In late October 2022, the Miami Dolphins hosted the living members of the 1972 team along with families of the deceased members to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Perfect Season. The festivities included a gala on Saturday night and ceremonies at the Dolphins-Steelers game on Sunday night, October 23.
Before the game, the living Hall of Famers from that team, Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Larry Little, and Paul Warfield, came out to be honored for a ceremonial coin flip. As they proceeded from the sidelines to midfield, the passage of time came into clear focus. Griese looked somewhat unsteady, and Csonka walked deliberately with the assistance of a cane.
All of the coaches are deceased, and the living players are in their 70s and 80s. There was an air of finality about this celebration-likely the last of several milestone commemorations over the years, with the number of participants gradually shrinking. Still, nearly half of the 1972 team was there that weekend, and they were honored with families of the deceased at halftime of the game.
It’s hard to believe that it had been 50 years since Don Shula had been hoisted on the shoulders of his players following Miami’s 14-7 Super Bowl VII win over the Washington Redskins that completed the Perfect Season.
John Facenda, known as “The Voice of God,” narrated the 1972 highlights for NFL Films. He closed it with what became a prophetic statement, “Only seven years since Joe Robbie was granted a franchise in the old AFL, Miami not only won the Super Bowl but had gone an entire season undefeated, a feat no other team in NFL history has accomplished. It is unlikely ever to happen again.”
Even skeptic Tex Maule, Sports Illustrated’s senior NFL writer in 1972 who had predicted a Washington victory in Super Bowl VII “by at least 10 points, perhaps as many as 21,” came around. The week following his prediction, Maule wrote that “Miami is the best club in pro football history.”
Don Shula celebrated the accomplishment but also breathed a deep sigh of relief, shedding his growing reputation of not being able to win the big games. His former boss with the Colts, then owner Carroll Rosenbloom, was still bitter about Shula’s departure to Miami and said before the game, “I’ve seen him freeze up too many times in the big one. I just don’t believe he can do it.”
Afterward, Shula acknowledged how much that championship meant to him, “This is the ultimate,” he said. “This is the only game ball I’ve ever wanted. This is the happiest moment of my life.” Always looking ahead, he added, “This team has gone into an area no other team has entered before. I don’t know what to tell them in training camp next year.”
He figured it out. Miami’s winning streak ended in Week 2 of the 1973 season with a 12-7 loss at Oakland. The Dolphins then won 11 straight, only to lose a meaningless game at Baltimore in Week 13. Miami carried a 12-2 record, the league’s best, into the 1973 playoffs. There would be none of the previous season’s drama as the Dolphins won every playoff game by at least 17 points, culminating in a 24-7 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl VIII to repeat as World Champions. Many of the players felt the 1973 Dolphins were actually better than the 17-0 team a year earlier, underlining how difficult it really is to win every game.
If anyone had said in January 1974 that there would be no more Lombardi trophies for Shula, that would have seemed ridiculous. Miami’s dynasty would come to a sudden end in their 28-26 1974 playoff loss at Oakland, the “Sea of Hands” game regarded as one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history. They missed the 1975 playoffs after Csonka, Warfield, and Kiick left for the World Football League, and by 1976 had fallen to 6-8, the first losing season of Shula’s career.
Shula’s Dolphins would bounce back and make two more Super Bowl trips, falling to Washington in Super Bowl XVII in 1982 and getting crushed by San Francisco two years later following Dan Marino’s record-breaking 1984 season. To this date, Miami has not won another World Championship.
That 1984 team and the ones that followed showed how Shula would adapt to his personnel, relying on Marino’s arm and receivers Mark Clayton and Mark (Super) Duper to form a devasting aerial attack.
In 1985 the Chicago Bears threatened to go undefeated and came into the Orange Bowl to face the Dolphins on Monday night with an 11-0 record. Shula would have none of that and put out the call to players from The Perfect Team to rally his team and the fans to protect Miami’s place in history. They succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Marino shredded one of the greatest defenses in history to lead his Dolphins to a 31-10 advantage at halftime, then coasted to a 38-24 win. That would be the only game Chicago would lose that season.
A Bears fan named Barack Obama hosted the ‘72 Dolphins at the White House in 2013. While those types of visits are commonplace today, they weren’t in 1972. President Nixon had called Don Shula the day after Super Bowl VII, but no Super Bowl champion made a White House visit until the Pittsburgh Steelers were invited by Jimmy Carter in February 1980.
Six other teams made it through an NFL season with only one loss, including the 1984 49ers, who beat Miami in the Super Bowl. One team, the 2007 New England Patriots, made it as far as the Super Bowl with a perfect record, only to fall to the New York Giants 17-14.
Yes, it is true that every year members of The Perfect Team gather to toast their place in history when the last undefeated team falls. Some people find that obnoxious, but I suspect if I had a special place in history, I would celebrate when the threat of it being equaled or surpassed had ended.
Like the official reunions, the group at these gathering has shrunk over time. Some of the deceased players had difficult later years. Six players from The Perfect Team were found to have C.T.E. (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head hits. The story I linked discusses the gradual decline of Jim Kiick, Jake Scott, and Nick Buoniconti. Bob Kuechenberg, Bill Stanfill, and Earl Morrall also were diagnosed with C.T.E. after they passed away. There were almost certainly others who went undiagnosed, especially given the recent study by Boston University that found evidence of CTE in 92% of former players whose brains they examined.
Life can seem random, that these six individuals suffered from the effects of the pounding inherent in an NFL game, but someone like Larry Csonka, whose running style was often compared to a battering ram, gives all appearances of retaining his mental faculties and even recently released his autobiography, “All In.”
Then there was the case of Mercury Morris, who missed the 10-year reunion of The Perfect Team because he was serving in prison down the road from the Orange Bowl serving time for dealing drugs. Morris came back from that, beat his drug problems, and has become an effective motivational speaker helping others avoid that path.
Football did not make anyone associated with the 1972 Dolphins independently wealthy, with the exception of Don Shula. When he joined the Miami franchise, he came in as a 10% owner and later invested those funds well in ventures such as “Shula’s Steakhouse.” Others had great success in various business ventures, often crediting the lessons they had from Shula.
This was an imperfect group of men that Shula put together and developed into The Perfect Team. While a case can be made that this team should have a larger representation in the Hall of Fame, it also shows how Don Shula built that team. In the modern days of free agency, teams often fall into the practice of accumulating players, then trying to fit them together. Not Don Shula.
Shula took players that other teams didn’t want, like Morrall, Kuechenberg, Little, Manny Fernandez, and others. He saw something in them that fit the type of team he was building, players with great discipline and work ethic that would make fewer mistakes than their opponents and execute the coaches’ schemes with excellence. Having a chip on their shoulders after being discarded by another team didn’t hurt either.
The 1972 Dolphins were the embodiment of the quote attributed to President Harry Truman, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.” I have presented many examples throughout this chronicle of players deflecting credit for their accomplishments to their coaches and teammates. Significant feats like the all-time rushing record or the first pair of runners to each gain 1,000 yards in a season were owned as team records and not claimed by any individual.
There were teams over the years that probably had more talent than the 1972 Dolphins. The 1985 Bears may be an example of that, but they flamed out quickly because they cared who got the credit, and that started with their Head Coach, Mike Ditka, something he would later acknowledge was part of their undoing.
Sure, Don Shula wanted that monkey, which had grown to the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, off his back. He desperately wanted to win the Big Game. When he broke through, then did it again the following season, he talked about the team, his coaches and players, and not himself.
Coaching matters, and there is no better example of that than the 1972 Miami Dolphins. I’ve learned a lot about coaching, leadership, and teamwork by studying this team as they moved through the Perfect Season, lessons that I will be writing and talking about and hopefully putting into practice for the rest of my life.
I feel bad now for rooting against their perfection in Super Bowl VII and, quite honestly, throughout the playoffs, preferring the underdog Browns and Steelers (I got over them quickly). The 1972 Dolphins, 50 years later, touched my heart. They left a legacy that comes into clearer focus as time marches on if one takes the time to look for it, a legacy that will remain undiminished by any subsequent events.
Thanks to Mike Oliva for providing this platform for me to tell this amazing story-I hope I have done it justice. I also want to thank Richard Durr, who took what must have been many, many hours to compile highlights of the radio broadcasts for each game with helpful graphics and video clips and posted them on YouTube. This was an invaluable resource, and I watched every second of them.
Thanks for reading this chronicle; I hope you found it entertaining and that you learned something in the process.
Finally, thanks to the 1972 Dolphins. They were truly The Perfect Team.
You can follow me on Twitter @JimJFootball