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Then Linebacker Rusty Chambers, the team's leading tackier in 1978 and '79, was killed in an auto accident.
Then Robbie hired Thomas, a year after threatening he might. And to appreciate the significance of the wild speculation that caused, you have to go back into Shula's strange, strained history with Robbie. To adversities past.
The Dolphins won Super Bowls VII and VIII and were thought of as practically invincible. "I can't tell you how good I felt after that second Super Bowl," says Shula. "We were a young team, with nowhere to go but up. Then one phone call and it all changed."
The call heralded the World Football League's forced entry into the corporate life of the Dolphins, and damaged them as it did no other NFL club. Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield were on their way to all that new WFL money. The battle between the three defectors' agent, Ed Keating, and Robbie was bitter and left scars, mainly on Shula.
Eventually, of course, Csonka came back, for one happy year of d�j� vu (1979). It is important to note that he came back to Shula, not the Dolphins per se. To Shula, the big fullback was the spirit of the Dolphins and a reflection of his own hardworking, straight-ahead, nothing-fancy style of getting from A to B. Upon Csonka's return, Shula named his collie puppy "Zonk." "It [the puppy] was always banging into things, knocking things over," Shula says. "And he was the kind of dog if he ran away I knew he would come back."
Shula built much of his 1980 offense around the Csonka contributions of 1979. The fullback had had a solid year and was voted the team's most valuable player, and Miami won its last AFC East title. Then, once more, Csonka and Robbie got into it, with shocking results.
Robbie offered Csonka a $100,000 raise; Csonka held out for another $20,000—partly because he wanted about what Williams was making, but "mainly because he didn't want to come to training camp," says Foley. Csonka always hated training camp. Robbie got his back up. Not untypically, so did Csonka. Csonka said he'd play elsewhere if Robbie didn't come around. Robbie told him not to let the door slap him in the butt on the way out.
"In the end, it all may have been good for Shula," says one Dolphin insider. "It finally forced him to quit looking to old solutions." But even though Shula didn't blame Robbie even privately for this second Csonka defection ("His offer was a fair one," Shula says), the ugly, stupid dispute opened at least the memories of old wounds and exposed the realities of life in wonderful, whimsical Robbieland.
At the annual team awards banquet in 1974, Shula was waiting for his wife, Dorothy, who was late, before ascending the dais; Robbie apparently had arrived earlier, because "it was very evident," Shula said at the time, "that he had been drinking." Joe Robbie is an enigmatic man, a case study of the type of guy who would pick a fight with Bo Derek on their wedding night. Robbie isn't happy unless the sparks are flying. He has been known to say terrible things to people in the privacy of public barrooms. He has had disputes with community leaders, the press, businessess that dunned him for nonpayments, Pete Rozelle, NFL owners and, of course, coaches, players and agents.'
The "little people" who work for Robbie complain the loudest, but usually behind his back. There he is roundly rebuked as a "skinflint." Joe Thomas himself used to chafe over Robbie's red pencil coursing through "the nickel-and-dime stuff on my expense accounts."