A sweet noise was heard as Miami Dolphins fans emptied out of the home stadium Sunday. It arose spontaneously, like joy does. It evoked nostalgia, like an old familiar song. It was the sound of optimism, a capella.
“Let’s go, Dol-phins!” a chorus of thousands sang as fans wound merrily down the spiral concourses. “Let’s go, Dol-phins!”
This was one of those feel-good days to be a Dolfan draped in aqua or orange, one of those days too few and far between for most of a decade-plus now. It was a day when that corny old, frightfully outdated fight song – “’cause when you say Miami, you’re talkin’ Super Bowl!” – was sung a bit more full-throated than usual, the lyrics not sounding as mocking or ironic as they did when all hope seemed lost.
Sunday felt good because the current team won again and now has a 3-3 record that might easily be 5-1, led by a rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, who makes you believe the team finally has a worthy successor, 13 years later, to the hallowed No. 13 himself, Dan Marino.
But Sunday also felt good because Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas were there to remind that the good old days are not all decades’ distant. Some of them are just one generation past on the player timeline. Taylor and Thomas’ Dolphins won a playoff game three straight years, 1998 to 2000, before the lean times hit.
They are the 23rd and 24th inductees onto the club’s stadium Honor Roll but the first from what I’d call the modern era. Both arrived as the Marino epoch ebbed and predominantly played their careers post-Marino.
So much of this club’s heritage is consumed by distant days, especially by the 1972-73 Super Bowl-champion years, heydays known but not experienced by many fans. Taylor and Thomas were on the field just yesterday, or so it seems. They remind us that the Dolphins and greatness are not hopelessly separated, but within reach.
I think that, after Marino, who stands apart, Taylor and Thomas as a tandem may be as popular as any players in the club’s 47 years. Success alone can’t explain that. All of those Pro Bowls and game-turning defensive plays are only part of it.
BEATING THE ODDS
Taylor and especially Thomas were the underdogs who made it, Taylor the third-round pick from small-school Akron, and Thomas the fifth-rounder from Texas Tech, drawl-mumbling like Elvis and built like a fire hydrant.
You know what drove Thomas? Fear. Fear of being embarrassed. Being shown up. That’s why he worked, practiced and studied film harder than anybody. How long did it take him to finally overcome that fear?
“I never did,” he told me once.
Thomas, tackling machine, reliable as sunrise, had a terrific career as a middle linebacker. Only Ray Lewis and maybe Brian Urlacher surpassed him at his position.
Taylor achieved stardom, won an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and finished with 139 ½ sacks, even more than Lawrence Taylor. He has a fighting chance to make it someday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and would get my vote.
In Sunday’s ceremony both men thanked “the greatest fans in the NFL,” and some of we curmudgeons in the press box snickered a little at the idea Miami fans would be so described – our cynicism seemingly confirmed by the fact the crowd of not quite 53,000 made for a stadium about one-fourth empty.
Taylor and Thomas meant it, though.
See, their combined Dolphin timeline of 1996 through 2011 included 11 consecutive seasons (1997-2007) side by side, and when you feel that much love and support for that long, those aren’t fans any more, those are family. Long ago they became J.T. and Zach to us, surnames not needed.
Taylor admitted he would trade the Honor Roll induction for the never-attained Super Bowl ring. Thomas wouldn’t go that far.
“All you play for is a championship, but I wouldn’t change one bit,” Zach said. “That’d be ungrateful.”
Gratitude is another thing that earns these men such a special place with fans.
“We’re two of the luckiest guys in the world,” J.T. said.
Fans want to know, have to know, that their players care as much as they do. With Taylor and Thomas there was never a doubt.
The latter halves of their careers here were wrapped in losses. Miami was 20-44 in Thomas’ final four seasons and 33-63 in Taylor’s last six, and I can testify from a sad parade of losing locker rooms that no players took a defeat harder.
The frozen snapshots are of Taylor slumped at his locker stall, shaved head bowed and draped in a white towel. And of Thomas, the last to shed his uniform, still wearing eye black smeared by sweat, some losses leaving him angry, others nearly in tears.
STILL FIRED UP
Taylor was reserved and brief in his remarks to fans Sunday. Thomas was fired up, gesticulating, exhorting the crowd, “Now let’s go out and win the second half!”
As he spoke, Taylor’s wife – Zach’s sister – leaned into Jason and whispered, “He sounds like he’s s doing a WWE commercial!”
Later Zach would grin and say, “I was ready to strap it on right there and hit somebody!”
Cam Wake, the current sack-master, was never more eager Sunday than to heap praise on the two men newly on that Honor Roll. “I could be here for 35 minutes talking about everything they’ve meant to me,” he said.
Any Dolfan who sees brighter days ahead would hope for a team filled with players as good at what they do as Taylor and Thomas were.
More than talent, though, you’d wish for a team filled with their passion.
You’d wish for a locker room full of guys who hated losing just as much.
You’d wish for players with the gratitude.
You’d wish for men like Zach Thomas who never got over the good fear that drives you, and men like Jason Taylor who never stopped feeling like one of the luckiest guys in the world.