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THE BLOOD AND THUNDER BOYS
John Underwood
August 07, 1972
Jim Kiick likes to run where there are holes, Larry Csonka where there are people. Either way, bring help
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August 07, 1972

The Blood And Thunder Boys

Jim Kiick likes to run where there are holes, Larry Csonka where there are people. Either way, bring help

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Don Shula says he would appreciate Larry Csonka even if Csonka weren't Hungarian. Csonka is unmoved by his filiation. He refers to his father, a former Akron movie-theater bouncer who once spiraled a chap through a plate-glass door, and to Shula, his coach, as "those crazy Hungarians," as if he were somehow exempt. When Edwin Pope, the Miami columnist, was chided by Shula for slipping out of a Dolphin press conference to talk to Csonka, Csonka commiserated with him in a voice just loud enough for Shula to hear: "Don't worry about it, Edwin, you heard one Honky, you heard 'em all."

By the same token, Shula says he would appreciate Jim Kiick even if Kiick were not loath to participate in Shula's tough practices. Kiick says he hates to practice. ("He's putting you on," says Shula hopefully.) Kiick particularly hates Shula's annual 12-minute run. For days beforehand friends and relatives are subjected to his discontent. Two days before this year's run, Kiick announced, "I'm going to tell him that if I wanted to run cross-country I would have gone out for it in high school." He told Shula exactly that, and then ran the 12 minutes ("Another clutch performance by Kiick," an observer noted), bringing up the rear in lockstep with his faithful Hungarian companion Csonka. Shula said the two are so close they even get tired together.

Shula puts up with these insubordinations because he knows some things about Kiick and Csonka (see cover). He knows, to begin with, that they have become the best pair of running backs in the NFL, both in accumulative effect—the Dolphins rush for more yards, with a higher average, than any other team—and in all-round intimidation. They run, do Kiick and Csonka, not fancily but with overwhelming finality, like a cave-in. If foot-pounds at impact were measurable in football, it could well prove out that at 233 pounds Csonka hits harder than any back ever hit. Consider this: he once drew a personal foul while running with the ball, having come close to removing the head of a defensive back with his forearm.

Kiick is cuter ("I like to run where there's holes: Larry likes to run where there's people"), but no less resolute. They both block brilliantly. They catch passes. Kiick on third down is as sure-handed as any receiver. And they play hurt, do not blow assignments and never fumble. Well, hardly ever. One fumble apiece in 448 carries last year.

"Kiick and Csonka. You can't spell 'em and you can't stop 'em," says a rival coach, to which Shula would add that you can't trade for 'em, either, because he laughs at those who try. Shula admits it: Kiick and Csonka have come to represent the identity of his team. The successful football coach adapts to his talent, and more than anything else the blood and thunder image of the Dolphins under Shula is an adaptation to Kiick and Csonka. The components necessarily include the team's more spectacular players, Paul Warfield, the gifted wide receiver, and Quarterback Bob Griese, the AFC's leading passer, who shake things up, but the end product is ball control—80-yard drives consuming nine or 10 minutes at a time—and the image of that is Kiick and Csonka.

"Heavy heads," the Buffalo coach called them after the two had rushed for more than 100 yards apiece in a game last year. They were to repeat the pleasure a month later against the Jets. "Throwbacks," Shula calls them. They are two manifestly uncomplicated football players who love the game for the simple things it can do to a man. Dirty his shirt. Bloody his chin. Satisfy his inhibitions. Relieve his tensions. Says Csonka, "It gives a man great satisfaction to do something people are trying to stop him from doing. You don't get ulcers playing football."

Shula does not "send" Kiick and Csonka to play, he "turns them loose." He does not take them out of a game, he calls them off. Kiick sulks when Shula spells him. "It's my way," Kiick says. "Larry is more likely to say something. 'Let me back in, coach.' I never say anything. I sulk." Alice Kiick says her husband's sulks are very outspoken.

Shula has a favorite scene, one he considers typical of the pair, although it involves only Csonka. It was captured for posterity in the highlight film of the preposterously successful 1971 Dolphins, who did not quit kiicking and csonking until they were in the Super Bowl, where they were stopped at last by the Dallas Cowboys. The scene shows Larry Csonka arriving in the end zone. "The image of manhood," Shula says. Csonka's mustache is dripping mud. His face and uniform are slathered with it. His helmet is twisted grotesquely on his head. His expression is impassive: the stoic marine atop Suribachi, vaguely aware that the battle must have been won but certain that the war is not over. In the final frame, Csonka turns and nonchalantly flips the ball over his shoulder. "A picture I love," says Shula.

There are other pictures, not all recorded or authenticated, but still parts of the growing saga of Kiick and Csonka, or "Butch" and "The Kid" as they are called by their worshipful fans. The president of a woman's club in Washington strode into the Redskins' office to buy 5,000 tickets to an exhibition game the other day, and when asked which one she wanted to see, replied, "I want to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!" The association with the movie heroes, though tiresome, has been profitable. At least 2,000 posters of them in Western costume were sold in the offseason and a TV film has been made of their exploits, featuring them on horseback, riding into the sunset at the close of another tough day on the trail (actually hotel row on Miami Beach).

But that is make-believe. The true-life adventures are more revealing. The time, for example, when Kiick was seen biting the arm of a New York Jet. Why did you do that, Jim? he was asked. "Because he was twisting my leg." Did you bite him hard? "Hard enough to make him stop twisting my leg." Or the time the two drove 20 hours straight to deliver a new car to Csonka's dad in Ohio. They had just returned from defeat at the hands of Oakland in the 1970 divisional playoffs, and all the way from Miami to Ohio they talked of football and of retribution, and how they must allow nothing to stop them in 1971 short of a broken limb or a concussion, and they got so excited over the prospect that Kiick nearly demolished the dashboard with his fists.

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