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Original Issue

The last call for Number 39

Larry Csonka has not heard too many cheers since he left Miami in 1975, but now he is back with the Dolphins, hoping to relive the Super Bowl days in his final season

The Pompano Beach night club is advertised as the house of rock 'n' roll. The big sign out front is shattered on one side, but the other half bears the name of the club in script—Stagger Lee's.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning the place is jammed. Louie DeFranco, known on stage as Louie D, is putting on his third show of the night. He roars through a medley of '50s and '60s rock while the audience, in a room of dim red light and black plastic, relives the good old days when Chuck Berry and Little Richard were heroes.

"What time is it?" screams Louie. "It's party time!" yells the audience. Louie and his seven-member backup group—including one guitarist wearing a rubber bathing cap, another with an Afro dyed like a woolly rainbow and a third wearing shorts decorated in glitter—break into a Chubby Checker twist.

Suddenly a 6'4", 250-pound rookie football player for the Miami Dolphins jumps onto the stage with a tiny little girl and begins to twist. Envious teammates in the audience whistle approval.

The walls behind the long winding bar are covered with red carpet bearing piano keyboards and quarter notes, leftovers from the days when the place was the Keyboard Cabaret.

Beers are $2.25, mixed drinks a quarter more. The cocktail girls wear tight, skimpy outfits and thin gold belts. A dozen glossies of recording stars of two decades past hang on the walls.

Bonnie, the female vocalist, walks up to the microphone to sing her version of Janis Joplin's Mercedes Benz. She looks straight into the back of the club as she warbles.

"Oh Lord won't you buy me a number 39
I mean Larry Csonka, 'cause I wouldn't mind
If he tried to tackle me any old time
So oh Lord won't you buy me a number 39."

She sings to the big man with the crooked nose who is leaning against the back bar. He fidgets with the glass he is holding in an enormous hand that is adorned with a thick Super Bowl ring. It is Larry Csonka, who owns an interest in Stagger Lee's, having purchased it the previous week, and he is embarrassed.

He has been minding his own business, picking up bar tabs for his Dolphin teammates, including several rookies he doesn't even know by name. Couples, singles, they keep straggling up and asking for an autograph. Or they congratulate him for coming home.

Louie calls Csonka to the stage and starts to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. The entire audience—drunks, flirts, lovebirds—stands and sings along. Csonka is dumbfounded. All eyes are on him, and although he relishes the attention, he doesn't know what to do.

Note the parallels with the turn Csonka's football career has taken. He stands in the Dolphins' camp and remembers the old days, when his brute strength personified the team, the days when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons, the days of 17-0, the days of three straight Super Bowl appearances. And he dreams of one more oldie but goldie year.

When the New York Giants failed to renew his contract for the 1979 season, Csonka could have retired. He is 32 years old and has nothing to prove to anyone anywhere. He is one of only seven men in NFL history to rush for 7,000 yards. He's a wealthy man. He has a 400-acre farm in Ohio and soon will buy a home in south Florida. He owns a realty company and two drinking establishments, Stagger Lee's and a tavern-steak house for the steel-workers, truckers, ironworkers and farmers in his hometown of Lisbon, Ohio.

But Csonka doesn't want to sit back with a beer and a memory. He wants to play football one more year. He wants to end his career with the Dolphins. He broke in with Miami as a rookie in 1968, and he shook the team to the core in 1975 when, with teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, he jumped to the Memphis Grizzlies of the World Football League for a $500,000 bonus and a three-year contract at $325,000 per season.

When the WFL crumbled midway through the 1975 schedule, Csonka went home to Ohio and then tried to return to Miami in 1976. He mailed what he called a contract feeler—along the lines of $2 million over four years—to Miami owner Joe Robbie. Robbie was incensed. He thought the demands were outrageous and gave the financial details to the newspapers.

Csonka felt Robbie had tried to embarrass him, so the next day he signed with the New York Giants for a reported $1 million over three years. "I was made out to be a fool," Csonka said. "What he [Robbie] did hurt me deep down."

Csonka's days with the Giants were a rude departure from his heyday in Miami. He injured his left knee, tearing two-thirds of the ligaments on the kneecap, and had surgery in 1976. On the field he no longer had an offensive line full of All-Pros to block for him. He was relegated to the role of blocker and began spending more and more time on the bench. After three unimpressive and unproductive seasons, Csonka wanted out and the Giants obliged.

Almost immediately, the Dolphins expressed interest in getting Csonka back. Coach Don Shula interceded with Robbie, and Csonka flew to Miami for negotiations. "Once Zonk and Robbie got in the same room together, things went pretty smooth," said Shula. "It's hard to be mad at a guy that's meant so much, that's been such a part of the success."

Csonka mellowed, too. "I signed the first time we met," he said. "Robbie wasn't harsh in any way in the negotiations. Neither was I. That was a little surprising because of everything we had been through, but our past problems were based on business, not personalities. There was no hassle over money."

Csonka signed a one-year contract with Miami, reportedly for $125,000. Shula immediately silenced those who accused him of sentimentality in expediting Csonka's return.

"Our past relationship was something good and special," Shula said, "and I have a good memory for guys that really put it on the line for me, but if I ever let emotion enter into it, I wouldn't be doing my job as a football coach. It wouldn't be fair to my staff, to my players or to myself. If he gets down and proves he can do anything near what he did in his old days, he'll be useful to our team. But there are no guarantees. He still has to win a job on the football team."

Csonka started toward that goal during the first week of April when he began working out daily at the Dolphins' training camp at Biscayne College. Kiick, who is retired from football, exercised in the Dolphins' weight room—"pleasure lift-in'," he said—but for Csonka there was only toil. He was trying to strengthen his left knee and at the same time get his weight down from a wintertime 264 pounds to a Shula-ordered 237 by the start of preseason drills. He was eating only one meal a day.

At one point, hungry and ill, Csonka stared at the Orthotron, "a medieval torture chamber," as he called it. Dolphin trainer Bob Lundy then helped strap Csonka into the machine, which is an isokinetic exercise device used to rehabilitate knees. Csonka sat down in a leather seat with chrome handles while Lundy strapped his massive left leg into a brace. All Csonka would have to do would be to raise and lower his leg. But there was a catch. The machine measures torque, and there would be plenty of resistance to be overcome.

"O.K., Zonk," Lundy said. "We'll do a set of 10, then another, then five real slow."

Csonka's meaty hands gripped the handles. He raised his leg. His face contorted, and his knuckles turned yellow, then white, until it seemed he would rip the handles out of the machine. The muscles of his thighs bulged. The scar above his left knee, a surgical memento, began to redden.

A slow groan rolled up from his chest.

"Oooooooohaaaa," moaned Csonka. "Hhhhheeeeennnnnk...aaaaaaahhh."

Once, twice, three times. And again and again and again. Beads of sweat popped on his brow and slowly trickled down his broad, crooked nose.

Kiick strolled into the room, smiling mischievously.

"What's all this moanin'?" he said.

Csonka, his hand covering his face, looked up wearily and mumbled, "Go to hell."

Kiick smiled and said, "Zonk, this is only the beginning."

For the next seven weeks Csonka lifted weights, used the Orthotron, ran daily and dieted. "When I came back to Miami at the end of March," Csonka said, "my knee was not strong enough to get through an entire season. In New York I wasn't playing much and I sort of lost interest. Lundy told me it would take a month, maybe even six weeks, of hard work, but that the knee would eventually come around. I put as much value on what Lundy says as I do on what my wife says and on what Shula says. I knew Lundy wouldn't mislead me. But he really drove me hard all the time."

Shula watched many of Csonka's workouts. "I don't think he ever worked half as hard as he did this off-season," Shula said. "He had to, because of the situation he's in. He had to get that weight off and it was a struggle. He can't make it if he plays at 250 pounds. Age is creeping up on him."

Csonka showed up for Shula's rookie and veteran mini-camps in May, then resumed his hard training. Two weeks ago he checked into the Dolphins' training camp a week early in order to participate in the orientation for rookies and second-year players, and when he stepped on the scales he weighed 237 pounds—exactly as Shula had ordered.

Then Csonka caught another of Shula's horrors. This time it was a grueling 12-minute run in Miami's midmorning humidity. Shula requires all the Dolphins to do five laps around the Biscayne College practice field. In his years with the team, Csonka had been vocal in his dislike for Shula's preseason regimen, especially the endurance run. There had been practical jokes to put the point across, and there had even been eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations between them.

This time Csonka didn't balk. He made five laps plus 240 yards in the 12 minutes, coming in almost two laps behind the first-place finisher, rookie Defensive Back Jerome Stanton. Still, it was a more impressive showing than Shula had expected. "That's the furthest he's ever been," said Shula. "Before, it was a big deal to get him headed in one direction and keep his momentum going without having him stop to walk."

Csonka explained, "I've had a mood change. It used to be I had negative overtones to all this. But now I'm keeping my mouth shut. I'm still not a yes man. I don't like running gassers. I don't like carrying the ball an extra 10 yards in running drills. I can't stand the 12-minute run. I don't like any of it, but I do it. I still think Shula's training camp is a bunch of hooey—his curfew and all that. But for the first time in my life I'm ready to cooperate in every instance.

"I'm ready to make any sacrifice he demands. I just want to be on the field as much as I can, and that includes going down on kickoffs. I'm telling you straight across. That's an easy thing to say, but it's a tough thing to back up, and believe me, I'll line up in a minute. Because of my age, my knee and the fact I might be a step slower, I've got to make up for it in enthusiasm and by making a good impression. I just want to be on a winning team. That might sound humble for a guy that's in his 12th year, but that's exactly where I'm at.

"There's no future for me. My future is behind me. I've got one year and I'm going for broke. Each game is my career and that's the way I'm going at it. I don't believe I'll ever be in another training camp."

Shula understands where Csonka is coming from. "I think he wants it in the worst of ways," says the coach. "He wants to end on a positive note. The guy has immense pride."

Says Csonka, "There's no other reason for me to be here but to prove that I can do it one last time. I'm not here for the money. I took a crack at that before. If I give up football my family isn't going to desert me and my friends aren't going to care. I don't have that many friends, but most of the ones I do have were with me before my football. I just want one more go-around. I'm not satisfied with what happened in New York. I'm not satisfied to be a spot player."

Csonka is one of five fullbacks in the Miami camp. Leroy Harris, who started last year and gained 512 yards, is back, along with veteran Jim Braxton, and there are two young prospects, fourth-round draft choice Steve Howell from Baylor and free-agent David Morgan.

After the first few days of training camp Csonka was complaining last week that he was "still a step slow off the ball." He said, "I'm not at home with this offensive line yet. Until I get the plays, the personalities and the probabilities down, I'll be a step slow. But, then again, I never was a speedster."

Still, Shula seemed to be pleased with Csonka's progress. "The starting fullback job is between Csonka and Harris," he said. For now, though, Shula has listed Csonka, who is 20 pounds heavier and six inches taller than Harris, as No. 1 on the depth chart.

"Listen," said Shula, "I didn't bring Csonka down here just to use him on third and one."

Maybe not, but as Csonka said, "With the Giants I had a good ratio of getting the first down on third and short, fourth and short. If I can do that, Shula can use me. I think he feels that anything else will be a bonus. But I'm going to try for everything I can get. I can be a great threat as a blocker for Delvin Williams or Gary Davis, and I'm strong and quick enough to be effective in the power running game.

"I realize I don't have a buffer zone to fool with. I don't run the 40 in 4.7.1 don't have that cozy feeling I used to have when I was here before, but I keep things in perspective. Any time you try to win everything, you must be willing to lose everything. When I go out on the field now, it's just like picking up the bones and rolling 'em."

When his comeback is over, Csonka hopes that he will be able to enjoy one last laugh at the expense of a Miami organization that staged a welcome-home benefit for him. As a token of its affection for Csonka, the group presented him with the videotape highlights of his football career since he left the Dolphins. The tape was all of one inch long.


Csonka likes to keep his help at Stagger Lee's in a happy mood.


No. 39 is No. 1 on the depth chart at fullback.


Csonka feels at home blocking for Bob Griese and peering over Larry Little (66).