Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Earl Morrall an understudy who played starring role to perfection

There are names from our distant sports past that resonate. We knew plenty of other athletes far more famous, plenty of heroes we cheered for much longer. But those certain resonating names are iconic just the same. They stood for something. They mattered. They are the names that conjure a fond smile, the names kept in a special small place in a fan’s heart.

Earl Morrall was one of those.

We lost the man on Friday, but not the memories.

Morrall, who had such a huge hand in the Dolphins’ 1972 Perfect Season, passed away at age 79 in Naples, Fla., after years of declining health.

To plenty of Dolfans of a certain age, you say “17 and 0” and one of the first images that surfaces is of the aging quarterback with the close-cropped crew cut — the stand-in actor who played the role of his life and then left the stage with such grace.

Don Shula brought Morrall, then a 38-year-old veteran, to Miami in the spring of ’72 as what he called “insurance” to back up young Bob Griese. The coach had no idea he’d have to cash that policy so soon, or how great the dividends might be.

Griese suffered a broken ankle in the fifth game of the season. The aging understudy stepped in and guided Miami to nine consecutive victories in the regular season and two more in the playoffs, winning AFC Player of the Year honors.

Then, as the team began preparations for the Super Bowl, Morrall was summoned to Shula’s office.

“I called him in, sat him down and told him what I was going to do, that this is how I think we have the best chance to win,” Shula recalled Friday. “He said, ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’ll be ready if and when you need me.’ ”

The QB who’d been 11-0 and led his team to the championship game was being benched. Griese would start the Super Bowl. Morrall could have pitched a fit, publicly or within the team or both, causing a mess for Shula and a major distraction that might have been a gut punch to perfection. If such a decision happened today, it would be debated ad nauseum on ESPN and be a national controversy.

Instead, Morrall stepped aside with grace, the unselfish person he always was.

“When I think about Earl, I think about all good things,” Shula said. “He was one of the finest combination human beings and football players I ever had the opportunity to coach. Always team-first.”

(As an aside, it is sobering to reckon that the Dolphins’ 1972-73 Super Bowl triumphs have grown so distant that time has begun peeling away the men who climbed that mountain. Shula is 84 now. Griese is 69. The halcyon days grow ever faint, participants and eyewitnesses gradually thinning).

Morrall would throw only 284 passes, total, in his five seasons with the Dolphins. Fifteen quarterbacks in the franchise annals have attempted more. But you’d whittle the list down to two — Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Griese — if the category was QBs who had a greater imprint than Morrall on the club’s history.

Shula had brought Morrall to Miami because he knew him from their days in Baltimore with the Colts. There, Morrall suffered a career pain that hurt him far more than having the football taken from him before the ’72-season Super Bowl.

Morrall, again the stand-in thrust into a starring role, was the Colts’ starting QB in 1968 only because Johnny Unitas was injured, but was named NFL Most Valuable Player in leading the heavily favored Colts to the Super Bowl against the New York Jets.

You guessed it. Morrall was on the losing end of Joe Namath’s famous “guarantee.”

The last time I spoke with Morrall, in February 2010, I had to bring that up because I was writing a column on how much Super Bowl success or failure can shape lives.

I phoned Morrall in Naples. His wife, Jane, answered. I said why I wished to speak with Earl and she groaned.

“Our kids were in junior high then, and they got teased so badly. It was horrible,” she said, speaking of something that had happened 41 years earlier as if the wound had never quite healed. “It has left such a bad taste in our family’s throat.”

Morrall came to the phone, referred to Namath’s “showboating,” and made clear the regret was still there.

“It shouldn’t have happened, but it did,” he said of that loss, one of the biggest upsets in sports history. “You look back, even though that’s where the ifs come in ”

When longtime Dolphins fans look back, though, there is only appreciation where Morrall is concerned — no ifs.

His final NFL year was 1976, ending a 21-season, six-team odyssey spent mostly as the selfless reserve, ready when called upon. He won three Super Bowl rings and the admiration of those who knew him. That final year in Miami, Dolphins players sat on folding metal chairs set in front of their training-camp lockers. Except Morrall. In front of his locker was an ornate rocking chair that then-equipment manager Danny Dowe had given him. He had earned it. The throne, and the rest.

Morrall went on to coach University of Miami quarterbacks for a while, mentoring the likes of Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde.

The past dozen years, he helped lead the annual Earl Morrall NFL Alumni Celebrity-Charity Golf Classic in Naples. Just last month, Morrall, his health fading, helped present a $25,000 check to the tournament’s latest cause, Naples’ Community Cooperative Ministries Inc. (CCMI) soup kitchen.

Now he’s gone, but his name will always resonate in Dolphins history.

If the 1972 Perfect Season remains the franchise’s landmark, then Morrall’s role in that cannot be underestimated. Between the 11-0 record in games he started and then the selfless way he put the team first when demoted, Earl Morrall was everything the Dolphins needed him to be that magical season:

He was the Perfect Quarterback.

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