This article originally appeared in the Aug 7, 1972 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Don Shula says he would appreciate Larry Csonka even if Csonka weren't Hungarian. Csonka is unmoved by his filiation. He refers to his father, a former Akron movie-theater bouncer who once spiraled a chap through a plate-glass door, and to Shula, his coach, as "those crazy Hungarians," as if he were somehow exempt. When Edwin Pope, the Miami columnist, was chided by Shula for slipping out of a Dolphin press conference to talk to Csonka, Csonka commiserated with him in a voice just loud enough for Shula to hear: "Don't worry about it, Edwin, you heard one Honky, you heard 'em all."
By the same token, Shula says he would appreciate Jim Kiick even if Kiick were not loath to participate in Shula's tough practices. Kiick says he hates to practice. ("He's putting you on," says Shula hopefully.) Kiick particularly hates Shula's annual 12-minute run. For days beforehand friends and relatives are subjected to his discontent. Two days before this year's run, Kiick announced, "I'm going to tell him that if I wanted to run cross-country I would have gone out for it in high school." He told Shula exactly that, and then ran the 12 minutes ("Another clutch performance by Kiick," an observer noted), bringing up the rear in lockstep with his faithful Hungarian companion Csonka. Shula said the two are so close they even get tired together.
Shula puts up with these insubordinations because he knows some things about Kiick and Csonka (see cover). He knows, to begin with, that they have become the best pair of running backs in the NFL, both in accumulative effect—the Dolphins rush for more yards, with a higher average, than any other team—and in all-round intimidation. They run, do Kiick and Csonka, not fancily but with overwhelming finality, like a cave-in. If foot-pounds at impact were measurable in football, it could well prove out that at 233 pounds Csonka hits harder than any back ever hit. Consider this: he once drew a personal foul while running with the ball, having come close to removing the head of a defensive back with his forearm.
Kiick is cuter ("I like to run where there's holes: Larry likes to run where there's people"), but no less resolute. They both block brilliantly. They catch passes. Kiick on third down is as sure-handed as any receiver. And they play hurt, do not blow assignments and never fumble. Well, hardly ever. One fumble apiece in 448 carries last year.
"Kiick and Csonka. You can't spell 'em and you can't stop 'em," says a rival coach, to which Shula would add that you can't trade for 'em, either, because he laughs at those who try. Shula admits it: Kiick and Csonka have come to represent the identity of his team. The successful football coach adapts to his talent, and more than anything else the blood and thunder image of the Dolphins under Shula is an adaptation to Kiick and Csonka. The components necessarily include the team's more spectacular players, Paul Warfield, the gifted wide receiver, and Quarterback Bob Griese, the AFC's leading passer, who shake things up, but the end product is ball control—80-yard drives consuming nine or 10 minutes at a time—and the image of that is Kiick and Csonka.
"Heavy heads," the Buffalo coach called them after the two had rushed for more than 100 yards apiece in a game last year. They were to repeat the pleasure a month later against the Jets. "Throwbacks," Shula calls them. They are two manifestly uncomplicated football players who love the game for the simple things it can do to a man. Dirty his shirt. Bloody his chin. Satisfy his inhibitions. Relieve his tensions. Says Csonka, "It gives a man great satisfaction to do something people are trying to stop him from doing. You don't get ulcers playing football."
Shula does not "send" Kiick and Csonka to play, he "turns them loose." He does not take them out of a game, he calls them off. Kiick sulks when Shula spells him. "It's my way," Kiick says. "Larry is more likely to say something. 'Let me back in, coach.' I never say anything. I sulk." Alice Kiick says her husband's sulks are very outspoken.
Shula has a favorite scene, one he considers typical of the pair, although it involves only Csonka. It was captured for posterity in the highlight film of the preposterously successful 1971 Dolphins, who did not quit kiicking and csonking until they were in the Super Bowl, where they were stopped at last by the Dallas Cowboys. The scene shows Larry Csonka arriving in the end zone. "The image of manhood," Shula says. Csonka's mustache is dripping mud. His face and uniform are slathered with it. His helmet is twisted grotesquely on his head. His expression is impassive: the stoic marine atop Suribachi, vaguely aware that the battle must have been won but certain that the war is not over. In the final frame, Csonka turns and nonchalantly flips the ball over his shoulder. "A picture I love," says Shula.
There are other pictures, not all recorded or authenticated, but still parts of the growing saga of Kiick and Csonka, or "Butch" and "The Kid" as they are called by their worshipful fans. The president of a woman's club in Washington strode into the Redskins' office to buy 5,000 tickets to an exhibition game the other day, and when asked which one she wanted to see, replied, "I want to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!" The association with the movie heroes, though tiresome, has been profitable. At least 2,000 posters of them in Western costume were sold in the offseason and a TV film has been made of their exploits, featuring them on horseback, riding into the sunset at the close of another tough day on the trail (actually hotel row on Miami Beach).
But that is make-believe. The true-life adventures are more revealing. The time, for example, when Kiick was seen biting the arm of a New York Jet. Why did you do that, Jim? he was asked. "Because he was twisting my leg." Did you bite him hard? "Hard enough to make him stop twisting my leg." Or the time the two drove 20 hours straight to deliver a new car to Csonka's dad in Ohio. They had just returned from defeat at the hands of Oakland in the 1970 divisional playoffs, and all the way from Miami to Ohio they talked of football and of retribution, and how they must allow nothing to stop them in 1971 short of a broken limb or a concussion, and they got so excited over the prospect that Kiick nearly demolished the dashboard with his fists.
Kiick-Csonka episodes proliferate like hangers in a closet. In the ones involving Csonka a description of his nose is usually included. It has been "laid on the side of his cheek" (one side or the other) nine times. When he was a farm boy in Ohio, it was kicked out of line by a steer. In a high school wrestling match, it led the way to the mat under an opponent Csonka had draped around his neck, only to lose control of. Last season he got up from a nose-to-elbow collision with a Buffalo Bill, streaming blood. Gauging the flow to be unfatal, here turned to the huddle. As he leaned over, the blood dripped audibly on the shoes of Marv Fleming, the Miami tight end. Csonka said Fleming's eyes got wider and wider. His face turned, well, white. Fleming ordinarily is black. "So I leaned the other way to bleed on Kiick," said Csonka. "He loves it. It makes him think he's been in a game."
Dr. Herbert Virgin, the Dolphin team physician, has found Csonka to be "an extremely stubborn individual." In return for his advice Dr. Virgin has learned to expect such rejoinders as "I'll get over it" (broken nose, sprained knee, etc.) or "I ain't going to the hospital, and that's final." In 1968 Csonka suffered a concussion in a collision with a Bengal linebacker. For weeks afterward he suffered severe headaches. His career was thought to be in jeopardy. A neurosurgeon suggested he reevaluate his occupation. Knocked unconscious again in a game at Miami, Csonka came to on the sidelines to find Dr. Virgin hovering over him and a photographer standing on his hand. He told the photographer to get the hell off. Dr. Virgin called for a stretcher and an ambulance. Csonka got to his feet. "I'm not going to be carried off in front of all those people," he said. "I'm going out the way I came in or I'm not going." Dr. Virgin threw up his hands and followed Csonka to the dressing room.
Csonka wore a special helmet after that, with liquid and air compartments to absorb shock, but he eventually discarded it. The headaches went away. "I had absolutely no doubt I'd be all right," says Csonka. He now runs with greater intelligence, using his head more by learning how to use it less, and he wears his old helmet in a fashion peculiarly his own: the suspension shifted so that it sits forward and down over his head. Willie Lanier, the Kansas City linebacker, tells Csonka it looks as though his helmet's empty. "All I can see is your mustache," he says. "Good," says Csonka. "I'd just as soon you didn't know which hole I'm looking at."
As is often the case with conspicuously physical people, the wreckage on Csonka's face and that which he causes does not in any real sense expose his true character. It is, in fact, a contradiction to it. It is true, for example, that Csonka was an avid hunter, but he can no longer bring himself to kill. He speaks, rather, of the majesty of the moose he has seen in the wilds of Canada and of the cunning of the beavers who built a dam he fell off of last winter.
Csonka actively, vigorously objects to the notion that a brutish football player is necessarily a brute. Last year he was critical of President Nixon for putting himself into the pro football picture, but Csonka says his message was lost in translation.
"I have no hassle with Mr. Nixon," he says. "Who am I to knock a fan? What I object to is that when it comes from him, from the President, it's as if he has sanctioned all of football, that football is just naturally wonderful for everyone. Parents start pushing a kid toward the game without realizing the dangers in it. You see it in these Little Leagues. Poor equipment, poor coaching. Some 25-year-old frustrated jock making kids run 8,000 laps. And gassers! A kid gets his nose broke, and the coach yells at him and calls him a coward and shames him. Hey, kids listen to adults, especially if he is a coach. They start to believe. Maybe a kid believes he can't compete, that he is a coward. If a kid's not ready to hit or be hit, he shouldn't have to."
Csonka explains, in part, his close friendship with Kiick as being a matter of relaxing in each other's company. "No competition for attention," he says. One rainy night before a game in Boston they retired to their room to relax with noncompetitive but expensive bottles of bourbon. The game the next day was played on a field barely visible under a sheet of water, and on one particularly untidy run Kiick slid 30 feet in the clutches of a Patriot tackler. He almost drowned, says Csonka. He came back to the huddle looking like a section of the field. Just as signals were called Csonka said, "Don't swallow, Kiick, or you'll spoil all that good bourbon."
Dolphin Trainer Bob Lundy says Kiick and Csonka make him look good because he never has to report them hors de combat, and he no longer worries whether they have a high or low threshold of pain because he doubts they feel pain at all. Kiick once played with a broken toe, a broken finger, a hip pointer and a badly bruised elbow. Lundy put a cast on the elbow, and during the game kept asking Kiick how it felt. "Fine, fine," said Kiick. Afterward Lundy unwrapped the elbow to find it swollen twice its normal size, and knew it had to be extremely painful. He asked Kiick how he stood it. "Hell. I'm paid to play," said Kiick.
Last March, in a basketball game at a Miami high school, Kiick fractured his left ankle. While he was at it, the doctor X-rayed both ankles and found the right one had been broken, too, at an earlier time, and was actually in worse shape than the left. "No kidding?" said Kiick incredulously. A couple of weeks later he wore out the bottom of his cast playing basketball.
Medical records and love of football aside, for two men who appear to be so much alike, Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka are nothing alike.
James Forrest Kiick is a Jersey dude who went to the University of Wyoming because his grades weren't good enough to get him in school back East. His mother Alice objects to his candor on the subject; a delightfully prepossessing gray-haired woman, as well as a first-grade teacher in Lincoln Park, N.J., she wishes Kiick would say that only Wyoming had the sense to recognize his ability.
At Laramie, Kiick was both a star and an iconoclast. His teammates called him Nicky Newark. He wore pointed shoes, Italian knit shirts, fluorescent pants. "All my clothes were monogrammed, even my underwear. I always liked wild clothes. Shirts with girls' pictures on them. I'm also a shoe freak. In high school my mother would send me down to get a pair of pants and a shirt, and I'd come back with four pairs of shoes."
If Wyoming never saw anything like Kiick, Kiick never expected anything like Wyoming. "Flying in, I couldn't believe it. Hundreds of miles of nothing. If I'd gone out there to visit first, I'd never have gone back. The fans were great, and we had good teams, but nobody back East knew we were playing except when we went to the Sugar Bowl in 1967. My mother used to complain to The New York Times about its coverage of our games. A line score on Monday mornings. I had to call her at two a.m. after a Saturday night game to give her the play-by-play."
Kiick's life as a Wyoming undergraduate was not encumbered by serious study. Pushed into phys ed courses that bored him, he would, of a morning, start for class and make it as far as the pool table in the student center, where he financed his dates and phone bills. Except for the love of Alice, who played hard to get, a tactic that baffled him ("I thought, 'How can she turn me down?' "), Kiick was not won by the West. He rode a horse for three hours, and was cured of the desire for a lifetime. When the team went to New York to play Army, all the players wore cowboy hats. Except Kiick. He held his under his arm. "I was afraid some of the guys from Jersey might see me. When I signed with the Dolphins I was written up as a 'cowboy from Wyoming.' They all laughed at that one. I was a pool shark from Jersey."
In Lincoln Park, says Kiick. "We have the oldest kids in the world. Thirty-five. 40-year-old kids who have found a way to do nothing in life. Just hang around, play some basketball, drink some beer, relax. That's the way I'll be. I have the opportunity now to do it in the off-season. I don't have to preplan my day. I do what I want. I can play basketball for hours, even by myself. Maybe go sit in a bar and relax. I'd like to have my own bar. I'd like to be able to walk in and say, 'Buy that guy a drink.'
"Alice doesn't go for those ideas much. She wants something permanent. She'd like me to have a job in the off-season. Nine to five. Get me out of the house. I look around toplease her. I go out and shoot baskets, and maybe have a few beers, and comeback and tell her, 'Nothing today, honey.' I guess you'd call that irresponsible. That's how my mother describes me."
Kiick's Pennsylvania Dutch father George played two years for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1940s, but did not push Jim into athletics. Mother Alice did that. While George reminded him of his errors, Alice threw the football to him and led the cheers. He was good at everything—football, basketball, baseball—but he was told he had a bad attitude. "I've always been what you might call lackadaisical. It makes for a bad appearance. For example, I hate exercise. I hate sit-ups. Larry thrives on hard work. Raised on a farm, up at 5:30, milking cows, getting the work done. I was lazy. Or looked lazy. Shula yells at me for the way I do exercises. I just like to loosen up. I don't worry much about form. I don't knock myself out on the unnecessary stuff. Why run back to the huddle? Conserve your energy. Pick your spots. Pete Rose draws a walk and he sprints to first base. Why? It'll wait.
"I was better in basketball than football. I always wanted to be 6'5" [he is 5'11"]. If I was 6'5" I'd be playing basketball now instead of football. And I was better at baseball than anything. The coach and I didn't see eye to eye. He bought me a new glove. Mine was old and floppy, but it had character. A nice pocket. This new $40 glove was beautiful, but it was flat and hard. I wouldn't wear it. We argued. One game I forgot my hat. He made me sit in the bus the whole game."
Unlike Csonka, Kiick is a natural athlete. Put a golf club in his hands, says Shula, and he'd probably break par. The finer points of a game, however, do not fascinate him as they do Csonka. "I'm not a student of anything," says Kiick. "I stopped growing mentally at 17. I know absolutely nothing about football. I don't know how to read a defense. I'm always afraid they'll quiz me on something I'm supposed to know."
Success would seem to have left Jim Kiick totally unspoiled. Only the wrapping has changed: to Levi's and tie-dyed shirts, hair that hangs around his ears and a mustache. The new shoe styles delight him. He now wears clogs and red and white string-ups with two-inch heels, and is "tall at last." He also has gone along with the fashion for "different" names ("Jim gets old after awhile") by calling his firstborn, now 16 months old, Brandon. "I'll tell you a name I used to like," he says. "There was a shot-putter named Dallas Long. Remember him? I used to think that was a great name. Dallas."
He pauses, reflecting on the irony. "The letdown came after the Super Bowl," he says. "Not on the next day, but later. Dallas wasn't that much better, but football is momentum. We lost it in the first quarter when we fumbled and they scored, and we never got it back. The letdown came when you realized how much it took to get there. How many things had to be right, or went wrong, that allowed us to get there. Luck. Injuries. More luck. How many times is Jan Stenerud going to miss a 24-yard field goal [as he did in The Longest Game at Kansas City]? So those things work for you, and when you get there, you've got to get the job done, because you might not get back there for a while."
Jim Kiick believes, as a friend once told him, that "you are fortunate in life if you have one or two good friends." He found Larry Csonka at the College All-Star camp in Evanston, Ill. in 1968. Kiick was a fifth-round draft choice of the Dolphins, appreciated mainly by his mother. Csonka was a consensus All-America from Syracuse, the Dolphins' No. 1 pick with a $100,000 bonus. Csonka was to be, in that All-Star Game, the Most Valuable Player. Kiick never got in the game. Norm Van Brocklin, the All-Star coach, said he was too fat, too slow and had a bad attitude. "I did, too," says Kiick, "when I realized he could say all that without ever having seen me play." Csonka obviously saw things in Kiick that Van Brocklin didn't. He introduced Kiick to Miami sportswriters as "a guy you better get to know. Maybe you never heard of him, but he's going to be a hell of a player."
Thrown together as roommates then, they have been roommates by choice ever since. "Two things can happen in a case like that," says Csonka. "Either you communicate and get along or you wind up hating each other. If you don't get along, it's pretty obvious. Show me the game films of a team and I'll tell you whether the running backs get along. When Jim and I run a sweep I can sense exactly what he's going to do, how he'll react to the defensive end or the cornerback. We don't have anything in common except friendship, but that makes it work."
Kiick was awed by Csonka. "He was huge," he says. "I was embarrassed to be around him. He was taller. He was stronger. I measured my thighs and thought, boy, 28 inches. His were bigger. We kidded him every time he ran a pass pattern: 'Lineman down field!' We were nothing alike, but we hit it off. Larry likes to fish. I hate the outdoors. But I could enjoy it with him. I like to play basketball or shoot pool. He doesn't give a damn, but he'll come watch."
Lawrence Richard Csonka was raised on an 18-acre farm in Stow, Ohio. His father Joseph worked at Goodyear in Akron besides doing a little bouncing on the side. Larry remembers that his father made him hoe beans "until I wanted to hit him with the hoe," and as punishment kneel on corncobs, and that he and his brother slept in a rough board attic where it was so cold "I could watch my breath go the length of the room. I had a runny nose the first 10 years of my life.
"I hated that farm until I was old enough to know better," he says. "Now I think how rewarding it was—growing things, having animals. Hey, there was a creek and about 20 dogs running around, and we chased woodchucks and climbed trees to get baby crows for pets. Think how ironic it is. My dad didn't have much money, and here I am with two boys [Doug, 5, and Paul, 3] who are rich kids by comparison, and I'm trying to get enough to afford to give them the life my dad gave me."
The Csonkas—uncles, cousins and so forth—were known around Stow as a physical bunch. "If my father liked you, he hit you on the arm." If he didn't like you, he was also liable to hit you. "He was always in great shape," says Larry. "He's 53 now, and he's still got a 34-inch waist. And can hit you quicker than you can think about it."
Larry weighed 150 when he was 12, and by the time he was a high school junior, he had tried every position, including quarterback. "There was something about throwing the ball. I didn't want to turn it loose." His high school games in Stow were memorable as much for the fights in the stands as they were for the play on the field.
Csonka's wife Pam was his high school sweetheart and joined him at Syracuse his junior year. The year before, Coach Ben Schwartzwalder had converted him from fullback to middle linebacker. "Biggest mistake I ever made," said Schwartzwalder. Csonka was converted back to fullback. "Smartest move I ever made," said Schwartzwalder. A Syracuse tackle named Gary Bugenhagen had told Csonka that he should strengthen his forearms by banging them into things. Csonka was envious of the size of Bugenhagen's forearms. That summer Schwartzwalder got a call from Mr. Csonka. He said to please get Larry out of his house because he was "knocking down the walls."
"Actually," says Csonka, "it was only one wall, and it was coming down anyway. I used to leave a couple hundred pounds of weights on my bed. My mother would raise hell. She couldn't lift them off to make the bed."
Csonka broke all the Syracuse rushing records, surpassing the feats of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance and Floyd Little. "I'm not really in their class," he says. "I just carried the ball more." When he broke the last of Little's records, they stopped play to give him the ball. Csonka flipped it to the sidelines. "I didn't know what they were doing," he says. "I thought it was defective or something."
Rookie camp with the Dolphins was a special hell for Csonka. George Wilson was the Miami coach then, and he was a traditionalist who believed that rookies were made to suffer. Csonka was the biggest target. He suffered most. The veterans called him "the Lawnmower" for his peculiar lock-kneed, low-to-the-ground running style. They not only made him sing his school song, they made him sing every school song. They sent him out for sandwiches at two in the morning. They did not get him drunk one night, as is the custom, but took him out and tanked him up 10 nights in a row. "One time they had us drink a gallon of white lightning," Csonka says. "Kiick sat there, motionless. Sometimes he does that, just sits there, so I wasn't concerned. He looked sober. Then he said, 'We gotta go.' We made it back to the room, and he was sicker than I've ever seen a man. The next day we had to run the ropes, and we got tangled so bad you wouldn't believe it."
It was, harassment notwithstanding, a foregone conclusion that Csonka would be Miami's regular fullback from the beginning. Kiick soon joined him, by default. Injuries—a pinched nerve in the neck of Jack Harper, appendicitis for Stan Mitchell—eliminated the competition. "I had a no-cut contract," says Kiick. "They had to try me."
The rest, of course, is history, or getting there. As his head cleared and the games rolled by, Csonka became easier to spell ("'C as in Carl, S as in Sam'...I've heard him tell it to the operator 100 times," says Kiick) and tougher to defense. Last year he went over 1,000 yards, and Shula, having recognized an astonishing thing—Csonka is fast enough to run outside—has given him more latitude. Weak-side sweeps, quick pitches. ("I always wanted to run outside just to prove I could," says Csonka.) The advantage he has out there, says Shula, is that "even if he's not as fast as some backs, he's bigger."(Pause) "Bigger than most backs." (Pause) "Bigger than all backs." And Kiick, of course, continues to get his 1,000-yards-plus rushing and receiving and to remind people of such all time all-purpose backs as Paul Hornung and Tom Matte. Shula says nobody makes the third-down play—the tough two yards, the clutch reception—more consistently than Kiick.
The Kiick-Csonka dimension grows. Their affairs are now handled by Mark McCormack (Arnold Palmer, Rod Laver, Jackie Stewart), and that means endorsements. Last year they even held out on their contracts together.
It is very easy to be with these two. One need only watch them limp into the training room on Monday morning. "It's a pitiful sight," says a regular. "Able to walk, but barely. Dr. Virgin comes in and just shakes his head."
Csonka, the Sundance Kid, takes up the oral banner for the two on this most tender of subjects. "No matter what your style, you have to take a beating," he says. "If you're small and quick, it might catch up to you all at once, or if you're like me you might prefer to get it in regular doses, but sooner or later the bill collector comes.
"It's all in the game. I'm no masochist, but I wouldn't want it any other way. I want to be physically involved. I don't want to be in a game where all you've done is throw the ball and don't feel a thing on Monday. Maybe it's a way of letting off steam, I don't know, but afterwards Kiick and I can relax better than anybody. We can relax at a party till five a.m., just sitting in a corner, Kiick with that look on his face, not saying anything. But hey, I like people. I present the image of being a brute, of knuckles dragging. I've had people hesitate to come up to me because they weren't sure what I'd do. I hate that. They don't know me.
"I love the game, that's all. I bitch, but I love the whole thing, the total experience. Mind and body. And the result is right thereat the end. Running backs figure to last four to six years. The lucky ones last eight or 10. I'd like to go 15. And the only thing that troubles me is that I won't be able to play forever."
It is barely coincidental, perhaps, but worthwhile telling anyway, if only for the fun of it: Pam Csonka was out on the tennis court when little Paul Csonka came crying for attention over a slightly bloody mouth. Pam took a quick look and said, "Just dab it with something," since she was busy. "In this family," she says, "you learn to live with pain."