Sometimes justice takes its time. Forty-one years is a long, long wait for anything, but it feels right that the 1972 Dolphins finally are getting their due with next week’s White House visit. It will be purely ceremonial, but for these men now all in their late 60s and older — led by 83-year-old coach Don Shula — the occasion will be symbolic, too.
It will represent the long-elusive perfect ending to the Perfect Season.
“Puts the cherry on top of the cake,” as former safety Dick Anderson put it Wednesday.
It also represents closure of sorts for a collection of proud men who perhaps never have quite gotten the full attention their unique claim to history merited.
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“Feels like it’s come full circle with this. It realty does,” said Larry Little, the great old guard. “Winning two Super Bowls in a row, that was great. Going into the Hall of Fame, that was great. But this honor is just as great. It’s so special. The common man does not go to the White House.”
Little mentioned how it was extra meaningful for him because Barack Obama is our first African-American president. Then he let loose a deep, rumbling laugh, and added, “But I’d have gone even if Nixon came back from the grave and invited us!”
Richard Nixon was a football-loving president who called Shula more than once while staying at the “Florida White House” on Key Biscayne. He loved to suggest plays.
“He became a Dolphins fan, and I remember once he suggested we throw a slant-in pass to [Paul] Warfield,” Shula recalled Wednesday, from his California vacation home. Miami ran that play all the time, but Shula was polite, of course. “He was the president! So I just said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ ”
Nixon was preoccupied with a little thing called Watergate as 1972 swung into ’73, as the Dolphins’ perfection was minted. Besides, the now-common practice of championship teams being honored at the White House did not begin until years later. The Dolphins’ belated visit wouldn’t have happened at all if Marv Fleming hadn’t mentioned it last year to someone who knew someone on the White House legal staff, who then helped cut through the red tape to make it happen.
Posing with Obama on Tuesday is likely to bring the Perfectos a level of attention that even 40-plus years of historic NFL distinction has not.
Everything was so different back when those Dolphins were going 17-0 to create the sport’s only perfect season, before or since. In sports, those were like prehistoric times compared to today. That team was frozen in a black-and-white Daguerreotype relative to the explosion of color and action that would soon come.
Sports operated in a vacuum next to now. Contrasted to the maniacal attention and celebrity attached to LeBron James and the champion Heat today, the ’72 Dolphins were closer to a secret.
The boom was coming, but it was no there yet.
Nike, the phenomenon that paved the way for athletes to make as much or more money in endorsements as from their team, began in 1978.
ESPN, the network that changed everything, debuted on Sept.7, 1979.
Sports-talk radio would not begin to gain a national presence until the early ’80s.
The word “Internet” was first used in 1982.
“No cable TV, no talk radio, no 24-hour sports,” Anderson said. “ Monday Night Football was the biggest deal in the world.”
The Dolphins (and most other NFL teams) had no weight room back then. Players who wanted to lift had to go to a local health club.
The average NFL player salary in 1972 was $27,500, and, even considering the much lower cost of living, that pales to what athletes make now.
Players routinely had second jobs.
Little counseled troubled kids at a youth hall and was a substitute teacher at Homestead Middle School.
Anderson was an insurance agent who would call clients before and after practices.
“In those days you had to have another job if you wanted to get ahead,” Anderson said. “Shula was always telling me to get off the phone!”
Those were the un-spot-lit days when coaches or players might drink in a hotel bar with reporters. Why? No social media. No smartphones to tweet out a photo. No Deadspins or TMZs to scandalize it. No ESPN SportsCenter to put the story in heavy rotation.
You had a lot more privacy in 1972.
You also had a lot less stardom and attention (along with a lot less money).
“You just didn’t have the exposure,” as Anderson put it.
Said Shula: “We got all the accolades we could get. Everything there was. But it was a different time.”
Some of those missing accolades finally catch up to the ’72 Dolphins on Tuesday with the ultimate photo-op and meet-and-greet, at the White House, where Obama, if he knows a good quip, might mention that even his own back-to-back victories in 2008 and 2012 were no more impressive than Miami’s titles in 1972 and 1973.
The symbolism in the visit is that is represents the ultimate, official credit, sort of an historical stamp.
“It’s not so much the importance,” said Mercury Morris of the occasion, “as the appreciation.”
You remember how Little mentioned that “the common man does not go to the White House?”
The most uncommon men in NFL history do. It took 41 years, but that’s OK.
They got there.