The Miami Dolphins' locker room is hospital white, and there are no carpets on the floor and no stereo music. A working locker room. And last Thursday night, in the wake of the Dolphins' 39-24 victory over the New England Patriots in the showdown battle for first place in the AFC East, it was filled with ghosts.
There were Larry Csonka, limping into the trainer's room on a mangled toe, and Bob Griese, his face a blank as he bantered with writers desperately trying to draw some emotion from him, and Larry Little, describing what it was like in the huddle as the Dolphins reached back into the history book to snatch a little glory from the old Super Bowl years.
"One time Zonk looked at me and said, 'What's the matter, Chicken, you're not talking?' " Little said. "I told him, 'Working too hard, man.' "
Faces from the past, the dear departed, written out of the future. Ghostly figures in a young locker room. Memory lane. You could close your eyes and almost hear the cackling laughter of Jake Scott or Manny Fernandez, the snap of the towel as Jim Kiick cracked some rookie across the butt.
But when things got tough in the Orange Bowl last week, Coach Don Shula called on his old guard. He brought Griese off the bench to relieve Don Strock, who had suffered a case of the scatters in the first half. Griese is modest and low-key, and 300-yard passing games are not his style, but he knows how to work a game, and there's still enough life in his arm to keep the defenses honest. On this night the formula worked. He connected on the first five passes he threw, but mostly he handed the ball off to Csonka. In the third quarter, when the Dolphins under Griese outscored the Patriots 16-0 and clinched the game, New England's offense saw the ball for a total of five snaps.
Physically, Griese hasn't been right this year. Medical testimony has been divided. Griese had a hamstring pull that didn't let him set up right, that caused him to push the ball; his arm was just shot, it was as simple as that. Whatever, when you're playing catch-up at the end, when you need a live gun to win it for you, Griese wasn't the man. Losses to the Jets, Oilers, Raiders and Browns reinforced the argument. There were grumbles. When was Shula going to bite the bullet and sit him down?
Shula agonized. Finally he benched Griese on Nov. 25, the day of a game with Baltimore; it was the first time that a healthy Griese had not started for the Dolphins in 13 years. Strock started, but he got conked on the head in the second quarter and his day was over. Griese came in and threw for two TDs. Nice, but you know... Baltimore.
"Don deserved the right to start," Griese said in Baltimore. "Today didn't count, because of his injury, so let's move it to the next game." Which happened to be the big one against New England.
"You don't have to talk about Griese winning back his job; he's proved himself around here," Shula said after the win over the Patriots. "He'll go back as the starter."
In the Miami locker room Griese was being worked for the glad-to-be-back angle. He fixed his interrogators with that cold-eyed stare. "I never lost confidence," he said. "Starting or not starting isn't my decision."