It was at this point that he signed on with the Owls. "The illustrious Chicago Owls," he says. "I figured, 'If I can't fly with the Eagles I'll play with the Owls.' I made $200 a game for the first three games, zero for the last six. We'd draw 3,500 fans in Soldier Field, and in that place they were just about invisible. It was before the Bears moved in there, and there were rats in the tunnels—big rats. To kill the rats they got cats, and to keep the cats in the stadium, to keep them fed, they'd have a square piece of wood with raw meat on it. That's what I'll remember about the Chicago Owls, a big old pile of raw meat outside the locker room door.
"I got the needle quite a bit for aches and bruises. Pain and painkillers and speed, 300-pound garage mechanics punching you in the head. Get drunk, have a pizza—that's what it was all about. On road trips they'd give you a little box lunch with a sandwich and a banana and a bag of pretzels. But nobody cared. Tonight we're going to play a ball game. It was fun!" Joe Thomas, then Miami's personnel chief, found Kuechenberg in the off-season and signed him to a Dolphin contract. The year with the Owls had put a hunger in his belly. He had gone to the Eagles' camp a boy. Now he was a man.
"I didn't pay any attention to him in camp," Shula says. "He had the stigma of being cut by two teams. I started Maxie Williams at left guard, ahead of Kooch, and it was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. Maxie was a holdover, a holler guy, but looking back on it, he couldn't hold a candle to Kooch. Bob took over when Maxie got hurt in the ninth game in 1970, and just about that time our offensive line took on a new dimension of toughness. Kooch had been a defensive lineman at Notre Dame, and you could see it in his temperament. A street fighter, a clawer and scratcher.
"In the years that followed, he and our center, Jim Langer, would always be the guys who'd come up to me on the plane home, after they'd had four Schlitzes, bitching that we didn't run the ball enough. Mike Webster, the Steelers' center, is the same way. Crusty, hard-core, the kind of guys who love their work and take pride in it."
Kuechenberg didn't support the strike, not from the very beginning. In fact, he wouldn't even go out and shake hands when that was part of the September pre-game ritual. He says he didn't feel that union head Ed Garvey really represented the best interests of the players. Some of his teammates felt that Kuechenberg was looking at things from a very narrow angle, too narrow. There was a residue of bitterness that Shula feels will blow over now that the teams are back on the field. "Kooch is Kooch," Shula says. "I know it. They know it. What can you say?"
Right now, Kuechenberg holds the Dolphin record for games played (184) and starts (171), and he's still counting. He says the team he remembers best is '73, the second of Miami's two consecutive Super Bowl winners. "It was better than our undefeated team in '72," he says. "We would have kept on being great, but the WFL did something no one else ever could do, and that was to break up the Dolphins. It took away Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. Where would the Steelers have been if they'd lost Franco and Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann?
"Paul Warfield—people don't realize how great he was. O.K., Lance Alworth and Raymond Berry could catch the ball, so can John Jefferson, but Warfield was a vicious blocker. I saw him decapitate middle linebackers. Warfield was the best player I ever played with, Butkus was the greatest I ever played against."
That was in 1971, a 34-3 runaway for the Dolphins. Butkus was trying to survive on a deteriorating knee. "The word was to take Butkus low and you'd have an easy game," says Kuechenberg. "I said no, I'm not going to do it. Out of honor I'll take him high. That's what I did, early in the game. It was a bad decision. He almost took my head off. I reevaluated my thinking. I thought, hmm, as much as I respect him, there's a matter of survival here."
Shula sees Kuechenberg at 35 as "a guy who gets by more on know-how now. He ran his best 40 in five years this summer. He's more aware now, so he works harder. He's done a lot for us; he's played hurt, he's played out of position. I'll give him rest in games, I'll spell him. But I'll have a hard time replacing him."
"I think I can break it down, what it means to play at 35," Kuechenberg says. "Your mind controls your body, and there are different ways of getting the job done just as effectively. You don't have to stick your helmet in Jack Lambert's rib cage every play to get by. And I still have personal goals, team goals.