He was building up steam, looking to score, and no one, Larry Csonka thought, could possibly drag him down. Though Super Bowl VI was still five days away, the Miami Dolphins' star fullback and half a dozen teammates had already begun to celebrate, swashbuckling into a packed club on Bourbon Street and quickly collecting an entourage of sultry-voiced, voluptuous amazons.
"We all figured we had it made—that these tall, beautiful women were going home with us," Csonka recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, one of the fellows stood up, pointed at one of them and yelled, 'She's got a Johnson!' After that, we pretty much tore the place up. The cops were called, and it was a big incident. Apparently the club had signed up a bunch of female impersonators to work the room, but hey, it was 1972. None of us knew what a drag queen was."
Nor did Miami's jut-jawed coach, Don Shula, who had yielded to his players' demand for a late curfew. At a team meeting the next day he lit into the players for their lack of focus. "What in the hell is a female impersonator?" Csonka recalls Shula bellowing. On Super Sunday, in their debut on the big stage, the Dolphins were caught trying to impersonate a championship team; they were humiliated by the Dallas Cowboys 24-3.
The following season Miami was consumed with getting back to the NFL title game, and Shula's ultraserious squad beat the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to complete the only undefeated, untied campaign in NFL history. Three decades later the Dolphins' 17-0 mark remains the gold standard of single-season success in professional sports.
Yet as time has passed, the perfect season's impeccable beauty has been tinged with less-pleasant associations. The unabashed glee displayed by some of the '72 Dolphins when other undefeated teams falter is a turnoff to many fans. This doesn't seem to bother those Miami players who, almost to a man, believe they have been slighted by history's hand. "We don't get the respect we deserve," says Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, who in 1998 angered some Denver Broncos by openly rooting for them to lose after a 13-0 start—even though Griese's son, Brian, was the team's third-string quarterback. "We don't get mentioned as one of the greatest teams of all time, so being the only one that had a perfect season is what makes us special."
The '72 Dolphins have no use for decorum or, some would argue, dignity. Thirty years after they ran the table, nine of them can sit at a banquet table at Shula's Steakhouse in Miami Lakes, as they did several weeks ago, and rail on everyone—from SI's Rick Reilly to NFL Films president Steve Sabol—who has ever denied them their due. "Hey, give this to Rick Reilly for me," says former tight end and current team broadcaster Jim Mandich, offering a middle-finger salute that cracks up his dining companions. "He called us bitter old men, but this is the kind of record you want to hold on to."
The unbeaten Dolphins were feeling dissed even before Super Bowl VII. Consider that the Redskins, who went into the championship game with three defeats—two of them to New England and Buffalo, teams against whom Miami had gone 4-0—were nonetheless favored to beat the Dolphins. Even after Miami's 14-7 victory, which was far more decisive than the score suggests, the team received no White House invitation from embattled president (and Skins supporter) Richard Nixon. If all goes as planned, reparations for Dolphin-gate will finally come later this year. " Garo Yepremian and Bob Kuechenberg are friends with [ Florida governor] Jeb Bush, and he has a pretty decent connection in Washington," says former tight end Marv Fleming, the chairman of the team's 30-year-anniversary promotional campaign.
Before Shula arrived in 1970, the Dolphins were a national joke. Co-owned by comedian Danny Thomas upon its launch as an expansion team in '66 (he later sold his interest to Joe Robbie), Miami went a combined 15-39-2 in its first four seasons and, says Hall of Fame middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti, "the team was known as the Floating Cocktail Party." Shula, who had coached the Baltimore Colts to NFL Championship Game and Super Bowl appearances, changed everything. "He was a strong disciplinarian, almost to the point of tyranny," Csonka says. Modern-day players who complain about two-a-day practices in training camp, take note: In his first preseason, Shula put the Dolphins through four daily workouts in the muggy South Florida heat.
Though there was a nucleus of talented players, mostly on offense, this was a major building project, and Shula and his staff did a masterly job. Consider that offensive line coach Monte Clark, who was later head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions, fielded five starters in '72 who had been discarded by at least one other NFL team. Two of those castoffs, center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little, ended up in the Hall of Fame, and a third, guard Kuechenberg, narrowly missed being voted in last January.
Miami went 10-4 in Shula's first season, then made its surprising Super Bowl run after going 10-3-1 in '71. Though Shula would go on to become the NFL's winningest coach, the Dolphins' stink bomb against the Cowboys left him fighting a stigma—unable to win the big one—since he had also been on the wrong side of the New York Jets' Super Bowl III shocker. "In New Orleans, I had tried to stress that they had plenty of time to celebrate after the game, but sometimes you have to feel that emptiness for yourself," says Shula, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in '97, two years after his retirement. "What it did was give us that sense of purpose for the next season."