Larry Csonka, ‘heart’ of Dolphins glory days, on his life of adventure — and perfection | Opinion

It was 1987 when the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, made Larry Csonka one of its own. He had grown up on a farm a half hour north in Stow, Ohio, one of six kids in a Hungarian family of modest means. They made their own butter. When nature called, you went out back and used the outhouse.

Had his talent for football never been discovered or encouraged, had America never known of “Zonk,” he imagines he might have become a Merchant Marine. Always had an adventurous side.

“Or I probably would have lit out for Alaska,” he says. “Always had a yen to go there. Was attracted to the wilderness. As a kid it was Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. The frontier was romantic to me.”

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He would get there. To Alaska and the great outdoors. But first there would be adventure of a different sort.

Perfect Memories: 50th anniversary of the perfect season
Perfect Memories: 50th anniversary of the perfect season

Join us each Wednesday as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the perfect 1972 team

Csonka would play the centerpiece in helping lift the Miami Dolphins to a height never attained by any team: the 1972 Perfect Season — never done before, not done since. The consecutive Super Bowl championships. The Glory Days. The memories passed along by generations like a family heirloom, alive anew as the club celebrates the 50th anniversary of that singular feat.

The Perfectos will be officially honored the night of Oct. 23 when the Dolphins host Pittsburgh in prime time. So many of them are gone now, too many of them gone too soon from the ravages of concussions and CTE. Csonka today is alive and well at 75. The leader of the halcyon days, coach Don Shula, died at age 90 in 2020.


Csonka has a new book out called “Head On: A Memoir.” I asked him why he wrote it.

“When coach Shula passed,” he says, “it made me realize that we’re coming to the end of this trip. I’d never given that a thought before...”

He uses the book partly as a thank-you to all those who influenced him along the way, notably and most dearly, Shula.

That 1987 day in Canton, Shula stood on the stage to present Zonk for immortality. The player’s family, friends from Stow, and high school coaches were all there. Folks who knew Larry by his childhood nickname, “Gooch.” Fans in Dolphins jerseys who made the trip were there, too. Csonka had that thick mustache. It was breezy that day.

Larry Csonka speaks during the Don Shula Celebration of Life event hosted by the Miami Dolphins at the Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, October 2, 2021.
Larry Csonka speaks during the Don Shula Celebration of Life event hosted by the Miami Dolphins at the Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, October 2, 2021.

Shula glanced over at Csonka, leaned into a microphone and said:


“A modern-day Bronko Nagurski. The guy we need to make our offense go. There was a lot of talent on our Super Bowl teams, but I know where the heart was — No. 39, Csonka. The first fullback of his time. Never wanting to leave the game. He was blood and guts, dirt all over him...”

I know where the heart was...

Seven future Hall of Famers were a part of perfection in ‘72. Besides Shula and Csonka, there were Larry Little and Jim Langer blocking for Zonk, there was Bob Griese throwing passes to Paul Warfield, and there was Nick Buoniconti on the other side of the ball.

That team was as well-rounded and nearly flawless as 17-0 suggests.


Make no mistake, though, it was a running team first, with the most complementary trio of backs ever on a single roster in Csonka, the battering-ram fullback; Eugene “Mercury “ Morris, the run-wide game-breaker his nickname suggested; and Jim Kiick, the pass-catching threat of the three.

In the Super Bowl that minted the Perfect Season, 14-7 over Washington, Griese threw only 11 passes and Miami ran 37 times. Csonka led with 15 carries for 112 yards.

In the championship that made it two straight, 24-7 over Minnesota, Griese attempted only seven passes — fewest ever, still, by a starting quarterback in a Super Bowl — and Miami ran 53 times. Csonka had 33 carries for 145 yards, scored twice and was named game MVP.

The Dolphins’ three glory days backs were inseparable, Csonka and Kiick even were nicknamed “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” for the popular movie of the time.


When the games were biggest, though, one man stood out and carried the team like he carried safeties on his broad back. It was the battering ram. Football broke his nose 12 times, but Zonk bulled on.

One man got the ball 48 times in those two Super Bowls, because Shula knew where the heart was.

Looking back, it’s amazing it happened at all.

Csonka and Shula both were Hungarian, both Ohio-born, but they clashed at first. Didn’t much like each other.

Zonk was in Miami pre-Shula, for the last two years of George Wilson’s coaching career, when drafted by the Dolphins in the first round out of Syracuse in 1968. Wilson, then an aging, laissez-faire leader with a foot in retirement, enjoyed long lunches that might have involved a cocktail or two. If it was too hot, he would call off practice and tell his players to jump in the swimming pool.


That was the pro football regimen Zonk was used to when Shula arrived in 1970.

“Culture shock may be the understatement of the year,” Csonka says now, chuckling, more than 50 years later. “From good times to depression. It was like taking a step and falling off a little incline into the Grand Canyon. George was relaxed and headed toward retirement. Next thing you know we have a drill sergeant in basic training. We needed to practice harder, longer and more intensely in this heat. It was a day and night difference.”

Csonka balked at the sudden demand for discipline and maniacal attention to detail, including a requirement that the young fullback weigh no more than 235 pounds. Meaning if you were 237 on scale day, you showed up at 6:30 in the morning and ran until two pounds fell off.

Zonk didn’t much care for his new head coach.


The feeling was mutual.

“I didn’t figure I would fit in,” Csonka recalls. “I hadn’t seen any dominant power running backs in Baltimore [Shula’s previous team]. I said, ‘I don’t like you. Trade me.’ He said, ‘I looked into that, but I can’t get anything for you. I don’t like you either but we’re stuck with each other.’ That was behind a closed door. It was cold hard facts.”

He fit in. Csonka had five straight Pro Bowl seasons In Miami (1970-74) when everything suddenly changed because money changed everything.

The upstart World Football League lured Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to sign with a team that was moving from Toronto to Memphis. Csonka was offered $1.5 million over three years, a then-stratospheric number Fins owner Joe Robbie could not or would not match.


The WFL folded in less than two years. Csonka was back in the NFL in ‘76 — but with the New York Giants, for whom he played three seasons. He returned to Miami at age 32 to play one last year in 1979 before retiring.

Csonka won’t quite call the WFL detour a regret, but “what if” has stayed with him like a tattoo he doesn’t love.

“I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t fantasized about what it would be like if I had stayed,” he says. “Because of that [WFL] contract I bought the farm my boys grew up on. Alaska happened because of that. But I wish now I had more time to play with Shula.”

The two now-grown sons were from Csonka’s first marriage, to Pam, a college sweetheart. Larry also had a daughter he learned of later in life. Post-marriage, longtime partner Audrey has been with him since 1987. For 16 years they hosted the “North To Alaska” outdoor adventure TV series, now streaming.


Zonk’s life in football has put him in some notable social circles. He was friends with Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore. He lounged in Elvis Presley’s basement watching Elvis and Kiick shoot pool (8-ball). He befriended flying ace Chuck Yeager, who once rented a small plane and flew Csonka across the border to buy Mexican vanilla, because both loved vanilla ice cream and Chuck had a certain recipe.

But it is Alaska, and rugged outdoor adventure, that have most indelibly marked Csonka’s life after football. He guesses he was 7 or 8 when a copy of Field & Stream magazine caught his eye. The cover was set in Alaska, with a menacing bear on it.

“There’s a thing called the ‘call of the wild.’ Everyone has a call they hear, I believe,” he says. “I never heard the call for football. I meandered down that trail and ended up where I ended up. With Alaska, I was drawn to it. There was a magnet. I had a love affair with Alaska in my brain. Somehow, someway, I was going to get there.”

The “North To Alaska” series took Larry, Audrey and a two-man film crew to the remotest outposts of sprawling wilderness and, once, to unexpected peril on a boat stranded in the Bering Sea as crashing waves and high winds swirled.

I asked Larry if he was scared.

“I don’t think ‘scared’ does it justice. Scared is something that happens on Halloween for 15 seconds,” he says. “Terrified is a bigger word that describes the feeling of being at the mercy of nature. Waves way bigger than what our boat could handle. Thank God the bilge pump and motor didn’t quit on us. We were on the edge of death. Hours and hours of super intensity trying to stay alive.”

It was hours and hours on a violent sea before finally the rescue helicopter appeared.

Csonka wears only one of his Super Bowl rings today, “the perfect one.” The other is in a safe somewhere.

When Zonk recalls those glory days that are as much a part of him as his DNA, it doesn’t start with the exploits on the field, but with his teammates, and losing too many too soon.

And he recalls that snapshot of time, in America and in Miami. He recalls the fans, and the bond that players nowadays do not have with the people who pay to cheer them. The gulf between pro athletes and fans was much smaller.

Even Csonka, a first-round draft pick, had a second job during the offseason back then. Sold Ford trucks at a local dealership. Players didn’t have private parking area at the Orange Bowl; they parked among the fans. Players didn’t wear earbuds to insulate them; “They didn’t make earphones then!” says Zonk.

It was the time of Vietnam, of national protests and division. Miami was changing fast because of the exodus from Cuba of people fleeing to freedom.

“Our fans were black, white, Spanish, everything, people coming together. We were the common denominator,” Csonka says. “That was the beginning of a love affair with Dolphins fans. People started to learn where our cars were parked. That started the whole tailgate movement. They’d cook hot dogs on grills and have a chest of cold beer. Why would a player walk any further than that! They’d have cookouts after the game and we’d sit around with the fans for hours.”

Fast forward across the decades. They had a surprise 90th birthday party for Shula. Almost all of his living former Super Bowl champions were there. Shula was then confined to a wheelchair. Nobody could know he only had four months to live. It was the night that inspired Csonka to write that book, because, “We’re coming to the end of this trip...”

Csonka, the man’s man, the football gladiator whose nose was busted 12 times, the player who didn’t like Shula at first — he pauses to fight the emotion that wants to tell on him in his voice.

“That energy that radiates from him was still there,” Zonk says of his old coach. “When we hollered ‘Surprise!’, other than maybe that day they handed him the undefeated trophy, I’d never seem him radiate with such appreciation or seen such emotion on his face.”

You can ask Csonka about his Dolphins legacy as South Florida celebrate what he helped create 50 years ago, but you won’t get far. He will start crediting obscure teammates, trainers and equipment guys before he would ever brag on himself. But that’s OK.

Shula minted his legacy for him that day in 1987 when he talked about the Perfect Season and the championship years. When he talked about “the heart” of the glory days and he was looking right at Zonk.

Larry Csonka’s “Head On: A Memoir,” is available now in hardcover wherever books are sold, including at Books & Books in Coral Gables.