Louie calls Csonka to the stage and starts to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. The entire audience—drunks, flirts, lovebirds—stands and sings along. Csonka is dumbfounded. All eyes are on him, and although he relishes the attention, he doesn't know what to do.
Note the parallels with the turn Csonka's football career has taken. He stands in the Dolphins' camp and remembers the old days, when his brute strength personified the team, the days when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons, the days of 17-0, the days of three straight Super Bowl appearances. And he dreams of one more oldie but goldie year.
When the New York Giants failed to renew his contract for the 1979 season, Csonka could have retired. He is 32 years old and has nothing to prove to anyone anywhere. He is one of only seven men in NFL history to rush for 7,000 yards. He's a wealthy man. He has a 400-acre farm in Ohio and soon will buy a home in south Florida. He owns a realty company and two drinking establishments, Stagger Lee's and a tavern-steak house for the steel-workers, truckers, ironworkers and farmers in his hometown of Lisbon, Ohio.
But Csonka doesn't want to sit back with a beer and a memory. He wants to play football one more year. He wants to end his career with the Dolphins. He broke in with Miami as a rookie in 1968, and he shook the team to the core in 1975 when, with teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, he jumped to the Memphis Grizzlies of the World Football League for a $500,000 bonus and a three-year contract at $325,000 per season.
When the WFL crumbled midway through the 1975 schedule, Csonka went home to Ohio and then tried to return to Miami in 1976. He mailed what he called a contract feeler—along the lines of $2 million over four years—to Miami owner Joe Robbie. Robbie was incensed. He thought the demands were outrageous and gave the financial details to the newspapers.
Csonka felt Robbie had tried to embarrass him, so the next day he signed with the New York Giants for a reported $1 million over three years. "I was made out to be a fool," Csonka said. "What he [Robbie] did hurt me deep down."
Csonka's days with the Giants were a rude departure from his heyday in Miami. He injured his left knee, tearing two-thirds of the ligaments on the kneecap, and had surgery in 1976. On the field he no longer had an offensive line full of All-Pros to block for him. He was relegated to the role of blocker and began spending more and more time on the bench. After three unimpressive and unproductive seasons, Csonka wanted out and the Giants obliged.
Almost immediately, the Dolphins expressed interest in getting Csonka back. Coach Don Shula interceded with Robbie, and Csonka flew to Miami for negotiations. "Once Zonk and Robbie got in the same room together, things went pretty smooth," said Shula. "It's hard to be mad at a guy that's meant so much, that's been such a part of the success."
Csonka mellowed, too. "I signed the first time we met," he said. "Robbie wasn't harsh in any way in the negotiations. Neither was I. That was a little surprising because of everything we had been through, but our past problems were based on business, not personalities. There was no hassle over money."
Csonka signed a one-year contract with Miami, reportedly for $125,000. Shula immediately silenced those who accused him of sentimentality in expediting Csonka's return.