Jim Kiick is sitting in front of a wonderful plate of Italian food from a menu he picked out. There’s two types of pasta. There’s meatballs and sausages. There’s also chicken francaise. Kiick’s high school girlfriend is sitting on his lap. An ex-wife is whispering sweet things into his right ear. And all around, more than two dozen high school and college buddies, family, and former Miami Dolphins are celebrating the one-time perfect season running back.
Welcome to Jim Kiick’s birthday party Thursday night.
This is the marking of 72 years for one of the 1972 team’s heroes.
It’s a wonderful night with speeches and toasts and memories all mingling in the head of what honestly seems like a pretty sharp-minded Kiick.
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This event has it all. Multiple people in the room wear 1972 or ‘73 Dolphins Super Bowl rings because they played on those great teams. A couple of attendees, Larry Little and Dwight Stephenson, are Pro Football Hall of Famers.
As with many parties, somebody makes maybe one trip too many to the open bar and is stumbling about.
And before it ends there’s Kiick getting teary-eyed as he intently watches Don Shula wish him a happy birthday via a video the NFL’s winningest coach recorded while out in California the day before.
In the video Shula recalls the play that made Kiick, well, Kiick: “Halfback short option,” Shula says before leading to the typical result of the play.
“Giving us touchdowns and first downs,” the coach recalls.
The folks who run the Independence Hall assisted living facility, where Kiick now resides, got the wonderful idea to celebrate this milestone birthday with a bash.
And I expect to see Kiick weak. Or not really lucid. I expect to see a man fighting a battle with dementia as has been reported multiple times by multiples news outlets.
We’ve all read the accounts of Kiick’s diminishing mental state. And we all cringe at the idea that one of our iconic sports heroes — the same guy who once was so strong he blocked for 245-pound Larry Csonka on that Perfect Season team — isn’t always all there.
But this night, for these fabulous three or four hours, none of that seems true. Kiick is alert. His handshake is firm. He speaks without hesitation. He even works the hall where about two dozen of his friends and family have gathered — greeting people, hugging and laughing with them.
Kiick is no longer that consummate 1970s stud he once was — the one with the bushy dark hair and beard and the mysterious and mischievous demeanor. It’s been 40-some years since that Kiick was part of the greatest backfield in Dolphins history by day and roamed the nightclubs of old Miami by night.
But Kiick’s signature piercing blue eyes? They’re not dim. Not at all.
“I feel good,” Kiick says. “I still go to the gym Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. So I feel good.”
Kiick is standing next to former teammate Mercury Morris, who by the way, looks great. Morris is 71. He’s trim. He’s fit. I hug him and it’s like hugging a muscle.
“I used to go the gym and warm up for 15 minutes and work out for 50 minutes,” Morris says. “Now I go and warm up for 50 minutes and work out for 15.”
He’s joking. And he’s not alone.
I ask Morris to show off his “guns,” meaning his biceps.
“They’re not guns anymore,” Kiick chimes in. “They’re pistols.”
The relationship between Kiick and Morris has developed into a special bond. Morris lives in Homestead, which is about 69 miles from Wilton Manors where Independence Hall is located. But at least once a month Morris and Debbie Ronca, who he’s been with for six years, drive north to have dinner with Kiick.
They usually end up going to a nearby Jersey Mike’s sub shop.
“Because I’m from Jersey,” Kiick explains.
Morris and Kiick once shared one position on the Super Bowl Dolphins. Don Shula often said if he gave Kiick the football more in any game, Morris would be in his office the next day wanting an explanation. And if he gave Morris the ball more, Kiick would be in his office the next day wanting an explanation.
But now Kiick and Morris are dismissing that tale as mere legend.
“Jim and I shared that spot and we made it work,” Morris says. “It was such a perfect fit.”
Kiick, standing shoulder to shoulder with Morris, agrees.
“He and I together were the best running back in football,” Kiick says. “We were the perfect combination. What he could do, I couldn’t. What I could do, he couldn’t. Together we could do it all.”
“I love this guy, honestly,” Morris says. “Plus we’re kind of like opposites and opposites attract.”
“Yeah, some people like to talk a lot and some people don’t,” he says. “Guess which one of us is which.”
The pair proceed to tell a story about a long-ago trip to Alaska that includes details about a jarring boat ride, a visit with Csonka, and what happens when you don’t wear the right clothes in freezing weather. Then they recount an argument about which one caught the bigger fish.
The reason the story finally, thankfully ends is because more people are arriving and Kiick wants to greet them.
Think of this: Kiick graduated from Boonton High School in 1964. And sitting at one of the tables near his table of honor are five of his classmates, including his old girlfriend Iris Burnett.
Burnett says she splits time between South Florida and upstate New York but whenever she’s in town, she visits Kiick. This, she says, despite the fact Kiick broke her heart when he decided not to take her to the senior prom.
So why this dedication to Jim Kiick 54 years later?
“Because I love him,” Burnett says. “It’s been over 50 years. He went off and got married in college. Can you believe it? I eventually got married. He didn’t take me to the prom because he said it wasn’t cool. But I still love him. To this day.”
Little, one of the great guards in NFL history, probably understands some of what Burnett feels. He’s one of 10 or so former Dolphins teammates, players or staff attending the party on a night the 2018 Dolphins are playing. And I ask him why he came here instead of go to the game.
“Because I love him,” Little says. “We were great teammates together. A few years ago we were on a great trip to Indiana together and spent time together. So I’m happy I could be a part of this.
“And look at him. He looks good. He knew me right away. That’s a good feeling.”
Kiick forged these relationship long ago and they’ve withstood the test of time. But, yes, it required work. People don’t just stay close through the years without someone making an effort.
“I used to go back to New Jersey in the offseason,” Kiick says. “Most of the people stayed down here but I was back in New Jersey after the season. I would see friends and visit family. The first two years I went back I had to shovel snow for hours. I finally told my mother and father at the time if you want to see me more you have to start coming down here. I went back sometimes in the summer time. So I kept in contact with people.
“And that’s why we still keep in contact.”
Austin, Kiick’s 29-year-old son with his second wife Mary, opened an electric bike shop in Fort Lauderdale a year ago and is hoping that takes off. But aside from attending to his business Austin works closely with Lori Musto, the Independence Hall administrator, to keep Kiick well.
“He looks great. He’s doing well. He’s got no pain,” Austin says. “For a former running back his knees are great. His back is fine.”
Musto had photos and mementos from throughout Kiick’s life taped or tacked to a side way in the dining hall. One of those photos features Kiick standing next to former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who is holding a baby in his arms.
The photo was taken inside a former New York City nightclub called Batchelors III, which was famous for it’s popularity and infamous for attracting people with dubious reputations. Namath owned part of the establishment for a while before he was forced to divest by the NFL.
It was a dark time for Namath. But that photo suggests great days. And the baby Namath is holding in the nightclub is Brandon, Kiick’s son with his first wife.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Brandon says. “Amazing right?”
Brandon Kiick, an investigator for CVS pharmacy, flew in from Colorado for his father’s birthday party. He’s happy he did. And he’s happy with what he sees.
“I think we were all worried at first when he got here because he’s a strong-minded person,” Brandon says. “But now we know he’s well taken care of. And he likes it. He’s got incredible friends and [Mercury], it moves my heart that he comes here often.
“We were sitting over here and some of the first people started to walk in. And I saw my dad tear up. He’s never been a crier. He’s always been very stone-faced. But to see that, it’s moving. It’s really cool. People might think he’s lonely here. But Austin has done so much for him and I appreciate that. He’s taken on the burden.
“And to see these people come and wish my dad a happy birthday and spend time with him, it’s just awesome.”
About three hours after it starts, as if timed like an NFL game, this celebration reaches its climax. A cake baked to look like football field is rolled out and everyone sings Happy Birthday.
Someone places the lighted cake in front of him and Jim Kiick blows out the candles. They all go out in one breath.
Kiick looks around the room and smiles. This 72nd birthday party feels like that ‘72 season.
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