WASHINGTON – — This was before the day to come, before President Obama received a “72” Dolphins jersey, before Garo Yepremian tossed him a blooper pass straight out of the Super Bowl, long hours before Marv Fleming cried with joy over the visit.
Don Shula weaved his electric scooter Tuesday morning through a hotel lobby full of aging men who had arrived early, “just as Coach Shula taught us,” Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka said.
Csonka was in from Alaska. Larry Little carried a Dolphins hat, signed by the team’s seven Hall of Famers, as a gift. Otto Stowe wore an “I Have A Dream” button to honor the coming 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and Obama.
“You’re not going to speak today, are you Merc?” Shula said, stopping his scooter before the ever-loquacious Mercury Morris.
“I’m only going to politely ask the President to correct calling the ’85 Bears the greatest team ever,” Morris said.
“Oh, boy, politely, Merc,” Marv Fleming said.
Forty-one years after their undefeated season, with their faces loosened and many knees replaced by time, the 1972 Miami Dolphins gathered for one final road trip down Pennsylvania Avenue and memory lane.
“OK, let’s get going,” Shula said, rolling to the doors. “And I don’t want to have to fine anyone for being late.”
The Boys of ’72 were off to the White House.
Credit age. Credit nostalgia. But the long-ago nature of this honor made this trip all the more special. You could see it in them. They reached the White House at 11 a.m., went through four security checkpoints and for the next two hours had the run of the East Wing.
The Blue Room. The Green Room. Little took a picture of himself with George Washington’s portrait. Dick Anderson organized team picture after team picture amid the history.
“OK, guys who arrived in ’68 in here,” he said. Click. “OK, now guys who arrived in ’69 …” Click. “OK, guys who arrived in ’70 …”
Then, about 1:30, a door opened. President Obama entered and did something that surprised the ’72 team. He didn’t just walk around the room, individually shaking hands with each of them. He joked with many. He knew their feats.
“Was this guy a great receiver or what?” he said upon meeting Paul Warfield.
“You look like you can still play,” he said to Csonka.
“I’ve only got one play left and I’m saving that one,” Csonka said.
He joked when Morris brought up the ’85 Bears line. He said he couldn’t recognize Little, to which the Hall of Fame guard said, “No one knows us linemen.”
Upon reaching Yepremian, the great kicker famed for his interception off a botched field goal that Super Bowl, the President said, “How’s your passing, Garo?”
“Well, I’m one-for-one, the highest-rated quarterback in the Super Bowl,” Yepremian said.
“Can you still pass?” the President said.
“Sure,” Yepremian said.
Someone tossed a football. The president moved down the room as if a receiver. Yepremian, true to history, turned his back and allowed the ball to slip out of his hand behind him. Obama caught it one-handed.
“Now I’m two-for-two,” Yepremian said.
So there was still some fun to be had from that season. When the players left for the official ceremony, it was just Obama and Shula and the coach’s wife, Mary Anne. And they talked football.
They talked football strategy, talked of the upcoming season, then got off on a tangent about Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who is coached by Shula’s son, Mike.
For five minutes, the old coach talked with the President again. He’d done back in that 1972 season, Richard Nixon even calling his home one day to suggest running a slant pass to Warfield. The coach said it was a good idea, acted is if he didn’t have that play in the book.
Now, at 83, with his scooter a reminder of time’s cost, Shula received a private gift from Obama, a signed football that read, “Coach Shula, congratulations on a memorable season.”
They then moved into a packed Blue Room for the official ceremony. The ’72 players stood in ceremonial position as the announcement came: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States accompanied by Coach Shula.”
“I know that some people may be asking why we’re doing this after all these years,” the President said. “My answer is simple: I wanted to be the young guy up here for once.”
“Aw, that’s cold,” Bob Griese said behind him.
That’s how the ceremony went. Light. Fun. But with a message.
“I did have to explain to my staff, who mostly are in their early 30s, what an incredible impact these guys had, including on me, when they were playing,” Obama said. “These Dolphins made history back before Super Bowl champs started visiting the White House.”
He joked about Csonka once putting an alligator in Shula’s shower. He lauded Earl Morrall, the quarterback who starred that season but couldn’t make this trip due to health. Then came the big moment for the Bears fan.
“I’ve got to come clean here,” the President said. “a couple years ago, I hosted the ’85 Bears out on the South Lawn. They’d also missed their chance to have a White House visit, and that day I called them the greatest team ever.
“But, I mean, take it with a grain of salt. The Bears lost once in their nearly perfect season.”
“Who’d they lose to?” Shula said beside him.
“It happened to be to the Dolphins,” Obama said, laughing. “So I think you made your point. Nobody can argue with this record. Nobody can argue with what all of you have gone on to do after you hung up the shoulder pads.”
He went down the list of doctors, politicians, businessmen. Nick Buoniconti founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
“Some have dabbled in acting,” he said, as Fleming even had a bit part in the Warren Beatty movie, “Heaven Can Wait.” “I hear somebody serves up a pretty good T-bone as well.”
He looked at Shula. They laughed. Once upon a time, the ’72 Dolphins were as big as LeBron’s Heat in South Florida. They remain a beacon of class and excellence. They had a deserved day Tuesday, one dripping with fun and consequence.
“My final goal with this team,” Little called it.
“One of the highlights of my life,” Warfield said.
Fleming, who helped organize the trip, stood back in the hotel lobby afterward with a tear on his cheek. The ’72 players were collecting luggage and catching taxis on their way out of town.
They hugged. They said good-byes. They know all of them won’t be back next reunion. They mentioned each teammate who has passed, then had a moment of silence for each, at a dinner Tuesday night.
“A dream come true,” Fleming called the visit.
From the White House, you could see 1972 again for a few hours Tuesday. It was fun and loud and even came with a backward pass to the President.
BY DAVE HYDE