn't, either. Nobody laid a hand on Marino all day, and the Dolphins crushed the Chiefs 31-0, leaving each team with very different 2-1 records.
The game answered some big questions: Are the Chiefs a great team? No. Are the Dolphins a fading team? No. A smaller point was also made. Dwight Stephenson, 6'2", 255 pounds, 27 years old, is the rarest of things—an NFL offensive lineman you actually can enjoy watching.
"He's the best," says Dolphin nose-tackle Bob Baumhower. "You know how some guys who don't have a lot of talent work so hard to be good? Well, Dwight has the talent and works just like those guys. He's so quick and strong.... Ask Maas after the game what it was like to play him."
Maas is asked.
"God," he says softly.
Maas tried everything on Stephenson—low charge, high charge, spin charge, club charge—to no avail. One time he went low and Stephenson directed him even lower until it seemed Maas's momentum might drill him straight into the earth like a helmeted mole.
Everybody in the NFL knows how good Stephenson is. A Pro-Bowler the last three years, he was voted the NFL's Offensive Lineman of the Year in both 1983 and 1984. In college he was an All-America and a finalist in the 1980 Lombardi Award voting. Bear Bryant called him "the greatest center I have ever coached." When the Dolphins were getting ready to draft Stephenson in the second round in 1980, coach Don Shula pondered that remark.
"I knew what Bryant had said, and I wondered if that was just a college coach talking," says Shula. "It wasn't. Dwight has done some things I've never seen before."
"In practice he'll go against a guy like Mike Charles [Miami's 290-pound defensive lineman]. One second he's growling at him, and the next thing you know Charles is on his ass."
Stephenson fidgets whenever he hears himself praised. "I mess up a lot," he will say and then look down. He is a quiet family man with a son, Dwight Jr., and a wife, Dinah, who says she was attracted to him back at Alabama because he was "so sweet." Stephenson reminds one of the village smithy of yore. Strong and proud, he takes pride in doing his tough job quietly and well.
"I don't have to be seen," he says. "I don't need glamour. Maybe that's why I like playing center. You can't be easily rattled to play there; and it's very hard to get me mad. I believe in what coach Bryant used to say: 'Minimize "I." ' "
Nevertheless, Stephenson was ready to walk out of camp this preseason. Scheduled to make $180,000 this year and $210,000 in 1987 on the last half of a four-year deal, Stephenson felt he deserved more. "I know centers don't sell tickets, but compared to wide receivers, all the centers in the league are underpaid," he says.
The Dolphins sweetened his contract just before the opening game, and at least one other player was mighty pleased—Marino. As slow of foot as he is, the quarterback knows he would perish behind a weak offensive line. The Miami line has given up just 14 sacks since 1983, fewer than any other team, and Stephenson is the major reason.
"We use an unusual blocking system because of him, because he can always go one-on-one," says Marino. "And that system is why teams can't blitz us."
Unlike the other premier centers of recent times, men like Miami's Jim Langer and the still-active Mike Webster of the Steelers, Stephenson is not a brutish player. "Webster and Langer really punished people," says Dolphin guard Ed Newman. "Dwight isn't like that. He uses quickness and an uncanny sense of balance to beat people. Make a move and he'll use it against you."
Stephenson's play has helped end any lingering racial notion that NFL football should be white up the middle. "It's never been a big issue with me," he says. "At Alabama they had seven straight years of black centers, and, yes, it made me feel good. But when I think of great centers, I don't think of colors at all."
For decades the center position was most noted as the hiding place for rickety, scarred-kneed vets or the starting point for pudgy, second-rate go-getters. A man who played center wasn't good enough to play anywhere else. As Newman says, "The old rule of thumb was that if you had a guard with two left feet, put him at center. Dwight has destroyed that notion forever."