The old men arrived one by one, many of them physically smaller than we remember but in other ways just as big as ever — maybe bigger, because sometimes time does not diminish. Sometimes, it magnifies. Hairlines recede and stomachs paunch and you see that slight shuffling limp that becomes the normal gait of so many former professional football players, but here they were and here they are, 40 years later.
Every one of them, forever and ever.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins, the ones who gave South Florida its indelible, enduring moment, one bigger than sports, were arriving Thursday evening for a dinner party at the Miami Lakes home of their old coach, Don Shula — patriarch of perfection.
Shula will turn 83 in a few weeks, but this in many ways would be the party of his life. He doesn’t get around on his own much anymore; his back and legs have betrayed him. To wonder if this could be the last he’ll see of these major anniversary celebrations of Miami’s 17-0 season is not macabre. It is life. It is the unspoken poignancy in the interval march of class reunions that sees time gradually but inexorably thin the gatherings.
Shula was buoyant as he spoke of that night’s private party. The body creaks but those eyes still twinkle. So many of the ’72 Perfectos still live locally, never wanting to leave the city they made magic.
“Yeah we’re having ’em all here to the house. It’s going to be just a wonderful evening to walk through the door,” Shula said. Then, that twinkle, and a barely perceptible smirk as he added, “I can check them in, weigh ’em in and have ’em run gassers. Make life miserable remembering what I used to put ’em through!”
The old jokes like that one are familiar, worn smooth like rocks turned to stones by the tides. They are comforting, like the tick of a clock in a quiet room, like old family heirlooms and recipes. Shula and the ’72 team are that for us — comforting — because they are the one constant. Everything else changes here, but never this.
The Perfect Season.
It always will be. Some other team will match the feat some day (maybe), but perfection can never be exceeded, and chronology counts. Can anybody name the second man on the moon? Meantime, right now, only one team in 93 years of recorded NFL history has ended a season unblemished and so, yeah, that’s worth celebrating — as the club will do Sunday during halftime of the Dolphins’ game against Jacksonville.
Worth holding on
I have gently needled some of the ’72ers over the years for their perceived lack of credit or attention. This, in fact, might be the most celebrated single team of all time and if so, why not? I also have wondered aloud if the franchise paying ongoing homage to an increasingly distant accomplishment doesn’t serve to call attention to the club’s lack of more recent accomplishments.
You know what, though? The Dolphins remain South Florida’s most cherished team — yes, even surviving the challenge of LeBron James’ Heat — and the ’72 Perfect Season, followed by a second consecutive Super Bowl triumph in ’73, is the foundation of this club’s heritage and tradition.
Celebrating that makes us feel good, rosy-nostalgic, just like singing that corny old fight song at games makes us feel good.
As part of this anniversary weekend, a film premiered Saturday night about that ’72 season. It is more than a highlight reel. Wisely, it digs deeper and tries to explain that season’s impact on our community, and how that team — before we had other teams — helped knit our diversity and bring us together.
That team won. And we became one.
I didn’t need to see the film to experience that. Growing up down here, I lived it.
Part of life
The Dolphins are very personal to me. This franchise helped raise me from the young boy I was in expansion year 1966. The Dolphins have been the timeline of my life, and of so many others.
That’s why it amuses me when readers occasionally brand me as “anti-Dolphins” because I might write a critical column. They don’t know how this team is in my blood. This franchise is part of my family. It is a dear old friend.
I was in the Orange Bowl with my father that very first night when Joe Auer returned that kickoff for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. I still have the game program. No memorabilia collector has enough money to pry it from me.
I remember huddling under a blanket with my dad at a late-season game against the Houston Oilers, among maybe 20,000 in attendance, if that.
I’d collect Dolphins trading cards that Royal Castle used to give out. Had a Dolphins pennant on my bedroom wall growing up in west Hollywood. (Do they even make pennants anymore?)
Soon, Shula arrived and the Dolphins got good, very, and fast.
And Greater Miami, so fractured, found its common ground.
Anybody remember The Longest Game on Christmas Day, 1971? It was won on a 37-yard Garo Yepremian field goal in the second overtime, and it marked the franchise’s first-ever playoff win — the first domino that led to halcyon 1972-73.
My father and I, in our living room in front of a boxy Zenith TV, leaped to our feet whooping as that kick sailed through the uprights. The high-five hadn’t been invented yet. The fist-bump was decades away. So we jumped up and down while hugging.
If there is one mental snapshot of the two of us I cannot let go of, it is that one.
(My father passed away in 2004, and that day I thought of that mind’s image from 1971. Some things you cannot control.)
Way back then, the Dolphins used to hold monthly touchdown-club meetings at the old Everglades Hotel (long defunct) right off Biscayne Boulevard near where the Heat’s arena now glimmers. My father worked at the Everglades as a carpenter and had occasion once to nervously introduce himself to the club’s original owner, Joe Robbie, and say what big fans we were.
A couple of weeks later, unsolicited, my father was mailed a football painted white and orange bearing a Dolphins emblem, along with a letter of thanks on team stationary signed by Robbie. This was during the march to the Perfect Season. My dad showed me the ball and letter as if they were gifts from heaven.
Some things never leave you. The pride I saw in my dad’s smile never did.
Years later, near the mid-’90s, I was honored to be able to introduce my father to Shula, a man he so admired. This was late in Shula’s career. My dad was just a bit older. I imagined he would ask the coach some football question. Instead, he asked about a special effect in a car commercial Shula was doing at the time. Go figure.
My father never did forget meeting Shula, or that football and hand-written letter Robbie had sent a quarter-century earlier.
This didn’t start out as a father-son column, and I’m not sure it ever meant to meander on that detour, but maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s right.
The Perfect Season might shine as the grandest moment, but this franchise is bigger than that. Runs deeper with us.
The Dolphins and South Florida are connected by a shared past. Love and pride are involved, which is why the disappointments can hurt so badly. There can be anger at times. We can shake our heads. But in the end, we gather our hope and keep on loving.
That sounds just like family.