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Stories of Stephenson's line play, even without personal embellishments, are legendary. Miami fans still talk about the time he took out two blitzing New England Patriots defenders, using one forearm for each. Former teammates and opponents alike sing his praises.
"We were playing the Cowboys once, and we were trying to run behind Stephenson and Roy Foster", former Dolphins tight end Joe Rose said. "On one play, Dwight moved like lightning over to help Foster with one of the Cowboys - I never could understand how he could snap the ball and still get off so quick he could blow people away. Anyway he did, and rubbed out one guy, and then here came Bill Bates blitzing in. I had a perfect view from the sideline, and I knew there was no way Dwight could get Bates too. But Dwight caught him right on the chin and Bates hit head-first going backwards. I just stood there watching in awe."
Former New York Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko faced Stephenson twice each season. Klecko knew just how tough that assignment could be. "Dwight made fools of people who made mistakes", he remembered. "You knew he would destroy you, anyway. If you messed up, it just happened faster."
The Miami offensive line led the league with the fewest quarterback sacks every season that Stephenson was a starter. At one point, the All-Pro center went two seasons without surrendering a sack to an opponent.
Dan Marino, perhaps the biggest benefactor of Stephenson's remarkable line play, refused to reduce the five seasons they played together to a personal "favorite play". "He made so many unbelievable plays, you can&'t pick just one out", Marino offered. "Because of what I had to concentrate on during a game, it was hard for me to notice Dwight while he was in there. But I sure noticed it when he was not in there."
Before Marino arrived in 1983 and began rewriting passing statistics in 1984, Dolphin opponents' game plan was to attempt to neutralize Stephenson. That was high praise for an offensive lineman. A true student of the game, Stephenson mastered the moves and techniques of the center position. His combination of quick feet and great strength enabled him to either blow a guy off the line or drop back and pass protect or assist a fellow lineman with his blocking assignment.
"Every team in the NFL helps its center block the nose man with another lineman," Joe Klecko pointed out. "But Miami never had to help Dwight."
A tireless worker, Stephenson stayed in peak condition year-round. Out of 50 days in the Dolphins' 1986 off-season training program, Stephenson missed just two, and both times to accept an out-of-town award. His off-season workout routine even impressed Shula. "If I could tell a young player to learn from one of my veterans, to follow around and copy one player, that player would always be Dwight," Shula once told a reporter.
Stephenson's contributions were not confined to the playing field. In 1985 he was honored as the Miller Lite/NFL Man of the Year. The award, presented annually, goes to an NFL player who combines outstanding community service and playing excellence. He was the first Dolphin to win the award since its inception in 1970.
It was also in 1985 that an injured Stephenson played a major role in preserving the 1972 Dolphins' place in NFL history as the only team to post a perfect 17-0 season. In a late-season Monday night match-up, the 12-0 Chicago Bears faced the 8-4 Dolphins. Late in the first quarter, Stephenson was forced to the sidelines with what was diagnosed as a sprained shoulder. "A lot of guys wouldn't have played with that injury," Sandusky recalled. "But Dwight refused to leave the lineup. With just one good arm he managed to contain the Bears highly touted defensive lineman William 'The Refrigerator' Perry." The Dolphins went on to hand the Bears their only loss of their otherwise perfect season. It can't get any tougher than this, a frustrated Perry said after the game."
Extremely durable, Dwight played in 107 straight games from 1980 until the 1987 players' strike ended his streak. Following the strike he returned to the lineup and after seven games was in the midst of yet another awe-inspiring season. Then with just seven minutes remaining in a game against the New York Jets on December 7, Stephenson suffered a career-ending knee injury. It happened when Jets defensive lineman Marty Lyons blocked Stephenson during a fumble return. While the hit was legal, some argued that it was unnecessary since Stephenson was well behind the ball carrier when Lyons delivered the block.
I have no bitterness towards Marty Lyons,” said Stephenson, who received several calls from his former college teammate after the injury. “I know he didn't mean it.
Although he worked diligently during the off-season to rehabilitate the injured knee, by September, doctors confirmed his worst fears. His playing days were over.
Dwight Stephenson played just eight seasons, but during that time he established himself as the best of his day. Many have offered that he may well have been the “best ever.”
During his career Dwight was named All-AFC and All-NFL five consecutive times (1983-1987), selected to play in five consecutive Pro Bowls (1984-1988), and was named the NFL Players Association Lineman of the Year five consecutive years (1983-1987).
Having his outstanding career shortened by injury left Stephenson with only two regrets. One was that he wasn’t a part of a winning Super Bowl team. The other was more personal. “I wish my sons could have seen me play,” he said.
Although they may not have seen him play, Dwight’s sons were no doubt on hand in Canton, Ohio on August 1, 1998, when their father again took “center stage” as he was formally enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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