MIAMI — It is fair to say the Miami Dolphins put the city and South Florida on the national sports map, but the notion needs explaining. It didn’t happen right away.
The real attention, the real mattering, did not begin until the Dolphins got Don Shula. Then got good. Then great. Then even better than that. And yes it must always be capitalized — Perfect Season — because, well, just because. We get to decide. The accomplishment belongs to us, it is ours alone, and the perfume of it, of 17-0 in 1972, has wafted lovely across time and carried a franchise and a fan base for 50 years.
Joe Robbie, a Minneapolis lawyer and politician, founded an American Football League expansion team in Miami in 1966, but it struggled for four years, losing on the field and hard-pressed to catch on with fans. The AFL was the junior outfit to the mighty NFL, and those early Dolphins seemed minor-league.
The Orange Bowl was only one-third filled with 26,767 fans for the historic first ever regular season game against the Oakland Raiders on September 2, 1966. The last home game that season on December 18 drew a mere 20,045.
I was a kid at both games with his dad. But only because local Winn-Dixie supermarkets were giving away free tickets to pad the crowd. At that first game I recall Danny Thomas, Dolphins part-owner and then a major television celebrity, sprinting down the sideline along with Joe Auer as he returned a kickoff for a touchdown. At the season finale we huddled under blankets in a sparse, shivering crowd.
Would the Dolphins even make it? Robbie and Thomas had met because Thomas was traveling the country tapping fellow Lebanese-Americans to help fundraise for his St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. But within a couple of years Thomas and other Dolphins investors had bailed on Robbie.
“My dad spent a lot of time with his bankers and revolving lines of credit,” his son Tim Robbie recalls now, of those rough expansion years. “It was a constant battle to keep the team operating and the cash flow right.”
No one could imagine what was ahead.
Joe Robbie was late in his life in 1987 when the stadium he built with ingenuity and private funding, now Hard Rock Stadium, was opened. A guest at the grand opening, also then late in his life, was Thomas. Tim Robbie was then just a few years from taking over as club president after his father died.
“Danny Thomas was ranting and raving that day about his financial advisors telling him [two decades earlier] the Dolphins weren’t a good investment and to get out,” Tim says, with a laugh. “He told my Dad, ‘I should have fired those idiots!’”
As Thomas got out way back when, lifelines were presenting themselves.
Robbie hired a personnel genius named Joe Thomas who drafted or traded for future Hall of Fame players such as Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Larry Little and Nick Buoniconti — talent that would make the Dolphins an attractive team when it came time to bring in a new coach to replace expansion hire George Wilson.
The NFL had agreed to absorb AFL teams including Miami beginning in 1970. That was apparent by 1968 and, that preseason, the Dolphins drew 68,000 fans for an exhibition game against the Baltimore Colts — Miami’s potential as a thriving sports market on display for the first time.
Those Colts were coached by a man named Don Shula. Five months later his team, a huge favorite, would infamously lose the Super Bowl (in Miami) to the AFL New York Jets and Joe Namath’s “guarantee.” It ruined Shula’s relationship with the Colts owner, Carroll Rosenbloom.
“A lot of dominoes coming into play,” as Tim Robbie puts it.
Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope mentioned to Joe Robbie that he should hire Shula. Robbie asked Herald sports writer Bill Braucher, who covered the Dolphins then and knew Shula from their college days at John Carroll University, to contact him. Later, after Robbie hired Shula, the NFL made the Dolphins forfeit a first-round draft pick for tampering because Shula was under contract with Baltimore at the time.
The lesson? If you’re going to tamper, at least do it right!
Shula for a first-round pick might have been the biggest bargain in the history of sports.
“Bill was instrumental in me coming here,” Shula told me late in his life, in one of his last interviews before passing away at age 90 in 2020. “It changed my life.” He paused. Then, a small smile. “I’d say for the better.”
He arrived in 1970 — and with him so had South Florida arrived as a major sports market.
Perfection was still to come, but first a watershed moment might have been “The Longest Game” on Christmas Day 1971 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It was the Dolphins’ first ever playoff victory.
I was a teenager watching on TV with my dad in our living room in Hollywood. When Garo Yepremian’s field goal finally won it, we jumped up and down, hugging.
“That wasn’t just a South Florida thing. That was a national thing,” Tim Robbie said, rightly. “It was a playoff game. Nothing else on. That really put the Dolphins on the map nationally. In the grand scheme from that era, I think we gained more national following from that game than people ever realized.”
Perfection came the very next year, the first of two consecutive Super Bowl championship seasons with a combined record of 32-2.
The Miami Dolphins were on top of the world, dominant like no other team in sports. If self-esteem was measurable, South Florida’s was rising like helium party balloons.
Tim Robbie, son of the owner, had been in middle school during the tough, losing expansion years.
“Kids can be cruel,” he says, smiling now. “Everyone would say to me, ‘Robbie, the Dolphins suck!’ I began to think that was my name. It became a running joke.”
Tim was in high school when Shula and the glory days arrived like a parade.
“Suddenly people who didn’t know me were patting me on the back,” he says. “And asking for tickets!”
And the local grocery stores were no longer giving those away for free.
It was an evolving time in South Florida.
The University of Miami had admitted its first Black students only four years before the Dolphins were awarded a franchise. “Freedom Flights” brought more than 100,000 Cubans to Miami inside of one year as the newborn Fins were taking the field. The Democratic and Republican national conventions both were held in Miami Beach during that ‘72 season as the divisive Vietnam War ebbed.
The Dolphins would help the city heal, and grow, and knit as a community.
Larry Csonka, the battering-ram fullback from those days, felt the impact from inside it.
“It was a coming-of-age party for Miami,” he writes in his memoir, Head On, due out later this fall. “It unified a fractured city. When I’d arrived in 1968, it had been a turbulent time. Between race riots, antiwar sit-ins and a rising Cuban population, there was a lot of division in the late ‘60s. The Dolphins’ 1972 season brought Miami together like no politician or issue ever could. People who didn’t even like football were excited. Black, white and Latino folks from every walk of life suddenly all had something in common: Cheering us on.”
It was the beginning of a metamorphosis in Greater Miami — not just socially as the city began to speak a second language, but in the bloom of a major sports town from what had been a barren landscape.
Miami/Fort Lauderdale is now one of a select 13 American metropolitan areas with all of the original Big Four sports leagues in NFL football, MLB baseball, NBA basketball and NHL hockey. (The other markets are Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York. Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.).
We were last to the party.
South Florida had none of those four major teams until 1966 when the Dolphins arrived.
We do not count but should acknowledge the fleeting and long-forgotten Miami Seahawks, an historical blip on the timeline. That team played one year, and badly, in the inaugural 1946 season of the short-lived All-America Football Conference, a failed post-war challenger to the NFL.
Miami even being in the AAFC was an accident, an emergency. The team in Baltimore could not secure stadium rights and, to have an even number of teams, the league scrambled to relocate the team to Miami and Roddy Burdine Stadium (forerunner of the Orange Bowl). Miami lost its opener 44-0. It got worse. The team drew fewer than 50,000 fans, total, for seven home games, then moved back to Baltimore after the season.
That team, today little more than an answer to a trivia question, had no lineage or tie to Robbie founding the Dolphins some 20 years later.
Similarly, the original Miami Marlins were a professional Triple A baseball club in 1958-60, famed for having the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige on its roster. But that was minor league. It only seemed like the big time then, because we didn’t know any better, had no frame of reference.
We didn’t have much before Robbie and the Dolphins.
The Miami Heat and Marlins and Panthers and later Major League Soccer were decades away. Miami Hurricanes football was around and the biggest team we had, with stars such as George Mira and Ted Hendricks. But the Canes program was still almost 20 years from the onset of its glory days, from mattering like it would.
In the interim, though, the arrival of the Dolphins kick-started something.
The American Basketball Association had the Miami Floridians (later simply the Floridians) from 1968 to 1972. The North American Soccer League came and was a fixture here from 1972 to 1983 with the Miami Gatos/Toros later becoming the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Then came the Heat, then the Marlins and Panthers. The MLS Miami Fusion played from 1998 to 2001, forerunner of the league’s Inter Miami today.
The seed for all of it was the Miami Dolphins arriving — but the vital nourishment for that was Shula, and the winning, and the enduring, indelible, singular Perfect Season that belongs to only us.
Fifty years later, it is and always will be Miami’s family heirloom, the one we cherish, the gift we pass down.
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