Miami Dolphins players visit Versailles, Freedom Tower and The Historic Lyric Theater during cultural tour
The behemoth tour bus carrying Miami Dolphins players, staff and some community partners turns off Calle Ocho onto Southwest 35th avenue, and soon these folks that have no connection with Cuban culture are browsing the munchies on display at Versailles Restaurant’s famed Little Havana location — professional athletes acting like kids in a candy store as they decide between pastelitos filled with guayaba (guava) or the ones filled with guayaba y queso (guava and cheese).
Someone hands punter Matt Haack and kicker Jason Sanders a cup of iced coffee and tells them it’s a Cafe Cubano, which of course it is not, but they figure that out when they take a traditional tiny plastic cup and down the real sugary black brew — which a Google search reveals is twice as strong as American coffee.
The group is mingling outside the famous Versailles ventanita, or open window, where waitresses serve the brew along with Cuban snacks to immigrants and future presidents (Donald Trump visited in September 2016) alike.
This is an obligatory stop for anyone wanting to mix with a segment of Miami’s Hispanic community.
The place is loud and chaotic. It’s a full-throated statement of Cuban culture.
And the Dolphins dive right in.
Linebacker Jerome Baker gets the rundown on ordering croquetas or pastelitos or empanadas or a papa rellena, which is a fried potato stuffed with ground beef. First-round draft pick Minkah Fitzpatrick mingles with the crowd. So do receiver Leonte Carroo and defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman.
The players are not wearing uniform numbers or helmets, but it takes maybe five minutes for a group of waitresses to realize who they are. A group of the women come outside and although they do not speak English, they know the word that gets them what they want: “Photo, photo, photo,” they say to the players.
Soon the guys who played for Alabama, Ohio State, New Mexico and Arizona State are smiling and taking pictures with these women who were not born here, have never been to a Dolphins game and, frankly, don’t know a first down from a touchdown.
In one shot the group stands arm-in-arm and that makes sense. Because the Dolphins are working to find new links to their community.
Tuesday is a players’ day off. So some of them participate in the club’s new Football Unites Cultural Tour initiative. The Dolphins designed the program to show their players, staff and youth from throughout the community the richness and diverse nature of South Florida — a place made up of white, black, Hispanic, Haitian, Bahamian, Seminole, Jewish, Protestant, Miccosukee, Catholic, everything and everyone.
The Dolphins want to go into areas they don’t typically visit. Players practice in Davie, play in Miami Gardens and spend their off hours in places that have nothing to do with the places these tours will ultimately visit. And it makes sense that trips into these divergent places will lead Dolphins people to mix with folks they wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
This day’s excursion shows off the historic Lyric Theater in Overtown and visits the Freedom Tower in Downtown Miami. The four-hour excursion finishes off in Little Havana at Versailles and then with a ride east down Calle Ocho.
This is only the first Dolphins outing in what will be a series of monthly trips around the community in partnership with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In the coming months the Dolphins will visit the Haitian community. They will be on Miami Beach, including at the Holocaust Museum, which recounts the systematic murder of six million Jews during World War II. They will visit the Stranahan House, where they will learn the story of Fort Lauderdale founding father Frank Stranahan. They will visit the Seminole Tribe.
The team will also be adding other venues to visit and other people to meet. Different types of people. That’s the goal.
“I want to learn more about Miami,” Baker, a rookie third-round pick says. “I’ve been here a few months, but this is a chance to see more and experience new people. That’s why I came. I want to meet as many different people as I can.
“It’s amazing. There’s so much culture in Miami. People when they think of Miami they think of South Beach. But there’s so much more to it. It’s kind of cool to learn and see other people’s cultures. And this Cuban coffee is nothing to play with.”
When the Dolphins arrive at Versailles there’s a van parked next to the restaurant. It is white. And it has a Dolphins helmet painted on the doors. And it has aqua and orange stripes down the side. And there’s a Dolphins logo on the back window.
If you didn’t know better you’d think an advance party from the team showed up to scout Versailles ahead of everyone’s arrival. But that’s not the case.
The van belongs to Dr. Albert Cohen, who is president and medical director of Boca Delray Pathology Labs and Medical Director of Pathology at both Delray Medical Center and West Boca Medical Center.
Cohen came to the United States from Cuba with his parents and sisters at the age of 9.
“My dad was a doctor in Cuba so he came here and became a janitor at Mount Sinai Hospital,” Cohen says. “Then he passed his boards and after that it was like the typical story for everybody else.”
That “typical story” includes Cohen following in his dad’s footsteps and completing his pathology training at Yale University Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Oh, yes, and Cohen is a huge Dolphins fan.
“I’ve been a Dolphins fan since the Perfect Season,” he says. “I live in Delray Beach. I showed up [at Versailles] because my son is at [the University of Miami] so I met him here to get some lunch.”
Cohen is thrilled by the coincidence he’s at Versailles during the Dolphins’ visit. He suffered a stroke six months ago and is in a wheelchair now so he’s still recovering. But his enthusiasm for the players and the moment is unimpaired.
“Where’s Fitzpatrick, he’s a stud,” Cohen says, searching the group.
Fitzpatrick spends a minute or two listening to Cohen give him advice. Sam Madison, a former Dolphins cornerback also on the trip, similarly spends time with Cohen.
Cohen says he has a suite at the stadium and invites Fitzpatrick and Baker “to come up and get some food” on any game day. The Dolphins play the Raiders at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, and Cohen wants his team to improve its record to 3-0.
“Go get ‘em buddies,” he tells Fitzpatrick and Baker, before warning them, “The Raiders are dirty.”
The players are all smiles. So are their new fans. Look, I’ve covered the Dolphins for a long time. There have been some bad days during that span.
But this is a good day.
“I think if you want to be active in the community, it’s really important to understand where people come from,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s hard to reach out to somebody if you don’t know who they are, what they are, the way they are. I just think it’s important to get out into the community and get an understanding what people are about.”
Before the group leaves, Versailles owner Felipe Valls comes out to say hello. The Valls family story is similar to that of many Cubans in America. He was born in Santiago de Cuba and his family came to the United States with nothing.
So Felipe Sr. didn’t just step foot in Miami and open a world renown destination spot.
“It was tough for Cubans when we got here,” Valls says. “He started working odd jobs. He actually started working in a used equipment company with a very nice Jewish fellow on Miami Avenue. And the first thing he did is start importing espresso machines from Spain and Italy and created one of the first coffee corner windows on Flagler and 12th Avenue.”
Now the Valls family owns something of an empire of restaurants and other businesses throughout South Florida. They have a Versailles at Hard Rock Stadium.
“It means a lot to me because the Dolphins are a first-rate operation,” Valls says. “We’re actually in the stadium because they reached out to us to have some of the Cuban culture in the stadium. So we feel proud of that. It’s not a great deal for us, but it helps the community and the Dolphins having that presence there. And that they came here so the players and the youth see the place, for me it’s heart-warming. It’s a real pleasure.”