“I wasn’t watching him running because I knew the moment he got through, he was gonna go. I was looking back up field for flags, and there just weren’t any, a beautiful sight.”

That was how Miami Dolphins radio play-by-play broadcaster Rick Weaver related to his audience how he watched kick return sensation Charlie Leigh’s 101-yard kickoff return against the Washington Redskins in week five of the preseason.

Weaver’s partner in the booth, Lou Creekmur, described the scene on the sideline after Leigh’s big play, “I don’t think there is a man on this squad who hasn’t gone over and congratulated Charlie, whereas last week they were giving him condolences. They’re all very happy for him, and Charlie has a grin that runs from one ear to another.” Just the prior week, Leigh had two touchdowns called back due to penalty, one on a punt, the other on a kickoff. Just for good measure, he had a 17-yard punt return called back in this game.

The Dolphins’ celebration would be short-lived, however. Despite Leigh’s touchdown and Mercury Morris’ 79-yard burst from scrimmage that set up a short Larry Csonka touchdown, Miami fell 27-24 at Washington on a Curt Knight 24-yard field goal with 36 seconds remaining in the game. This matchup brought a sellout crowd to Washington’s RFK Stadium, but absolutely NO talk about a potential Super Bowl preview.

Redskin coach George Allen had his defense primed for a big game that night. Known as “The Over The Hill Gang” because 17 players on the roster were over 30 years old, they gave the Dolphins a physical beating on that humid late-August night in the nation’s capital. Dolphins Manny Fernandez said afterward, “The guys hitting me seemed young and strong.”

Miami’s Don Shula left this game with more questions and concerns than he had entering it. He summed up the loss to the Redskins, “Two big plays kept us in the game…aside from that, we didn’t play well at all. And we couldn’t slow down their running attack.” Indeed, the Redskins offense was like a mirror of the Dolphins. Washington ran the ball 43 times for 170 yards and controlled over two-thirds of the game clock. They threw only ten passes, completing nine.

Dolphin Digest showed serious concern about the defense at this stage, “Most disappointing aspect for the Dolphins-one getting to the alarming stage at this juncture of the preseason-was the defense which allowed 170 rushing yards.”

Dolphins beat writer Bill Braucher was also focused on the shortcoming of the Miami defense so far. He wrote in the Miami Herald, “The Dolphins “rubber-band” zone defense is getting a bit too elastic for comfort.” He said the pass defense had allowed opponents to “enjoy Annie Oakley precision firing into, under, and sometimes even over the Dolphin zone.” Referring to the run defense, he wrote, “The defenders’ success as stopping (the Redskins) backs…was no better than Gen. Meade’s against Lee.”

You needed to know your history to really get Braucher, but he laid it out plain in his summation, “Unless the whole uneasy business amounts to a preseason mirage and will go away in Kansas City September 17, the defensive generosity is cause for concern.”

Although Miami had allowed a 61.4% pass completion rate, an astronomic number in days when quarterbacks stiff hovered around 50%, the overall statistics didn’t seem to back up all of the worries about the Dolphins’ defense. They had only allowed a total of 255 yards to Washington, a total which was below average even in 1972, and would have a modern-day defense showered with accolades. They were not passing the eye test, though, and coming out on the short end of physical play more often than not.

The day following the loss to the Redskins, Braucher described Miami trainer Bob Lundy as “harried” due to the volume of players needing treatment and lamented the punishment the Dolphins had received in that game. “Geronimo’s braves couldn’t have been much tougher on prairie schooners than George Allen’s Redskins were on Dolphins.” In modern terms, that would be roughly equivalent to an ass-kicking.

Some key players had made the injured list. Larry Csonka had twisted his back and aggravated an existing issue. Guard Bob Kuechenberg had a sprained ankle and safety Dick Anderson had a strained back and bruised chest. Anderson’s fellow safety Jake Scott, already nursing a broken bone in his right wrist, added a sore neck to his maladies. Even Charlie Leigh couldn’t escape the injury bug, suffering bruised ribs.

Fortunately, the Dolphins had some time to heal. The game in Washington had been played on a Thursday night, and Miami’s next game, their final in the preseason, wouldn’t be until a week from the following Sunday. Shula took advantage of that gap to give the team a much-needed weekend off, but the respite between games would not prove to be a quiet one.

That Tuesday, the University of Miami Hurricanes football team held an impromptu practice at the Orange Bowl, which, like the Dolphins, was their home venue. There had been a stretch of rainy days that had made their normal practice field, in the estimation of head coach Fran Curci, unplayable. Curci felt his team needed a scrimmage to prepare for their opener the following Saturday and asked Miami City Manager Melvin Reese to open up the Orange Bowl.

It didn’t go well.

Although the field had been covered with a tarpaulin, it was still slick after three inches of rain the day before. Very slick. This made Curci angry. Very angry. “They should be ashamed to put this stuff in the Orange Bowl. It’s a crime. You can’t get anything accomplished.” Hurricane quarterback John Hornibrook chimed in, “It’s like skating on ice,” surely an experience you don’t expect in Miami.

Curci added, “It doesn’t drain off at all. They’d better hope it doesn’t rain in Florida. Maybe they have something to suck it up.” Turns out, the stadium maintenance team DID have something to suck up excess water, as a very peeved Reese pointed out the next day when Curci’s complaints were reported.

Reese said, “If I’d known about the university wanting to use the field…the big vacuum would have been used…and sucked the water up. With the tarp on and hugging down on the field, I know it won’t let the water drain. That’s why we have to get the tarp off a considerable time before.”

The previous Poly Turf, which had just been replaced, fared poorly with the ultraviolet rays from the South Florida sun, but it held up well in wet weather. The new batch, made from different material, was expected to manage the sun better, but the rain was going to be a challenge.

Don Shula chimed in with his concerns about a wet Orange Bowl field, “In the pre-game warmup against Green Bay, parts of the field were wet from a morning rain and the field was slippery. The players were slipping in all types of shoes. So we do have some concern about what will happen.”

Looks like unsure footing on a wet field would be something else competing for Shula’s attention this season.

There was lots going on to compete for sports fans’ attention at that time. Bobby Fisher had become the first American to win the world chess championship, dethroning the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky. Hey, don’t judge me-it made front page news. Any win over the Soviets during the Cold War era was big news. There was an exciting four-team pennant race in the American League East to follow. And of course, the Munich Olympics were in full swing. Mark Spitz had become the first athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympiad and there was more excitement to come. If you missed it on ABC Television, you would have to consume your favorite newspaper(s) the next morning or afternoon.

On September 6, people were shocked by the front page headline in newspapers across the globe. The Miami Herald read, “Olympic Shoot-Out With Arabs Kills All Nine Israeli Hostages.” In all, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after Arab terrorists burst into their quarters at the Olympic village before dawn the day before. Two were killed at the village, the others along with four of the terrorists in a shootout with German police at the airport where they were expecting to catch a plane and fly to freedom.

I was 13 years old at the time, staying up late to watch ABC’s coverage on the little black-and-white TV in my bedroom. Over 50 years later, I can still hear legendary reporter Jim McKay announcing, “They’re all gone.” Watching it in preparing this piece still gave me chills.

The Olympics paused to honor the dead…briefly. After a memorial service the next morning, event venues were again bustling with activity by the afternoon. IOC Chairman Avery Brundage stated, “The Games must go on,” and they did.

In Miami and other big cities across the United States, Jewish communities grieved but life went on. I noted a major difference between then and now. In today’s world, celebrities from the sports world would have publicly and passionately denounced the terrorist act. There was little evidence of that in the 1972 sports world. There were outspoken athletes, for sure, especially concerning issues of race and the Vietnam war, but the rank and file stayed quiet. I could not find a single mention of anyone from the Dolphins having anything to say about this tragedy. I state that not to criticize Don Shula and the organization for being quiet, just to point out the difference in the times.

Shula and his Dolphins remained focused on improving their play, making the final roster cuts, and getting ready for the 1972 NFL season. Those games must also go on.

Coming Next: Part 7-Dress Rehearsal

The Dolphins starters see extensive action against the Minnesota Vikings before a record home crowd in their final tune-up game, and Don Shula sets the roster to open the regular season.