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WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a warm Monday night, some 15 hours before they were heading to the White House to meet President Obama, 30 members of the ’72 Miami Dolphins, two coaches (Don Shula and Howard Schnellenberger) and some very fortunate invited guests got to share some special memories over dinner and drinks.
It was a night you wish you could frame in time. The laughs. The stories. The memories that never go away. To see the expression on Don Shula’s face was something to savor. His team was together again. Older, slower, grayer, bodies no longer slim and hard, but still together again. Can it get any better than this?
To a man, they were thrilled to have gotten this exclusive invitation. So what if it was 41 years later. They were going to the White House; the President would honor them with a special ceremony. Almost like a fairy tale ending. Or, as Bob Griese called it, “The final topping on the cake.”
Indeed, how sweet that cake tastes.
Some samplings of the night before the day:
• Garo Yepremian promised he wouldn’t throw a pass in President Obama’s direction (thank goodness) and then, in a rare serious moment, said: “I came to America at 22 years old with hopes of just getting an education. Here I am 41 years later, going into the greatest house in the world. I’m truly humbled.” And for Garo to be humbled, that’s saying something.
• Guard Larry Little, far less massive than he once was, grabs former wide receiver Paul Warfield by the shoulder to get his attention. “Even in today’s game, nobody can touch this guy,” said Little to Warfield. And, you know something, he may just be right.
Warfield smiled and tried for a moment to put that ’72 team in its proper context. “It was all about a group of men coming together at the right time of their lives. We honestly never cared who got the credit.”
• Don Shula is 83 years old. He needs a motorized device to help him get around these days. But he is still the same proud coach. Always the same proud coach. “We finally made it here,” Shula said. “To honor a team 40 some years later, it just doesn’t happen that way.”
Shula looks at Mercury Morris. A slim Mercury Morris. And he couldn’t resist the moment: “So you’re paying for your own food now?” Shula asks, chuckling.
To which Morris replied, “Aw coach, cut me a little slack.”
• Then there was Larry Csonka who travelled to Washington all the way from Anchorage Alaska with connecting flights in Maine and Atlanta. “I think it took us 40 years to realize how unique we are,” Csonka said. “The ’72 Team lives on.”
Ask Csonka to this day what the secret of that team was and he sums it up in one word: “Shula.” And, of course the coach is nearby, listening and smiling and knowing deep down that Csonka speaks the truth.
• At the dinner late Monday night, there was a moment of silence for those players and coaches who have passed on. It was touching. It was the right thing to do because they were here in spirit and certainly here in memory.
“You just don’t know when you’re going to see these guys again,” said linebacker Nick Buoniconti, “That’s why these few days are so special. It’s something all of us will hold on to for the rest of our lives.”
How did this all come about? Why now? Most of the credit belongs to former Dolphins tight end Marv Fleming. About 15 years ago, Fleming started to make phone calls to anyone who would listen. “Hey, we were perfect and we’re still perfect and we never had a chance to meet the President at the White House,” Fleming said.
Nobody listened. Nobody seemed to care. “Other teams were being honored,” Fleming said. “Why can’t the Dolphins be there?”
Fleming never stopped caring, never stopped asking. He reached out to everyone he knew who was even remotely connected to the White House. “I worked my butt off,” he said.
And then one night he was at a party at Deacon Jones’ house, a former All-Pro lineman with the Los Angeles Rams. And he met George Starke, a former player with the Redskins and he asked Starke what he had been asking everyone else. “What about my Dolphins?”
Starke said I’ve got someone who can help. “My wife Petra is one of the lawyers at the White House,” Starke said.
And so it began, the pieces starting coming together and today’s visit slowly became a reality. “Who would have thought that a former Washington Redskin would help get the Dolphins get to the White House,” said Fleming. “Crazy how it all came together.”
And today, shortly after 2 p.m., these 30 former players, most in their late 60’s, all of their football careers a distant memory, will get one final moment to savor. In so many ways, it is the perfect ending for the perfect team.
On Wednesday, A.C. and the A.M. reports on his visit to the White House with the ’72 team.
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.