Fifty years have gone by, which is plenty of time to be confronted with the realities of life and, unfortunately, death. By Larry Little’s count, the number is up to 16 – 16 teammates lost from the only team in NFL history for whom losing was never in the cards.
Little, naturally, is looking forward to this weekend’s reunion of the 1972 Dolphins, the 17-0 Dolphins, the Perfect Season (capital letters, thank you) Dolphins. Call it what you like, but just know this reunion comes tinged with melancholy.
“He was there for the last one,” Little, a Hall of Fame guard, was saying. “He” is coach Don Shula, who died in 2020 at age 90, long after his championship players stopped thinking of him so much as the taskmaster and began seeing him as a friend.
As much as that loss stings, there’s more.
“This is probably our last time being together as a group,” Little said.
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It’s not just the wonder associated with a 50th anniversary — the golden anniversary. You’re at a restaurant, you learn that the couple in the next booth is celebrating their 50th anniversary. If your first instinct is to offer congratulations, your next instinct is to ask how in the heck. Same with this team.
But the 51st anniversary? Even if the organization brings back surviving members of the team annually, never will it carry the mystique this 50th reunion does.
Little is 76 now, the same age Marlin Briscoe was when he died in June. The records show he was a receiver for the Dolphins, which almost is a disservice. History tells us he was the first Black quarterback in NFL history while playing for the Denver Broncos. Briscoe was one of Little’s closest friends on the team.
“It will be a joyous moment for us, but it still is going to be kind of a sad occasion for us,” Little said.
Larry Csonka: Every year a team goes on a run, our reputation is on the line
Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka, one of the men who benefited most from Little’s dominance on the line, prefers to look at this weekend on the brighter side, even though he too recently lost a close friend on the team in running back Jim Kiick. To Csonka, virtually every October, every November, breathes new life into the 1972 Dolphins.
Let him explain:
“We’re looking at each other, pressing flesh and able to talk and lean on each other and smile and smoke cigars and all of that. But there’s a unity that goes on with the ’72 team that’s going on every year — that it’s the most alive team that I’ve ever been affiliated with, I think anyone’s ever been affiliated with — because it’s still competing.
“And you guys know what I’m about to say. As soon as we get five (wins by one unbeaten team), just like right now, I’m starting to get field calls from Manny Fernandez, different guys going, ‘What do you think of Philadelphia? What do you think their odds are that they’re going to be able to …’ Right away, see, what that does is, we’re dusty, old guys. We’ve been retired 50 years, obviously 50 years since we went undefeated. But each year, we come back to life. It’s like the dust blows off, and we’re up and we’re talking, you know, it’s an us-against-them kind of thing. But it’s not really us against them. It’s our reputation against them.”
Csonka isn’t alone in this line of thinking.
“They bring us all back from the dead and start talking about us again,” Little said. “But other than that, they forget about us.”
Fifty years are enough to make the bones creak, but not enough to temper these guys’ competitive spirit.
“There’s still a competition going on,” Csonka said. “And the great thing about it is we don’t have to listen to Shula and we’re not having two-a-days.”
This year, it’s the 6-0 Eagles who have these Dolphins’ attention, forcing the champagne to remain on ice. Csonka said they’ll “growl” with each successive victory, but only to a point.
“It makes you feel current,” Csonka said.
Could anyone have predicted no other team could go undefeated?
For all that time has taken, it also has given. No telling, had you taken a survey of the Dolphins following their Super Bowl victory over Washington to complete the 17-0 season, how many would have figured we’d be here in 2022 appreciating a team with no peer whatsoever.
“Twenty years is good,” Little said. “But 50 years is just amazing.”
Tom Brady and the 2007 New England Patriots came close before getting derailed in the Super Bowl by a New York Giants team coached by Tom Coughlin, which made Csonka doubly delighted because he and Coughlin were Syracuse teammates and are lifelong buddies. You can also toss in the 1985 Chicago Bears in the “almost” category, if you insist.
“You’re either on top of that mountain and undefeated or you’re not,” Csonka said. “Almost doesn’t count for much.”
Quarterback Bob Griese suffered a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle early in the 1972 season, forcing a yeoman’s effort by backup Earl Morrall before Griese led the team through the postseason.
“So what?” Griese said of the prevailing thought back then. “So you were undefeated and win the Super Bowl. Somebody’s gonna do it again in five years. Nobody did it in 10 years. ‘Oh, well, they’ll do it soon.’ Fifteen years, nobody has done it. Twenty years? No, nobody. Thirty. You know, then the good teams come by, the Brady year, the New York Giants with Eli Manning beating the Patriots in that Super Bowl game. Then everybody says, ‘Geez, that must be pretty hard to do, go undefeated.’
“So yeah. I think as time goes by, I think more people realize that that was something special.”
For all of the accomplishments by all of our other teams that didn’t exist 50 years ago, it was, is and maybe always will be the thing we can claim that nobody else can.
Must be pretty hard to do.