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Nobody's Perfect (Except Us) The '72 Dolphins point to their 17-0 record and say there should be no debate over who's the best team ever

July 15, 2002
July 15, 2002

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July 15, 2002

Where Are They Now?

Nobody's Perfect (Except Us) The '72 Dolphins point to their 17-0 record and say there should be no debate over who's the best team ever

He was building up steam, looking to score, and no one, Larry
Csonka thought, could possibly drag him down. Though Super Bowl
VI was still five days away, the Miami Dolphins' star fullback
and half a dozen teammates had already begun to celebrate,
swashbuckling into a packed club on Bourbon Street and quickly
collecting an entourage of sultry-voiced, voluptuous amazons.

This is an article from the July 15, 2002 issue Original Layout

"We all figured we had it made--that these tall, beautiful women
were going home with us," Csonka recalls. "Then, all of a
sudden, one of the fellows stood up, pointed at one of them and
yelled, 'She's got a Johnson!' After that, we pretty much tore
the place up. The cops were called, and it was a big incident.
Apparently the club had signed up a bunch of female
impersonators to work the room, but hey, it was 1972. None of us
knew what a drag queen was."

Nor did Miami's jut-jawed coach, Don Shula, who had yielded to
his players' demand for a late curfew. At a team meeting the
next day he lit into the players for their lack of focus. "What
in the hell is a female impersonator?" Csonka recalls Shula
bellowing. On Super Sunday, in their debut on the big stage, the
Dolphins were caught trying to impersonate a championship team;
they were humiliated by the Dallas Cowboys 24-3.

The following season Miami was consumed with getting back to the
NFL title game, and Shula's ultraserious squad beat the
Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to complete the only
undefeated, untied campaign in NFL history. Three decades later
the Dolphins' 17-0 mark remains the gold standard of
single-season success in professional sports.

Yet as time has passed, the perfect season's impeccable beauty
has been tinged with less-pleasant associations. The unabashed
glee displayed by some of the '72 Dolphins when other undefeated
teams falter is a turnoff to many fans. This doesn't seem to
bother those Miami players who, almost to a man, believe they
have been slighted by history's hand. "We don't get the respect
we deserve," says Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, who in
1998 angered some Denver Broncos by openly rooting for them to
lose after a 13-0 start--even though Griese's son, Brian, was
the team's third-string quarterback. "We don't get mentioned as
one of the greatest teams of all time, so being the only one
that had a perfect season is what makes us special."

The '72 Dolphins have no use for decorum or, some would argue,
dignity. Thirty years after they ran the table, nine of them can
sit at a banquet table at Shula's Steakhouse in Miami Lakes, as
they did several weeks ago, and rail on everyone--from SI's Rick
Reilly to NFL Films president Steve Sabol--who has ever denied
them their due. "Hey, give this to Rick Reilly for me," says
former tight end and current team broadcaster Jim Mandich,
offering a middle-finger salute that cracks up his dining
companions. "He called us bitter old men, but this is the kind
of record you want to hold on to."

The unbeaten Dolphins were feeling dissed even before Super Bowl
VII. Consider that the Redskins, who went into the championship
game with three defeats--two of them to New England and Buffalo,
teams against whom Miami had gone 4-0--were nonetheless favored
to beat the Dolphins. Even after Miami's 14-7 victory, which was
far more decisive than the score suggests, the team received no
White House invitation from embattled president (and Skins
supporter) Richard Nixon. If all goes as planned, reparations
for Dolphingate will finally come later this year. "Garo
Yepremian and Bob Kuechenberg are friends with [Florida
governor] Jeb Bush, and he has a pretty decent connection in
Washington," says former tight end Marv Fleming, the chairman of
the team's 30-year-anniversary promotional campaign.

Before Shula arrived in 1970, the Dolphins were a national joke.
Co-owned by comedian Danny Thomas upon its launch as an
expansion team in '66 (he later sold his interest to Joe
Robbie), Miami went a combined 15-39-2 in its first four seasons
and, says Hall of Fame middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti, "the
team was known as the Floating Cocktail Party." Shula, who had
coached the Baltimore Colts to NFL Championship Game and Super
Bowl appearances, changed everything. "He was a strong
disciplinarian, almost to the point of tyranny," Csonka says.
Modern-day players who complain about two-a-day practices in
training camp, take note: In his first preseason, Shula put the
Dolphins through four daily workouts in the muggy South Florida
heat.

Though there was a nucleus of talented players, mostly on
offense, this was a major building project, and Shula and his
staff did a masterly job. Consider that offensive line coach
Monte Clark, who was later head coach of the San Francisco 49ers
and the Detroit Lions, fielded five starters in '72 who had been
discarded by at least one other NFL team. Two of those castoffs,
center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little, ended up in the Hall
of Fame, and a third, guard Kuechenberg, narrowly missed being
voted in last January.

Miami went 10-4 in Shula's first season, then made its
surprising Super Bowl run after going 10-3-1 in '71. Though
Shula would go on to become the NFL's winningest coach, the
Dolphins' stink bomb against the Cowboys left him fighting a
stigma--unable to win the big one--since he had also been on the
wrong side of the New York Jets' Super Bowl III shocker. "In New
Orleans, I had tried to stress that they had plenty of time to
celebrate after the game, but sometimes you have to feel that
emptiness for yourself," says Shula, who was inducted into the
Hall of Fame in '97, two years after his retirement. "What it
did was give us that sense of purpose for the next season."

The '72 team set an NFL single-season record with 2,960 rushing
yards, as the rugged Csonka and slashing halfback Eugene
(Mercury) Morris became the first teammates to hit the
1,000-yard plateau in the same year. The team's other halfback,
Jim Kiick, was a punishing blocker and gifted receiver who ran
for 521 yards. Wideout Paul Warfield was a superstar, later
elected to the Hall of Fame, but he and possession receiver
Howard Twilley were both underused. Even after Griese went down
in the fifth game with a broken right ankle--he shocked even
himself by returning to play in the AFC Championship Game and
the Super Bowl--his 38-year-old backup, Earl Morrall, was a
resplendent replacement, averaging 9.1 yards per pass.

Csonka, a 6'3", 237-pound moose of a man, set the tone for
Miami's ball-control attack. For those of you too young to
remember him as anything but a ham-it-up American Gladiators
cohost, think of every old-school cliche in the book, then add
piss and vinegar. "True story," says Shula. "We're in Buffalo,
and Csonka's running toward the sideline when a guy runs over
from the secondary. Zonk throws a forearm and knocks him
cartwheeling back. The official throws a flag and calls
unnecessary roughness on him. I said, 'What, for hitting the
poor tackler too hard?'"

Though not overpowering, the Dolphins were plenty tough on the
other side of the ball as well. Under coordinator Bill
Arnsparger, the No-Name Defense--a term coined before Super Bowl
VI when Dallas coach Tom Landry described the Miami defenders as
Buoniconti and a bunch of no names--allowed just 171 points and
a league-low 235.5 yards per game. In addition to standouts like
Buoniconti and defensive tackle Manny Fernandez, the unit
boasted one of the great safety tandems in history in Dick
Anderson and Jake Scott.

Oddly enough it was placekicker Yepremian who produced the most
memorable play of the perfect season. With 2:07 remaining in
Super Bowl VII, Yepremian, an immigrant from Cyprus who had
learned football on the fly, lined up for a 42-yard field goal.
The Dolphins had dominated the Redskins all day, and the kick,
fittingly, could have made the final score 17-0. But Yepremian,
whose 51-yarder at Minnesota in Week 3 had helped Miami survive
its closest call, had his low kick blocked right back to him,
and his subsequent attempt to pass the ball resembled a sea lion
trying to shotput a half-melted block of ice. Defensive back
Mike Bass intercepted the pass and went 49 yards for
Washington's only score.

After his retirement in 1981, Yepremian launched a second career
as a motivational speaker. The fact that the gaffe became so
famous--and that Yepremian has made light of it in his
speeches--still enrages some Dolphins, most notably Kuechenberg,
who says, "It was an act of cowardice." Says Morris, laughing,
"Garo says, 'I know Kuechenberg doesn't like me.' I tell him,
'Garo, it's not that he doesn't like you. He wants to kill you.'"

Every family has its strife, and the Dolphins are no exception.
Teammates say that Scott, the MVP of Super Bowl VII, remains
bitter toward Shula for the '76 trade that sent him to the
Redskins. Other than the two deceased team members, linebacker
Bob Matheson and offensive tackle Wayne Moore, Scott is the only
one not expected to participate in reunion events, which will
culminate on Dec. 9 with a halftime ceremony during Miami's
Monday night home game against the Chicago Bears. Mostly,
though, the Dolphins' bonds have remained strong. Several
extended financial assistance to wideout Marlin Briscoe, who
after leaving football in the late '70s became addicted to crack
cocaine--L.A. dealers nicknamed him 17 and 0--and once was
kidnapped by Crips because of a drug debt. He now works for the
Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club. Morris, the team's
loquacious breakaway threat, also had his troubles with cocaine,
spending 3 1/2 years in prison before his drug-trafficking
conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in '86.
(He later avoided any additional jail time by agreeing to plead
no contest to a lesser charge.) Now an executive vice president
for a talent-management company, Morris says he was touched by
his teammates' support; he tears up when recalling the visit
Little paid him in a Florida prison in '85. Another rallying
point has been the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, initiated by
Buoniconti after his son, Marc, broke his neck while playing
football for The Citadel in 1985 and became a quadriplegic. Nick
Buoniconti says his family and teammates have helped raise more
than $100 million.

Buoniconti and his teammates chafe at having been supplanted by
the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls from the '74
through '79 seasons, as the team of that decade. The Dolphins
believe their five-year run from '70 through '74 was comparably
dominant, and they may have a point: When Miami (15-2) mauled
the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII, it was the team's 32nd
victory in 34 games. The Dolphins had a shot at reaching their
fourth consecutive Super Bowl in '74, but they lost their
playoff opener to the Oakland Raiders on the so-called Sea of
Hands catch--Clarence Davis's improbable, last-minute touchdown
grab. Then Csonka, Kiick and Warfield left Miami for the riches
promised by the World Football League's Memphis Southmen, and
that was the end of the Dolphins' run.

When NFL Films staged a computer-generated mock tournament
involving the greatest teams of all time, the '72 Dolphins
dropped a 21-20 decision to the '78 Steelers in the title game.
"That's why Shula hates Steve Sabol," Kiick says. "He called up
Sabol and reamed him out." Explains Shula, "I don't see how
there could be a program that would cause a computer not to pick
our team." Detractors point out that in the regular season Miami
played only two teams that finished with winning records, and
both went 8-6.

The men who produced the perfect season believe the numbers 17
and 0 should end all debate. Thirty years later, they are still
a team: undefeated, untied and unbowed. In '85, when the 12-0
Bears traveled to Miami for a Monday night game, Csonka, at
Shula's behest, gave a stirring pregame speech. Then Csonka and
many of his former teammates stood on the sideline. The Dolphins
won 38-24, and Chicago finished 18-1.

Showing support for their old team was one thing, but the Miami
players' blatant joy over other teams' failures took on gauche
overtones. After the 11-0 Redskins lost in '91, Anderson and
Buoniconti initiated an annual champagne toast that accompanies
the demise of the league's last remaining undefeated team. The
strongest rhetoric emerged during the Broncos' assault on the
record in '98--Denver lost its 14th game to the New York Giants,
eight days before dropping a Monday night showdown to the
Dolphins in Miami--including Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe's
boast that if his team could somehow meet the '72 champions,
"We'd beat the brakes off 'em.... They wouldn't stand a chance."

Sharpe's statement still infuriates Fernandez, the '72 team's
undersized but feisty defensive tackle, who says, "I could shoot
him." He's speaking figuratively--we think. Fernandez is a big
outdoorsman who recently cohosted the pilot for Outdoors with
the Pros, a hunting and fishing TV show that hasn't been picked
up. Likewise, Csonka for the past 12 years has spent much of his
time in Alaska cohosting two shows for the Outdoor Life Network.
"They pay me to hunt and fish, if you can believe that," says
Csonka. "There is a God."

Like most of his former teammates, Csonka has grown to value the
perfect season more as the years have passed and team after team
has failed to duplicate the feat. "I don't want to think that
anyone can," Csonka says, his bushy mustache practically sinking
into his chin. "We're the only team that has ever been perfect,
and there's a certain serenity and pride in having done that.
Every year, when another team wins a few games without losing,
we're reborn, and our spirits rise up out of the ground."

For more on the '72 Dolphins, including SI flashbacks, game
summaries, a photo gallery and Dr. Z's top teams of all time,
go to cnnsi.com/si_online.

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL [T of C] BACKFIELD AT REST Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, the indomitable ballcarriers of the '72 Miami Dolphins, are still close (page 68).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL Larry Csonka Jim Kiick NOW AND THEN Csonka and Kiick, two thirds of Miami's dominating ground attack, were featured on the cover of SI at the start of the '72 season.COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. WHAT A RUSH The Miami running attack was led by the punishing Csonka (above, in Super Bowl VII) and the fleet Morris, both of whom got lots of carries after Griese (far left) was hurt in Game 5.COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER (LEFT) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: HOF/NFL PHOTOSCOLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER DON OF A NEW ERA Shula changed the atmosphere on the team from a cocktail party to a boot camp and got immediate results.COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER HUDDLE DIPLOMACY Players on the '72 team have remained close, including (clockwise, from left) Little, Fernandez, Kuechenberg, Larry Seiple, Mandich, Morris and Kiick.

Picture of Success: THE '72 DOLPHINS
Many members of the NFL's only unbeaten team have flourished in
their postfootball careers

Bill Arnsparger, defensive coordinator. Associate coach,
San Diego Chargers, San Diego.

Dan Dowe, equipment manager. Died in 1997.

Larry Ball, LB. High school guidance counselor, Cooper City, Fla.

Jim Riley, DE. Founder, drug and alcohol research center,
Edmond, Okla.

Jim Dunaway, DT. Farmer, Sandy Hook, Miss.

Howard Twilley, WR. Stockbroker, Tulsa.

Wayne Moore, DT. Died in 1989.

Jim Kiick, RB. President, Kiick Sports Promotions, Fort
Lauderdale.

Maulty Moore, DT. Department head, Sheridan Technical Center,
Hollywood, Fla.

Mike Kadish, DT. Retired, Grand Rapids.

Doug Swift, LB. Anesthesiologist, Philadelphia.

Earl Morrall, QB. Retired, Naples, Fla.

Manny Fernandez, DT. Insurance executive, Tavares, Fla.

Curtis Johnson, CB. Firefighter, paramedic, Toledo.

Bob Kuechenberg, G. Co-founder of a construction company, Boca
Raton, Fla.

Jim Langer, G. Wholesale manager, Custom Trucking Accessories,
Ramsey, Minn.

Bob Matheson, LB. Died in 1994.

Howard Kindig, T-C. Real estate broker, Baton Rouge.

Vern Den Herder, DE. Farmer, Sioux Center, Iowa.

Jim Mandich, TE. President and co-owner of a construction
company, Miami.

Norm Evans, T. President and executive director, Pro Athletes
Outreach, Issaquah, Wash.

Mike Kolen, LB. Financial adviser, Prudential Securities,
Birmingham.

Bob Heinz, DT. Corporate sales manager, branders.com, Menlo Park,
Calif.

Doug Crusan, T. Investment adviser, Carmel, Ind.

Monte Clark, off. line coach. Consultant, Detroit Lions,
Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Bill Stanfill, DE. President, Dozier Stanfill Real Estate,
Albany, Ga.

Howard Schnellenberger, off. coordinator. Coach, Florida
Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla.

Tom Keane, defensive backfield coach. Died in 2001.

Carl Taseff, off. backfield coach. Retired, Weston, Fla.

Mike "Mo" Scarry, defensive line coach. Retired, Fort Myers, Fla.

James Cheever, asst. equipment manager. Sales representative,
Sioux City, Iowa.

Bob Lundy, trainer. Director of Rehabilitation, Charles E. Virgin
Clinic, Miami.

Stan Taylor, asst. trainer. Whereabouts unknown.

Marv Fleming, TE. Motivational speaker, Los Angeles.

Hubert Ginn, RB. Sales consultant, Savannah.

Mercury Morris, RB. Executive vice president for talent
management company, Miami.

Jake Scott, S. Investor, Hanalei, Hawaii.

Dick Anderson, S. President, Anderson Insurance Group, Miami.

Lloyd Mumphord, CB. Retired, Tampa.

Larry Csonka, RB. President and executive producer, Zonk!
Productions, Lisbon, Ohio.

Henry Stuckey, DB. President, window washing company, Atlantic
City.

James Del Gaizo, QB. Loan officer, North American Mortgage,
Boston.

Marlin Briscoe, WR. Asst. project manager, Boys and Girls Club;
author; Los Angeles.

Nick Buoniconti, LB. Co-founder, The Miami Project to Cure
Paralysis, Miami.

Larry Little, G. Case manager, Dade County Schools, Miami.

Jesse Powell, LB. Insurance agent, Lubbock.

Joseph Robbie, managing general partner. Died in 1990.

Don Shula, coach. Founder, Shula Steakhouses and Don Shula
Hotels, Miami.

Al Jenkins, T. Account manager, Anheuser-Busch, Solon, Ohio.

Bob Griese, QB. ABC college football analyst, Tequesta, Fla.

Charles Leigh, RB. Retired, Albany, N.Y.

Charles Babb, DB. President, Raymond Building Supply, Fort Myers,
Fla.

Ed Jenkins, WR. Attorney-founder, Eddie Jenkins & Associates,
Boston.

Otto Stowe, WR. Athletic consultant, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Paul Warfield, WR. Founder-president, Jamesco Sports Marketing,
West Palm Beach, Fla.

Tim Foley, CB. President of management company, Tavares, Fla.

Karl Noonan, WR. Sales representative, Charlotte.

Garo Yepremian, K. Motivational speaker, author, Avondale, Pa.

Larry Seiple, P-TE. off. coordinator. Florida Atlantic Univ.,
Pembroke Pines, Fla.

Compiled by Connie Aitcheson

"We don't get the respect we deserve," says Griese. "We don't get
mentioned as one of the greatest teams of all time."
In '91 Anderson and Buoniconti initiated an annual toast upon the
fall of the year's last remaining undefeated team.