Bear hugs outnumbered handshakes and old nicknames flew around the room at this latest — and greatest — reunion of the 1972 Perfect Season Dolphins in a hotel ballroom here Monday night. It will reach the White House on Tuesday, at last. For now, there was laughter and the loud pitch of guys shouting each other down as old friends do.
And there was the smallest poignant whisper amid the frivolity.
“It just seems like yesterday to me,” Don Shula said. “But when you look at me you can tell it’s been 40 years.”
Miami’s great Hall of Fame coach uses a walker to be helped into a motorized scooter most times these days, including Monday, thanks to debilitating back issues. His hair has gone snow white. He is 83.
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The smile has kept its vigor and his wisecracks are vintage — “You look slimmer,” he tells Mercury Morris. “You payin’ for your own food now?” — but a glance at Shula physically leaves no doubt how much time has passed, and why these get-togethers are more and more precious.
A glance at Shula now can punch at the heart a little bit.
His old players bent or kneeled to be photographed with him, like subjects at the foot of a king.
You’re damned right the ’72 Dolphins show up for these things. It isn’t just pride. It’s their own mortality ringing in their ears. When you meet at five-year intervals (and occasionally more, like this time), you see aging in time-lapse photography. You see your numbers thinning.
Shula and Howard Schnellenberger, 79, are the only Perfect Season coaches alive and able to travel now. Thirty-one players are here, which, less the eight who have died, is a solid number.
A few wanted to attend but could not. One was Jake Scott, who runs a charter fishing boat in Hawaii and had work obligations. Another, farmer Vern Den Herder, had crops that needed harvesting.
Three other old Perfectos are staying away for political reasons to varying degrees, in objection to President Barack Obama’s policies. They are Manny Fernandez, Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer.
They are cheating themselves. They are cheating the time they have left with Shula and their comrades who shared history with them.
The vast majority of the ’72 Dolphins understand a White House honor is a political thing only to the small-minded.
“It’s an honor I am going into the greatest house in the world, in the most giving country in the world,” as Garo Yepremian put it Monday night, prior to a private team dinner. “Especially for me.”
Yepremian was born in Cyprus to a family that had no indoor plumbing and cooked olive pits to make a fire for warmth. His family emigrated to the United States with young Garo having no knowledge of American football. But here he was, all these years later, celebrating perfection, success, history, life and friendship.
Said Bob Griese: “I don’t look at this as a political invitation. It’s the White House. It’s the representative of what this country stands for. It’s above politics.”
Nodding agreement came from Nick Buoniconti. “You put your politics behind you,” he said. “The president is asking you to come to his house? He’s going to honor you? I was thrilled. I’m humbled.”
The time it took to get this White House honor makes it that much more special. It resonates like a lifetime achievement award. Like a final, unequivocal stamp.
“The president himself was a kid when we were going on,” noted Larry Csonka.
People who are not from South Florida, or who are too young to have experienced the Perfect Season, sometimes have a problem with how others of us hold that accomplishment with such continuing reverence.
We hold it carefully and with pride like we would a precious family heirloom, because it is that.
The outsiders make fun. Say we’re “obsessed with the past.” They don’t get it.
See, those were the days. When Miami mattered nationally in sports for the first time.
We were kings for the first time.
Those were dark days in South Florida sports, and those Dolphins threw open all the curtains and let in all the light.
Think about that era. The Miami Floridians of the old ABA had folded in 1970, and the NBA and Heat would not arrive until 1988. The University of Miami would drop its basketball program for 14 years starting in 1971, and Hurricanes football would spend that entire decade not appearing in a single bowl game. The baseball Marlins and hockey Panthers, of course, were two decades away.
We didn’t have much, and what we did have bore the stink of loss, when Shula arrived and everything so quickly changed.
What that felt like, and how it brought us together as a community, was profound because we hadn’t done it before, hadn’t felt it.
We are infatuated now with the LeBron James and the Heat, but to those of us of a certain age, those of us raised by the Dolphins, we will always remember our first love.
Tuesday at the White House, the Perfect Season finally gets its historical stamp.
Monday night inside closed ballroom doors — that was for family, for old teammates. That was for old friends saying thanks, in their own way.
“How’s it feel to be responsible for all this!” Dick Anderson called out to the one man who was.
Seated but standing tall as ever, Don Shula let his smile answer for him.