Earl Morrall, who famously saved the Miami Dolphins’ perfect season in 1972-73 by stepping in at quarterback when starter Bob Griese was injured, passed away Friday morning on the 42-year anniversary of his acquisition by the Dolphins.
Morrall, who was living in Naples had been in declining health and the cause of death was not immediately known. He was 79.
Sporting his trademark flat-top buzz cut, Morrall also served as quarterback coach at the University of Miami from 1979 to 1983 — tutoring the likes of Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde — and was mayor of Davie for one year.
As Davie’s mayor in 1992, Morrall was a key figure in helping the city convince the Dolphins to move their training facility from St. Thomas University in northwest Dade to its current site at Nova Southeastern University. Morrall left his job as Davie mayor to run as a Republican for the state House of Representatives but narrowly lost that bid.
“He was an unbelievable guy,” former Dolphins coach Don Shula told the Miami Herald. “There were no negatives with him. He was the best guy in the locker room. Great in practice. And on the field he made big plays in big games.
“He was just a fine human being and that transcended everything else. It wasn’t just about his career. In everything he tried, people recognized what a fine individual he was.”
Said Dolphins owner Stephen Ross: “The Miami Dolphins’ family is deeply saddened by the passing of Earl Morrall today. Earl not only left an indelible mark in Dolphins history with his play on the field during the Perfect Season Super Bowl VII Championship team, but was extremely active in the community as a player and Dolphins alumni. He will be greatly missed. Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife Jane, family and friends during this time.”
Morrall played for six teams during a 21-year NFL career that began in 1956 as a first-round selection of San Francisco 49ers. Despite being the second player taken in the ‘56 draft, Morrall bounced around to Pittsburgh then Detroit in a trade for future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne.
Morrall would be with the Lions for the next six years, having his best season there in 1963 by throwing for 2,621 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Morrall also played for the Giants and Colts, guiding Baltimore to a 13-1 record in 1968 while subbing for an injured Johnny Unitas. Morrall had his best season in ’68, throwing for 2,909 yards with 26 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player that season and led Baltimore to the Super Bowl.
Despite his brilliant season, Morrall was remembered for being the losing quarterback in Super Bowl III to the New York Jets. It was the game Jets quarterback Joe Namath sealed with a “guarantee” and Morrall threw three interceptions in the 16-7 loss.
But that low point would not be the defining moment of Morrall’s career.
CLAIMED OFF WAIVERS
On April 25, 1972, Morrall was claimed off waivers by Shula, who coached Morrall in Baltimore and had joined the Dolphins two seasons before. The cost of claiming Morrall on waivers?
$100 for the price of waivers and a big salary for him to sit on the bench.
“I knew what Earl could do from our time in Baltimore,” Shula would say later. “He was an intelligent quarterback who won a lot of ballgames for me. I wanted to pick him up as an insurance policy.
“I had to talk [then-owner] Joe Robbie into doing it because Earl was making $90,000. I wanted to claim him off waivers, and Robbie said, ‘Paying $90,000 for a backup — are you out of your mind?’ ”
The move proved invaluable.
Morrall replaced Griese when the starting quarterback broke his ankle in the fifth game of the season against San Diego. The Dolphins were unbeaten at the time they lost their starting quarterback but Shula showed no public concern putting in Morrall.
“What I remember the most, of course, is what he did in 1972 when he replaced Bob Griese after Bob’s injury and kept our Perfect Season going until Bob returned in the playoffs,” Shula said.
Morrall was 38 years old and the oldest player on the Dolphins when he took over for the injured Griese.
“We lockered next to each other. Our equipment manager, Danny Dowe, got a rocking chair and put it in front of Earl’s locker because he was so much older than the rest of us,” Griese recalled Friday. “We all had folding chairs, but Earl had a rocking chair.
“And if he wasn’t the first guy off the field, by the time he got to his locker, there was always someone else sitting in that chair — me, Zonk [Larry Csonka], Mercury [Morris], or one of the defensive guys. But Earl didn’t care — he just laughed and pulled out a folding chair for himself. That’s the kind of person he was — always a team guy.”
Morrall started the final nine games of the regular season and the Dolphins won them all. Morrall finished that season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions and won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.
Despite his regular-season heroics, Morrall was replaced for the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl as the Dolphins made their final push for a title. But his place in team history was sealed.
“There would not have been a perfect season without Earl Morrall,” Griese said.
Morrall remained with the Dolphins the next four seasons before announcing his retirement on May 2, 1977.
Tim Robbie, eldest son for former owner Joe Robbie, echoed Shula’s appreciation for Morrall on and off the field.
“Our family was saddened to hear of Earl’s passing,” Robbie said. “He was not only a great player and great leader, but he also was a wonderful and caring man. He will be sorely missed by the entire Dolphin family.”
Earl Edwin Morrall was born May 17, 1934 in Muskegon, Mich., and played collegiately at Michigan State.
Morrall played 255 professional games, completing 1,379 passes for 20,809 yards and 161 touchdowns.
He sported that signature buzz cut, which he almost single-handedly brought back into vogue in South Florida in the winter of 1972, throughout the rest of his life.
He is survived by his wife, Jane, and children Matthew, a prominent Fort Lauderdale attorney, Mitchell, Mardi Donahoe, Mindi Morrall-Ansley, Megan Leiti and a host of grandchildren.