You enter the vast East Room of the White House and veer left through a marbled reception area, past a Marine playing a waltz on a grand piano from the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency. You enter the ornate main room with its long, gold drapes and gilded frames, and you notice the gaze of a painting of George Washington from 1797, the oldest possession in America’s most historic place.
Suddenly that silver 1972 Super Bowl trophy shining on a table doesn’t seem so old. Suddenly the 41 years it took the Perfect Season Dolphins to get to this place seems worth the wait.
All at once Tuesday, Miami’s famed 17-0 season was elevated to a piece of Americana, and given a historical context beyond its place in football and sports.
“I can go no higher,” whispered Larry Little, the old Hall of Fame guard. “I’m on the White House grounds.”
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The president of the United States almost always enters a public ceremony here by himself, introduced alone. Tuesday afternoon, though, it was as if Barack Obama felt he was in equal company. The man to whom the world defers was the one showing deference.
After the 31 players from that perfect team had filed in and stood on a three-level metal riser and the packed room had hushed again in anticipation, there came these words:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States accompanied by coach Shula.”
The shared entrance showed respect for Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, now 83 and in a motorized scooter due to back problems. A poignant moment came later when the president helped Shula up briefly so they could pose for a photo.
This 20-minute ceremony wouldn’t be all solemn or serious, though.
These two leaders — the most powerful man in the world and the former coach who seemed like that to Dolfans for so long — were here for a good time.
“I know some of these guys are a little hard to recognize,” the president joked of the former players behind him who all are in their late 60s and older now. “They don’t have the Afros, the muttonchops and the Fu Manchus.. . .”
Obama kidded that he only invited the ’72 team because, “I wanted to be the young guy up here for once.”
The president had just turned 11 when the Dolphins set out on the NFL’s only perfect season, before or since, but it’s well-known that Obama, from Chicago, grew up a Bears fan. When the president mentioned he had the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears to the White House a few years ago, a devious smile crawled onto Shula’s face.
“That Bears team lost only one game . . .” Obama began.
“Who beat ’em!?” Shula cut in, away from a microphone but loud enough to hear.
“I think it was the Miami Dolphins,” said the president, matching Shula’s grin.
The old coach wasn’t done feeling feisty.
Later, he handed Obama a No. 72 aqua Dolphins jersey with UNDEFEATED stitched on it, signed by all the players. Then Shula couldn’t resist saying, “Hopefully you can find a nice place somewhere in your office where you can look at it and think about the whipping we put on those ’85 Bears!”
(“I kidded him a little bit about those Bears,” Shula had to admit later, his continuing grin indicating little remorse.)
The Perfectos were given a private tour of the White House prior to the afternoon ceremony, and just before it enjoyed a brief meet-and-greet alone with the president, a big sports fan.
The demands on any president’s time are obvious, but a ready reminder came Tuesday in the juxtaposition of real life and the fun time of the Dolphins visit.
One minute, we media there for the Dolphins were in the crowded White House press briefing room as observers, listening to deputy press secretary Josh Earnest (fabulous name!) being grilled by Washington reporters on the day’s big news story: reports that the United States had cut off aid to Egypt.
The next minute, we were being escorted past a vintage grand piano into a room with a Super Bowl trophy in it.
The whole day had a strange, giddy feel. Half surreal, half time warp.
“Last time I came to Washington, D.C., I was 8 years old on a school outing,” said the old running back, Jim Kiick. “I didn’t get to meet the president that time.”
One ex-Dolphin, former receiver Otto Stowe, wore an Obama/Martin Luther King button on his lapel. Another noted a link between one sport’s only undefeated team and Obama being the country’s first African-American president.
“Unique team, unique president,” said Larry Csonka. “It fits.”
A few of the ’72 Dolphins did not attend for political reasons, but the loss was theirs. Current club owner Stephen Ross is a staunch Republican and was a major donor to Mitt Romney, but Ross attended, paid for the team’s trip and thanked the president.
This was a time to be bigger than one’s own politics. And to recognize the White House and what it symbolizes are bigger than the policies of any one current occupant.
I can admit to you on a personal level, as someone who is an American before he is a journalist, that this experience hit me and made me proud in a way that covering Super Bowls, Olympics, World Series and NBA Finals does not.
Every day, all day, you see dozens of people standing outside this place’s tall, wrought-iron gates, just quietly staring at the White House, some for hours. It can bring a tear to your eye, if you let it.
“We all had a smile on our face today,” said the team’s quarterback, Bob Griese, echoing the vast majority of players thrilled to attend. “We had a great day and the White House treated us greatly.”
Many members of that 17-0 team have let on over the years a sense that they lacked respect. Even Obama acknowledged that during the event, saying, “These Dolphins didn’t always get the credit they deserve.”
Tuesday, they did.
It took 41 years, but they got it.
“It’s a reward,” said Griese. “It’s the country officially receiving a team that accomplished something special.”
So there they stood, right in between a priceless oil painting of George Washington and the sitting president of the United States — the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
They were there because they were perfect, once.
They still are.