Down go the Minnesota Vikings, one of the losers in last Sunday’s buffet. But the Vikings were not just any loser, they were the last of the unbeatens. Which means for the 1972 Miami Dolphins, their masterpiece is once again preserved; 17-0, brother. Perfección.
While those old Dolphins clap and slap their knees and pop the Chandon, the rest of the world yawns. The record has been on display for so long now — 44 years. The dust is as thick as top soil.
This season was easy on the Shula gang, their big exhale coming in late October. Other years weren’t so tranquil. Remember 2007? That was the mega-scare, with Tom Brady racing unblemished all the way to the Super Bowl before finally losing a game. Last year was no treat either, the way the Carolina Panthers rolled along, confident and unbeaten through Christmas, until Atlanta finally punched them out and saved the record.
I think about those old Dolphins and that perfect season, and I think of a quote by Reggie Jackson, back when he was still banging them out of the park for the New York Yankees. The subject was great teams staying on top, how they navigate their way through in-season trouble; the highs and lows and whatever. He gave an interesting analogy.
“When the storm comes and you’re riding a well-built Rolls Royce,” Jackson said, “you calmly turn on the windshield wipers and drive a little slower. What you don’t do is panic and push all the buttons on the dashboard. You have to stay calm and ride out the storm.”
Jim Kiick was a tailback for those old Dolphins, a top pass-catcher and wipeout blocker and part of an offensive backfield that included Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris and Bob Griese — the pulse of that great Miami machine. I read Kiick that Jackson quote and asked if he could relate it to their magical season, if he remembered surviving any particularly heavy storms during the gauntlet.
“There were really two games stand out in my mind from ’72,” said Kiick. “Minnesota way early in the year, and the Cleveland game in the playoffs. In both cases we were trailing well into the fourth quarter. The Vikings had a big defensive team and they shut us down pretty good. Even toward the very end I was certain we were going to lose. Then we blasted a 51-yard field goal and got another touchdown and pulled it out.
“The Cleveland game was strange. We were ready to play but for some reason we couldn’t put them away. The Browns kept hanging around. I scored our only offensive touchdown late in the game and it was the game-winner.
“In both of those cases, we never panicked. We kept doing the things we did best. When you’re a good, disciplined football team you create your own luck. But sometimes it’s not luck. Sometimes you just get the job done.”
Don Shula was the taskmaster, the pile-driving coach whose lust for discipline and control made it all happen. Control even to the point of his team’s facial hair.
“One day Shula puts in a rule — no beards allowed,” says Kiick. “If there is any facial hair that’s not approved, you’ll be fined $100 a day. I said to him afterwards, ‘I thought you told me you didn’t care what I looked like as long as I played hard!’
“Of course, I wasn’t going to shave it. Then a day went by, and there was a $100 fine. Then another day, another $100. $100 doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it was back in the early ’70s.
“Finally after four days I knew I wasn’t going to win. So I shaved a section of it off right under my chin, just to be a smart-ass. Well, the fines stopped. Later somebody asked Shula, ‘I thought you said no beards! Why is Kiick allowed to wear a beard?’
“Shula said, ‘That isn’t a beard. He just has long sideburns.'”
In 1975, Kiick, along with Csonka and receiver Paul Warfield, took a heavy paycheck from a thing called the World Football League and evacuated Miami. Shula was despondent. Kiick wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into.
“I had my differences with Shula over playing time, but money obviously was the most important factor in leaving,” says Kiick. “It was completely different in the WFL. For example, with the Dolphins we ate steaks for our pregame meals. In the WFL, we ate ham sandwiches. With the Dolphins, the whole team flew to games on commercial airplanes. In the WFL, they’d fly Csonka, Warfield and me out early so we could do promotions for the league. Then, on the way back, the team plane would stop in two or three different cities because it was too small to make it back without refueling.
“I remember they had the idea of having different uniforms for each position. Linemen would wear one type of uniform, running backs another, and so on. They were the most God-awful things you have ever seen. Ugly, ugly uniforms with all kinds of stripes and different colors. We saw those and said no way. I remember Warfield saying, ‘I played 10 years in the National Football League, and no way am I going out there dressed like Emmett Kelly.’
“The team was upset. They actually wanted us to dress up in those things. So they called the commissioner of the league and told him about our decision. He said, ‘Hell, if your star players are refusing to wear them, then you don’t have much of a choice, do you?’
“They dropped the whole idea.”