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It could have ended for Bob Kuechenberg 13 years ago when two NFL teams cut him and he wound up playing for the Chicago Owls of the Continental League for beer and pretzel money. It could have ended after Dallas' 24-3 win over Miami in the 1972 Super Bowl when he was a young, second-year left guard for the Dolphins and the Cowboys' Bob Lilly ate him up, and people wondered when Don Shula would get some help for his offensive line. It could have ended as it did for his older brother, Rudy, who'd been a journeyman linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
"Rudy'd been out of football for a while when he came to Miami looking for a job in the early '70s," says George Young, in those days Shula's pro personnel man and now the Giants' general manager. "He was wearing an old pair of Levi's. He'd played only three years, but he looked like he'd played 10. Shula said, 'Maybe we can use him for busting wedges.' I said, 'Busting wedges? Are you crazy? The wedges'll bust him.' "
It could have ended like that for Bob Kuechenberg, but instead it will end on the patio of a $3.5 million mansion on Miami Beach's Star Island, Florida's closest thing to a feudal principality, with Kuechenberg sipping a drink, looking across Biscayne Bay at the lights winking on the Venetian Causeway and saying, "Yep, it's been quite a career."
Not that it's over yet. Far from it. The Dolphins are 4-1 and heading for the playoffs again, and the 6'2", 255-pound Kuechenberg remains a dominant force at left guard. And Shula won't be quick to forget the 13 years Kuechenberg has given him, in four of which he made All-Pro, and the years he sacrificed an All-Pro shot by playing out of position at left tackle. Nor will Shula forget the way Kuechenberg came back and played after breaking two vertebrae in '77, or the way he neutralized the Vikings' Alan Page in the '74 Super Bowl five weeks after a pin had been inserted to hold together a broken bone in his left forearm. "If you like football, you've got to like Kooch," Shula says. "If there was ever a Bronko Nagurski type, a guy who'd look right playing without a helmet, it's Bob Kuechenberg. He's a throwback."
Which is what they say about every lineman who has lasted this long in the NFL. In truth, Kuechenberg is a special throwback—way back to the days when men went at each other with mace and ax. And if one of them lasted 13 years, he'd be called in by the baron, who would look at his warrior's battered features and say, "Well, Sir Robert, you've served me well and shattered a lot of helmets, and so I've picked out this nice little parcel of land for you..."
And Sir Robert would have it made. And so does Kuechenberg, except that nobody handed him anything. His mansion is the result of trading upward, starting with a $55,000 house in 1976. Buy a house no one wants, get it in shape, make it beautiful, sell it and buy another. "My wife, Marilyn, is the genius," Kuechenberg says. "We've renovated 12 homes in seven years, nine of which we moved in to and out of. We've been living ankle deep in sawdust for seven long, tough years."
In 1979 the Kuechenbergs were living in Coconut Grove, a section of Miami. "I wanted to see what $1 million houses looked like," Marilyn says, "so I spent a few days sniffing around. There was one on Star Island. It was owned by Don King. Next to it was this one. The land value was very good—three and a half acres—but the house was falling apart. It was termite infested; bums were living in it; it had had two fires. But three and a half acres on Biscayne Bay were too good to pass up. And you could tell that at one time the house itself must have really been something. So we wound up buying it."
Star Island was built in the early 1920s out of earth pumped from the bottom of Biscayne Bay and is connected to the MacArthur Causeway by a private bridge and a very well-guarded gate. The Kuechenbergs' house is at the far end, the most desirable end. It was once the site of the Miami Beach Yacht Club. In 1924, Colonel Ned Green, son of Hetty Green, "the wealthiest woman in America," as the newspapers liked to call her, bought the property and the lot next to it, and the address 46 Star Island became famous. Colonel Ned, born Edward Howland Robinson Green in 1868, was a 6'4", 300-pound giant with an artificial leg made of cork and a taste for ribald living. Deep within him were memories of a bleak Vermont childhood, of newspapers stuffed under his clothing to keep out the cold, of a mother so miserly that she wouldn't seek the medical treatment that could have saved his leg, although she was already amassing a fortune estimated at close to $150 million by the turn of the century. Ned never had any problem about spending money, especially not on the building of 46 Star Island, which took two years.
Arthur H. Lewis, in his book about the Green family, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree, describes 46 Star Island as a "cheerful sunlit mansion, only a few yards from the bright blue waters of Biscayne Bay. The architecture was glistening white Spanish mission, and the house was surrounded by a magnificent garden dotted with hundreds of royal palms. Wide windows and French doors on every side looked out on myriads of perpetually flowering tropical plants.
"There was a large central living room, two stories in height. To the east was a wing that contained a room used for showing moving pictures. To the rear of the projector was a vault containing the Colonel's library of pornographic films, which experts considered the world's choicest.