by Pete Fierle
Pro Football Hall of Fame coach inherited a Miami Dolphins team in 1970 that hadn’t won more than five games in any of its first four years of existence. There was, however, a solid foundation upon which he could build.
His defense quickly earned the label of the “No-Name Defense” because of a roster that included relatively unknown players.
Although no nickname was attached to the offense, it could easily have been called the “No Nonsense Offense.” The offensive unit led by example in a methodical and understated manner. And, no single player embodied the offense’s no-nonsense approach more than fullback . He was one of five players on the Dolphins offense that would eventually earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Quarterback , center , guard , and wide receiver Paul Warfield are also enshrined.
Csonka, a 6’3”, 235-pound former All-American from Syracuse was the first running back drafted in 1968 when the Dolphins picked him eighth overall. Although he came from a long line of Syracuse running backs the likes of , Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, and , it was a former Chicago Bears Hall of Fame fullback that Shula once compared him to.
“He was a modern-day ,” Shula proclaimed.
One thing was for sure. Csonka liked to run straight ahead and it was always “opponent beware.” He wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty or bloodied. In fact, reports are that he broke his nose 12 times during his days on the football field, from high school through the NFL.
“He was always bleeding in the huddle,” shared backfield teammate and good friend Jim Kiick who also joined the Dolphins via the ’68 draft.
Csonka’s toughness can be traced to his childhood on a farm in Stow, Ohio. Born on Christmas Day 1946, he grew up receiving little sympathy from his parents for any general pain he suffered while working on the farm. Csonka’s family emigrated from Hungary in the early 1900s and eventually settled in Northeast Ohio. His father was a gruff man who once worked as a bouncer at a movie theater in a rough neighborhood of Akron, Ohio. Weekends on the job often included several fights for the senior Csonka.
Larry married young and had his first son while at Syracuse. So, along with class and football, he had to work to support his family. He worked an evening shift as a night watchman at a car dealership that had been victimized by vandalism and a number of break-ins. Within a few weeks of Csonka on the job, the number of incidences was greatly reduced. He never shared just how he accomplished the turnabout, but one can assume he borrowed a few lessons from his dad.
There was nothing mysterious, however, about how Csonka became the featured weapon of the Dolphins attack. The powerful fullback reached the 1,000-yard mark for the first of three straight years starting in 1971. No coincidence, the Dolphins reached the Super Bowl in each of those seasons. After falling to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, the Dolphins embarked on one of the greatest runs in National Football League history. Over the next two seasons, the Dolphins compiled a 32-2 record and became the league’s dominant team.
Miami completed a perfect 17-0 season in 1972 capped by a victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII. The following year, they finished 15-2 and swept through the postseason. A 24-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII gave the club its second straight league title.
“The trademark of our back-to-back Super Bowl championship team was very few mistakes and ball control,” stated Shula.
Csonka was at his best during those years. In 1972, he led the way for the Dolphins as the team broke a long-standing NFL mark for rushing yards in a season that was set in 1936 by the Detroit Lions. Csonka carried much of the load with a team-leading 1,117 yards. Backfield mate Eugene “Mercury” Morris rushed for an even 1,000 yards as the duo became the first pair of teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Kiick added another 521 yards.
No better example of the Dolphins’ classic ball-control offense was Csonka’s MVP performance in Miami’s Super Bowl VIII victory. He carried the ball 33 times for a then-record 145 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. His first came five minutes into the game that capped a 10-play drive and set the tone for the day.
Two months later, Csonka, Kiick and Warfield, shocked the football world when they signed lucrative deals to join the rival World Football League. The trio agreed to defect to the WFL’s Toronto Northmen at the conclusion of their contracts that expired after the ‘74 season.
The signing apparently did not distract the team during their final season with the Dolphins. Miami finished 11-3-0 to again claim the AFC Eastern Division title. Despite missing two games to injury, Csonka ran for 749 yards and scored 9 touchdowns which were the most TDs he had scored in a season up to that point. However, the Dolphins hope for a fourth straight Super Bowl bid fell short when the Oakland Raiders beat them, 28-26, in the AFC Divisional playoff game.
So, off Csonka went to the WFL for a reported $1.3 million dollar contract. By the time he was ready to report, the Northmen had relocated to Memphis, Tennessee and became the Southmen, also commonly known as the Grizzlies. The dreams of fortune for Csonka and the WFL were short lived. The league folded before the completion of the ’75 season. Csonka played a mere seven games in the WFL.
He found himself back on his farm in Ohio and without a football team. Free to find a home with any NFL team, he reached out to the Dolphins. Owner Joe Robbie, who felt betrayed, did not welcome Csonka back with open arms.
Rather than wait to work things out, Csonka signed with the New York Giants. Unfortunately, the Giants talent on the front line was not filled with perennial All-Pros as it had been with the Dolphins. Csonka also suffered torn ligaments in his left knee. Subsequently, he was used more as a blocker and also spent an unfamiliar amount of time on the sidelines. After three relatively mediocre seasons in New York, Csonka and the Giants parted ways.
Csonka knew he could still play in the NFL and wanted one more chance.
“(I wanted) to show people I wasn’t over the hill that I could still be an asset,” he commented.
With time healing some of the wounds, Robbie was receptive to Csonka returning to South Florida. But, it came only after some convincing by Shula who thought the fullback would be a welcomed addition to the 1979 squad. However, a spot on the Dolphins roster was not a lock for the aging runner.
“Our past relationship was something good and special,” Shula stated after the signing. “…but if I ever let emotion enter into it, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a football coach.
“There are no guarantees,” assured Shula. “He still has to win a job on the football team.“
During that season’s training camp Csonka reiterated his motivation when he told a Sports Illustrated reporter, “There’s no other reason for me to be here but prove that I can do it one last time.
“I just want one more go-around,” he added. “I’m not satisfied with what happened in New York. I’m not satisfied being a spot player.”
In storybook-like fashion, a healthy Csonka regained his starter’s spot in the Miami lineup. His inspiring play delighted Dolphins fans who reveled in the return of the nomadic running back who was such a part of the franchise’s glory days. For the first time in five seasons, Csonka recorded more than 200 carries. His 837 yards were the most gained since his three straight 1,000-yard years. His ever-bruising style produced a career-high 13 touchdowns, 12 rushing and one receiving. Satisfied, his career came to a close following that season.
Csonka finished on his own terms. His final year was a memorable end to an outstanding career that earned him a permanent home in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This article originally appeared in the 2009 Official Pro Football Hall of Fame Yearbook.
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