"Well, what made you what you are?" someone asks. Shula has always said that in evaluating the great offensive linemen, Kuechenberg would have to be right in there.
"I don't know," Kuechenberg says. "Hunger, pride, fear, fear of getting humiliated, of failing. The usual things."
"Never reach out," says Marilyn, and Bob smiles because this is the trigger phrase for a family legend.
"It's something my father once told me," he says. "Pound-for-pound the toughest man I ever knew. He'd been a professional fighter, won 27 out of 30 fights, and a rodeo man. He was from Iowa, and he was raised in Melbourne, Fla. By the time I was born, he was working in the steel mills in Indiana. But when he was still in Florida he got a job as the human cannonball in the circus. He got shot out of the cannon once a day, twice on Saturday, day off on Sunday. They'd shoot him over a couple of rides, into a net.
"I asked him about it, and he said that when you come out of the cannon you're unconscious. Then at the apex of your flight you gather your senses and your instinct is to reach out and try to get to the net quicker. That's where it's important to know what you're supposed to do. The trick is to stay relaxed, to never reach out, because you could land wrong in the net and break something.
"Well, one night my Uncle Al subbed for my dad. On his maiden voyage he missed the net completely and landed in the top seat of the Ferris wheel. The doctors grafted some skin off his butt and used it to sew his face together. He doesn't look very good, but he's alive and well. Anyway, at that point the Kuechenbergs called it a career in the cannonball business.
"You know, I saw that cannon once about three years ago. It was in somebody's backyard in Malabar, Florida, with weeds all over it. I was thinking of buying it. I should have. It disappeared about a year ago."
As a sophomore at Notre Dame, Kuechenberg was the starting offensive right tackle facing Bubba Smith in the famous 10-10 tie against Michigan State in 1966. The next year he took over as left defensive end when Kevin Hardy got hurt. "Good for the team, not so good for Kuechenberg," he says. "The guy who replaced me on offense was George Kunz. I figure it cost me a shot at getting drafted in the first round."
The Philadelphia Eagles, a 2-12 team, drafted Kuechenberg as a guard in the fourth round in '69. "I'd just been married, I was homesick, I had about six excuses, none of which amounted to anything," he says. "I went through the motions, I got cut, and Atlanta, another 2-12 team, picked me up. The Falcons told me, 'We're going to Canton for the Hall of Fame game. You can't learn our system in one week, but we like you. Go home to Chicago, get your wife and come back and settle down'—which is what I did. Norm Van Brocklin, the Falcons' coach then, cut me a week later. He didn't even have the decency to tell me himself. I never talked to him. But I'll tell you one of the great accomplishments in my pro career. I helped get him fired. It was in 74, my fifth year with the Dolphins, and we beat Atlanta 42-7. I loved it. He got fired two days later. It was one of my Top 10 highlights. I wanted to run a sweep to their bench so I could put spike marks in his neck."
When the Falcons cut Kuechenberg in '69 he went back to Chicago and found a job selling business forms. "I got $600 a month, plus sales commissions I never made," he says. "I was home at three o'clock, fighting with my wife, my first wife."