They were a perfect 17-0, yet to this day the Miami Dolphins of 1972 talk about lack of respect. "We were the only Super Bowl champ of the last 20 years not to get invited to the White House," claims their kicker, Garo Yepremian.
The '71 Dolphins had flopped in their first title try—Super Bowl VI—losing 24-3 to the Dallas Cowboys. Seven months later Miami had something to prove, and it launched the '72 campaign with an offense that was heavy on the run and a defense that was young and unknown. These Dolphins ultimately won consecutive championships (Supes VII and VIII) and became the only team ever to play in three straight Super Bowls. Then the WFL took away three of their greatest stars—Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick—and the run was over.
But 20 years later the memories flow. This is the story, in 17 abbreviated chapters, of the unbeaten season of 1972.
GAME 1, AT KANSAS CITY, 20-10
Sept. 17: It was the Chiefs' first game in brand-new Arrowhead Stadium. Their last one in old Municipal Stadium had been the Christmas Day playoff loss to the Dolphins in double overtime, the longest pro game ever. "We closed out their old one," quarterback Bob Griese says now, "and we ruined their opener in the new one."
The temperature on the field was 120°. "I was dying," recalls Miami guard Larry Little, "but at the end of the third quarter I sprinted to the other end of the field—to prove something, I guess. Their guys just looked at me. One of them said, 'Look at that fool.' "
"Hottest game I ever coached in," Don Shula says. "One man in the stadium had a jacket on—Hank Strain on the other sideline, breaking in his new red blazer."
GAME 2, vs. HOUSTON, 34-13
Sept. 24: The new Poly-Turf in the Orange Bowl was a disaster. After the game, fullback Csonka said, "Technology has advanced to the point where it's capable of finishing every player before his time. Every time I tried to cut, my toes were driven to the point of my shoe. I feel like my ribs are coming out of my throat. Look at this turf. It's slimy. I swear, there's some kind of fumes coming off the rug."
"Dan Dowe, our equipment man, gave us sneakers to wear," Little remembers. "I got two big blisters and never wore 'em again." No matter. Miami rushed for 274 yards.
GAME 3, AT MINNESOTA, 16-14
Oct. 1: The Vikings led 14-6 with 4:34 left. The Dolphins drove and were stopped. Shula called on Yepremian to try a 51-yard field goal, even though his career longest was 48. "There was a lot of talk about that decision," Shula says. "What the hell, we needed 10 points." The kick was good.
Miami forced a punt and drove to a first down on the Viking three, where Griese fooled Minnesota with a little sneak pass to tight end Jim Mandich for the winning touchdown. "One-19 split delay," Mandich says. "I faked a block on Jim Marshall, who knocked the hell out of me. Everyone keyed on Csonka; I mean, you've got a fullback who's around 260 pounds—what would you expect? I was uncovered."
"That was the game that really made us," guard Bob Kuechenberg says. "Those were the Vikings in the heyday of the Purple People Eaters." Says Griese, "I remember thinking afterward, Hey, we must be pretty good." Odd statistic: After three games, Miami was the NFL's only unbeaten team.
GAME 4, AT NEW YORK JETS, 27-17
Oct. 8: The Jets were averaging 35 points and almost 300 yards passing per game. "Our whole concern was Joe Namath," says Miami middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti. "If the rest of the Jets didn't show up, he could beat us alone." So defensive coach Bill Arnsparger surprised New York with five defensive backs on first down, and in the second half he used his new 53 Defense—a modern 3-4—exclusively, and Namath and the Jets were stopped.
"We had a card game going on the plane," Yepremian says. "I was winning big, so a superstition started: When Garo won, the team won. After a while the writers started asking me, 'How'd you do in the card game?' "
GAME 5, vs. SAN DIEGO, 24-10
Oct. 15: In the first quarter, Charger defensive end Rob East crashed into Griese's right leg, breaking the fibula and dislocating the ankle. In came Earl Morrall, an April waiver pickup from Baltimore. "I remember seeing Griese lying there in pain, with his ankle all contorted," Mandich says, "and here's this 38-year-old man with a flattop haircut coming on the field, and I thought, Oh hell, it's all over."
"Only guy with a square head and a round house," Kuechenberg says of Morrall. "Honest. He built himself this round house in the middle of an orange grove."
"Earl had led us to the Super Bowl in Baltimore when John Unitas was hurt," says Shula, who had previously coached the Colts. "Give [Miami owner] Joe Robbie credit for letting me pick Earl up, even with the big salary."
"Yeah, big salary—$90,000," says Morrall. "And that was in my 17th year." Against San Diego, he completed eight of 10 passes and threw for two touchdowns. But everyone wondered, How long could he hold up?
"I remember lying in the hospital that night," Griese says, "and looking at my ankle, twisted kind of sideways into a Z. I was thinking that all I wanted to do was walk again."
GAME 6, vs. BUFFALO, 24-23
Oct. 22: Buffalo coach Lou Saban said it was "the strangest game I've seen in all my years." Buoniconti said, "I don't enjoy games that get out of control. It infuriates you."
Defensive tackle Manny Fernandez stole a handoff from Buffalo quarterback Dennis Shaw. An incomplete screen pass from Morrall to Mercury Morris was ruled a lateral and was recovered by Buffalo tackle Don Croft while everyone else stood around. Shula went wild and drew a 15-yard penalty for putting his hands on an official. Yepremian kicked a 54-yard field goal, his longest ever. "I remember later reading our yearbook about the unbeaten season," Yepremian says, "and thinking, My god, what if I didn't make the 54-yarder?"
GAME 7, AT BALTIMORE, 23-0
Oct. 29: "They gave me a big cheer when I trotted out," says Morrall, who played for four seasons in Baltimore. Morrall threw 15 passes; the Dolphins called 52 running plays. "Typical statistics for us in those days," says punter and tight end Larry Seiple, who is currently the Dolphins' receivers coach. "Kind of the reverse from now, huh?"
GAME 8, AT BUFFALO, 30-16
Nov. 5: "I always hated War Memorial Stadium," says wideout Paul Warfield. "Tiny, cramped locker room. Then to get on the field you had to come down a metal stairway, past the popcorn stands and people screaming obscenities at you who were held back by two ropes that couldn't hold off a two-year-old. Is this really the NFL?"
After catching a touchdown pass, tight end Marv Fleming found a folded $10 bill in the end zone. "He came back to the bench screaming, 'I hit pay dirt!' " Seiple says. "He was happier about that than the TD, which makes sense if you know Marv."
GAME 9, vs. NEW ENGLAND, 52-0
Nov. 12: The offensive linemen were wondering who would get to rest first. "Finally, the coaches decided to do it by age," Little says. "So me and right tackle Norm Evans got to watch."
At 45-0 Miami scored on a 39-yard Jim Del Gaizo-to-Mandich pass. "It was 60-double-Q," Mandich says. "I ran a post pattern against some stumbling linebacker. They were god-awful. We had a swagger to us. Rub it in? Who cared?"
GAME 10, vs. NEW YORK JETS, 28-24
Nov. 19: "Trivia question," Kuechenberg says. "We had three of the greatest runners in the game: Csonka, Morris and Kiick. We had Warfield, who was great on the end around. So who got the longest touchdown run of the year? It was Morrall, 31 yards. I got nine blocks on the play; Little got 11." "Longest run of the season," Morrall says. "Two-and-a-half minutes."
"I remember we had to come from behind to win at the end," says Little, "but what I remember best is that during the week, Earl made a statement that he didn't want his son to grow up like Joe Namath. So when the captains went out for the coin toss, Joe wouldn't shake his hand."
GAME 11, vs. ST. LOUIS, 31-10
Nov. 27: Monday-night football. The whispers were starting. Could Miami become the first team to go unbeaten and untied since the 1948 Cleveland Browns of the All-America Conference? "Howard Cosell, who was doing the game for ABC, talked to us during the day, and he brought it up," Morrall says. "But honestly, even though we'd clinched the division the week before, all we were thinking about was the playoffs."
"In the locker room before the game," recalls Little, "I said to my roommate, Wayne Moore, 'You know, we still haven't lost a game.' He said, 'Don't talk about it. You'll jinx us.' Kind of like not talking about a no-hitter."
GAME 12, AT NEW ENGLAND, 37-21
Dec. 3: "We were staying out in the sticks somewhere," Morrall says. "The night before the game Shula let us go into Boston for a meal. So 16 of us took a bus in, and we had dinner on the wharf, Anthony's Pier 4, and all the New England fans kept sending wine to our table, hoping we would imbibe heavily. We were only too glad to oblige.
"We got back to the hotel for our 9:30 meeting, and we were in a pretty jovial mood. Afterward we had this big water and ice-cube fight in the hall outside the rooms. Shula heard the noise and came out of his room and just about walked into Lloyd Mumphord, our cornerback, who had a wastebasket full of water in mid-delivery when he saw it was Shula. He almost sprained his back pulling the thing back.
"Next day at his pregame meeting, Shula jumped on us: 'You guys are losing your focus.' " The Dolphins rushed for 304 yards, a team record. The game was over in the third quarter.
GAME 13, AT NEW YORK GIANTS, 23-13
Dec. 10: It was a muddy day in Yankee Stadium. Griese, newly activated, jogged around the field before the game and thought, Uh-uh, not today.
"It was the first time the press paid heavy attention to our unbeaten streak," Warfield says. "That's all the New York writers wanted to talk about. We told them, 'The important thing is how we do in the postseason.' Shula had drilled us well."
By completing a modest nine of 17 passes for 163 yards, Morrall took over the NFL passing lead. He was averaging 15 passes a game. "Same as my uniform number," he says.
GAME 14, vs. BALTIMORE, 16-0
Dec 16: The Dolphins needed 105 yards to break the alltime single-season record, set by the 1936 Detroit Lions. Miami did it in the third quarter, on a five-yard scramble by Morrall.
Morrall also threw an interception, to linebacker Ted Hendricks, a personal favorite of Morrall's four-year-old son, Mitch. "After the game a reporter asked Mitch what he had liked best," Morrall says. "He said, 'When Daddy threw the ball to Teddy and he caught it.' My wife said, 'No, no, no.' "
GAME 15, vs. CLEVELAND, 20-14
Dec. 24: AFC playoff. The Browns were not expected to do much, but they came out in a nasty mood and led 14-13 late in the fourth quarter. "I mean, we were ready to play, but they surprised us," Warfield says. "They just wouldn't go away. It was nerve-racking." Finally, with 4:54 to go, Miami got the winning touchdown on an eight-yard run by Kiick.
Cleveland's Mike Phipps threw five interceptions, the final one to linebacker Doug Swift. "I made the last tackle of the day—on Swift," Buoniconti says. "The guy was from Amherst, supposed to be smart. But there he was, running around like a halfback. I yelled, 'Just fall down, idiot!' Then I dropped him."
GAME 16, AT PITTSBURGH, 21-17
Dec. 31: AFC championship. "It just dawned on me," says Terry Bradshaw, the Steeler quarterback. "How come we got home field for that game?" Answer: because in those days the site of the conference championship game was rotated among the divisions, and that season it was the AFC Central's turn.
"The Dolphins didn't scare us," Bradshaw says. "They didn't have those mean, intimidating type people. I mean Earl Morrall...and that defense of theirs. .basically nice guys. They didn't have a Mean Joe Greene or a Mad Dog White like we had."
"We didn't scare him, huh?" says Buoniconti. "Please remind Mr. Bradshaw that our defense gave up the fewest points in the NFL that year."
And knocked Bradshaw out of the game. On a first-quarter scramble, he was hit, he fumbled, the ball was recovered for a Steeler TD, and Bradshaw nursed a bruised shoulder. Miami, which hadn't done a thing, got back in the game on a 30-yard run off a fake punt by Seiple. "But what really turned the game," Seiple says, "was Shula coming in with Griese for Morrall in the second half." On his first possession, Griese threw a 52-yard pass to Warfield to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
"Third-and-long," Warfield says. "That crowd was going crazy. Andy Russell, their right linebacker, was covering me in the slot. No one ever got inside Andy from the slot; he always made you go outside. I stared him in the eyes. I looked outside. Then I broke that way and he bought it, and I cut back inside—the old 81-1 play, our bread and butter. To this day, whenever I see Andy, he says, 'How'd you ever get inside me that day?' "
GAME 17, vs. WASHINGTON, 14-7
Jan. 14: Super Bowl VII, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Fourth quarter, game well in hand, Miami up 14-0. Yepremian tries a 42-yard field goal...it's blocked...the ball hits Miami's 6'6" Bob Heinz in the back...Yepremian picks it up...he tries to pass.... Uh-oh, the ball slips out of his hand, and the Redskins' Mike Bass scoops it up and runs 49 yards for a touchdown. Now it's 14-7, with 2:07 left.
"I still remember the deathly silence when Garo came back to the bench," Kuechenberg says. "Except for Shula, who told him, 'You should have fallen on the damn ball.' Me? All I felt was intense anger. I still do. I mean, here we were out there, bleeding through every pore of our bodies and.... I don't want to talk about it. I get too mad."
"I was throwing to Csonka," Yepremian says. "Big target. The day before in practice, I was throwing 30-yard passes to David Shula on the sideline. I was trying to make something happen."
Garo, was there any Dolphin who said something nice to you after that play? "Just one," he says. "Norm Evans. He's a Christian minister now. He told me, 'Don't worry, God loves you whether you do wrong or not.' "
"What gets me," Kuechenberg fumes, "is that over the years Garo has cashed in big-time on that play."
"There's not a day in my life when someone doesn't mention it," Yepremian says.
Well, what the hell. The game ended 14-7, and the Dolphins were 17-0 history makers and Super Bowl champs. "You know what kills me?" Buoniconti says. "We were unbeaten going into the Super Bowl, and we were still two-point underdogs to the Skins. Just no respect."