Fifty years of Miami Dolphins football history funneled into a Diplomat hotel ballroom in Hollywood on Friday night. Imagine: A half-century. It can be an almost unfathomable amount of time. Unless you have lived it and seen it fly.
From Joe Auer’s kickoff-return touchdown on the franchise’s very first official play in 1966 to the current team facing the New York Giants here Monday night, the Dolphins celebrated their 50 seasons with a gala function that included the introduction of the club’s 50 greatest players, all in their aqua alumni jackets.
Friday’s was more a high-end corporate affair. Violinists strolled during the cocktail hour. There were tuxedos and gowns. Filet mignon was served, and guests received an embossed champagne flute from Tiffany’s. Monday will be more the people’s celebration as fans in the stadium cheer a halftime introduction of those all-time 50 top players.
The golden anniversary season happens at an awkward time, though. It catches Dolfans not particularly in a celebratory mood.
“I can assure you our best days are ahead of us,” club owner Stephen Ross told the sold-out crowd.
Can he, though? When the standard set by the glory days was no less than perfection? When the current team seems headed to a franchise-record seventh consecutive season out of the NFL playoffs?
Dolphins fans today see their pride in the (increasingly distant) past offset by a feeling far from pride over what’s happening lately.
Dolfans, even young ones, can and should feel good vicariously over the 1972 Perfect Season, the lore of Don Shula and the record-setting era of Dan Marino. But Dolfans of all generations long for new glory days to cheer, fresh hope and pride to feel.
For now, no franchise celebrates its heritage — wins the past — better than Miami, but that is partly out of necessity, for the lack of anything recent worth noting. The club has not won even a playoff game since Dec. 30, 2000. The latest generation of fans knows the Fins’ storied past only from the recollections of elders, because their own experience has been watching mediocrity that never seems to end.
“As a steward for a certain amount of time, you have an obligation,” Ross said of owning this franchise.
Yet his Dolphins continue to hobble on the crutch of the past.
So we celebrate 50 seasons even though the past dozen-plus have let us down and done little to add much.
We celebrate what was because it’s safer territory than wondering who the next coach might be or whether quarterback Ryan Tannehill is good enough.
At the gala event Friday night you were starkly reminded how the glory days are getting on in years.
Shula, about to turn 86, gets around in a motorized cart these days. Marino is 54 now, his handsome face lined. Football has given Bill Stanfill a pronounced limp, and turned Bob Baumhower’s hands into gnarled claws. Nick Buoniconti, elegantly holding a glass of white wine, looks more like a U.S. senator than a former linebacker.
Those who were a part of 17-0 perfection in 1972 are getting asked about the Carolina Panthers currently being 12-0. No matter, said Mercury Morris, who has elevated braggadocio to an art form.
“No one cares about the second to do anything,” he said. “We all know about the Grand Canyon. Do you know about the second-biggest canyon?”
Old banter springs forth, naturally, as old teammates reacquaint.
Mark Duper struts into the ballroom beneath a pink hat.
“What a hat!” a grinning Marino says as he greets Duper. “Pink pants would’ve been even better!”
Duper, 20 years out of the game, is still bragging about his speed.
“Dan couldn’t overthrow me if he wanted to,” he says, matter of fact.
And Marino is still needling Duper for never making the effort to dive for a ball.
“You’re the one making all the money,” Duper counters. “Hit me in the chest!”
The 50th anniversary celebration culminating Monday night marks the biggest stage for this franchise since August 2013 when President Obama honored the 1972 Perfectos at the White House.
The next major Dolphins’ occasion to merit this kind of stage and attention will likely be the 50th anniversary of the Perfect Season. That would be in 2022.
I wonder if, by then, the Dolphins will have managed to bestow new glory days upon a generation of Dolfans who want more than to just remember what used to be.
These anniversaries are nice. But Super Bowls make for a pretty good national stage, too.
On Friday night, the Dolphins’ reality — that everything starts with the past, not present — came clear as the evening drew to a close, with the franchise Mount Rushmore on stage.
Shula was flanked by Larry Csonka, Bob Griese and Marino as the old coach led the crowd in lifting glasses of champagne.
“Here’s a toast to the winners,” he said.
To the past ones being celebrated in this 50th Dolphins season.
And to the next ones, Dolfans can only hope.
Read Greg Cote’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.