Publish date:

Let Us Tell You About A Bird And A Bee

Bob Baumhower, noted nose tackle and parrot fancier, puts real sting in the Dolphins' Killer Bee defense

The King Bee is buzzing slowly this morning. Glass of water in hand, size 15s padding ever so softly over the carpet in his canal-front Fort Lauderdale home, a hung-over Bob Baumhower, the All-AFC nose tackle for the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins, looks at his parrot, Ralph, for consolation.

"Hi, Bob," says Ralph.

"Hi, Ralph," says Bob.

The phone rings.

"I'll get it," says Ralph.

Baumhower answers it himself, slugging water for his dry mouth as he reaches for the receiver.

It had been one of those nights. First there were a couple of beers after practice. Then there was an autograph-signing session at a Miami sporting-goods store. Quarterback Dan Marino was there representing the Dolphin offense and Baumhower was there representing the defense—the Killer Bees.

Four hundred people showed up early—kids, teen-age girls, adults. And the crowd continued to grow. When there were a thousand people, the store owners got worried and locked the doors. More fans arrived. They roamed the parking lot and pressed against the shop windows. "The owners counted more than 1,400 people," said a worried Tom D'Amico, the promoter who had arranged the event. Marino, perhaps the first genuine heartthrob in Dolphin history, signed for more than an hour and then escaped in a flash. Baumhower, 6'5", 265 pounds, was left to fight his way alone to his car. Children clung to his arms and legs. People tried to climb in with him. "Amazing," Baumhower said as he stared through his windshield at the mob.

After that, there was a Jimmy Buffett concert in downtown Miami. Baumhower sat backstage with his buddy Bob Monica, one of the Dolphins' equipment men, and watched Buffett sing about tequila and sailing and paradise. After the show, Buffett and Baumhower sipped rum in Buffett's dressing room and chatted about boats and the good life on the waters off South Florida.

Then Baumhower went to Roland's, a swank Fort Lauderdale bar, for stone crabs. Owner Roland Breton set up "green shooters" and everyone toasted Baumhower and the Dolphins and anything else that came to mind. "My man here is the mayor of Fort Lauderdale," said Monica, gesturing at Baumhower's broad back. "The Minister of Tourism."

Baumhower doesn't go out on the town much these days, but when he does he carries a reputation from days past, when he and Linebacker A.J. Duhe were the Cruise Brothers of Broward County, royalty in any beach bar they chose. But Duhe got married in 1980, and the brotherhood cooled a bit. "We did it all for a while, but I don't know, man, I got tired of it, you know what I mean?" Duhe recently told a Miami writer.

Baumhower wearied of it, too. "A.J. and I came in together as rookies in 1977—he was drafted in the first round and I was drafted in the second—and everything was so new to us," he says. "We lived in a three-bedroom suite at the Town & Country Motel in Fort Lauderdale, had maid service, partied a lot, the whole nine yards."

Though still a bachelor at 28, and surrounded by married teammates, Baumhower is in no hurry to settle down completely. He's still got a restless heart, and he'd prefer keeping things light as long as possible. A girl friend, dance instructor Colleen Suchonic, 19, got the drift right away. "The first time I went to his house," she says, "he said to me, 'I want you to meet my friend Ralph.' I was expecting a man, but here comes this little green bird walking down the hallway."

The phone conversation completed, Baumhower moves gingerly into the living room, where a framed reproduction of Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream hangs on the wall. The print was given to him by Eddie Gerber, a Florida oil man who in the past few years had become Baumhower's fishing buddy, confidant and close friend. (Tragically, Gerber was to die of a heart attack a few days later, on Dec. 2, at age 50.) Gerber was half owner with Baumhower of the Nauti Dolphin, the boat that is tied up behind Baumhower's house. And what a boat it is—a 65-foot, 47-ton, mahogany-hulled, teak-decked beauty with fighting chairs in the stern and staterooms below. The two men bought it in January 1982 for $85,000 when it was rotting and ready to sink and fixed it up themselves. It now has a replacement value of $1.5 million. Gerber's brother-in-law, Jon Scofield, serves as first mate, living aboard and keeping the boat ready for trips across the Gulf Stream to Bimini and other islands in the Bahamas.

Baumhower continues to study the print. In the center of it a ragged black man, a Bahamian fisherman, lies helplessly on the rolling deck of a battered boat in rough seas. In the distance are a tall ship and a waterspout, but it's unclear whether either of them is approaching or leaving. Gape-mouthed sharks are a menacing presence in the foreground. Death or rescue is imminent for the fisherman.

"See that," Baumhower says, pointing to the lower left corner of the print. "Most people don't see that. There's blood in the water." Indeed there is. The fisherman may live, but others have surely died. You become sensitive to such details when you play nose tackle. If you aren't careful, if you don't take care of yourself—even if you're the best—the sharks will get you.

What a position nose tackle is. If somebody burned your house, stole your wife and shot your dog, you might want to put him there. A center beats on the nose tackle on every play, with help from one guard and often both. Tackles trap you. Fullbacks, followed closely by halfbacks, bore into you. Your own linebackers and ends step on top of you. Waves of bodies plow you under, submarine, chop and leg-whip you into human flotsam in an attempt to clear out the middle. And all the while you're only trying to remain approximately where you started, so your pals can make easy tackles. Bad news. Nose tackle nicely fits Milton's vision of hell, a noisy, awesome place he called "Chaos," where "peace and rest can never dwell."

"Nose tackle's a lot like being center stage," Buffett suggested after his concert. "On stage you're always dodging things from the dark. Awhile ago a four-inch steel bolt just missed my head. I got a letter after that, and in it this guy wrote, 'I threw the bolt, but I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to hit you, I was trying to hit your guitar.' Things like that."

When Baumhower came to Miami in 1977 after earning All-SEC honors at Alabama as a defensive tackle, one of the first people who offered him advice was Manny Fernandez, the Dolphin nose tackle who was about to retire. Fernandez had sat out the previous season with knee and shoulder injuries. "Playing nose was my downfall," he told Baumhower. "It could be yours, too."

Baumhower said nothing. There was nothing he could say: Don Shula had coached Baumhower in the Senior Bowl and had drafted him specifically as a nose tackle for the Dolphins' 3-4 defense. And before Baumhower even arrived in camp, the Dolphins' incumbent nose tackle, Randy Crowder, was busted along with Don Reese for selling cocaine. Nose was Baumhower's position, for better or worse.

"At first I hated it," says Baumhower. "But a lot of that was because the center and two guards I was practicing against were Jim Langer, Bob Kuechenberg and Larry Little, three All-Pros, maybe the best trio ever. They bounced me around like a pinball. But I learned a lot, and that made playing other teams easier."

But there were some things nobody could prepare him for. Against St. Louis in 1978, Cardinal Center Tom Banks would back up and, as Baumhower charged forward, guards Terry Stieve and Bob Young would hit him high and low from the sides, spinning him like a baton. Then in a 1979 playoff game against Pittsburgh, Baumhower met Steeler Center Mike Webster for the first time. "He ran up to the line and said, 'Hi, Bob, have a good game today,' and then he knocked me five yards downfield," says Baumhower. "I was just starting to feel confident and he took me to school."

Nobody takes Baumhower to school these days. "We know he'll do his job," says Duhe, "and that gives us the confidence to play our own game and not worry about anything else."

"He holds the whole middle together," says Defensive End Doug Betters. "I get 'garbage' sacks because of him, because he chases people into my arms."

Baumhower has played in three of the last four Pro Bowls, and he has established a number of Dolphin team records, for tackles by linemen and the like. But his stats aren't important. What's meaningful is that Miami's team defense is always on top. Players come and go, Killer Bees fall by the wayside, and the D is still tough. Assistant Head Coach-Defense Bill Arnsparger, who after the season will leave to become the head coach at LSU, deserves a lot of the credit, but so does Baumhower.

Shula admits as much. "I've always likened football to baseball, in that you have to be strong down the middle," he says. "Bob is just solid in the middle, and he's always there."

Indeed he is. He has had surgery on his left knee and both elbows, but he hasn't missed a game since coming to the Dolphins. Last summer Miami owner Joe Robbie signed Baumhower to a four-year contract with a face value of approximately $515,000 per annum. Counting various perks and sweeteners, the contract is actually worth a good deal more than that. "When it was signed, without a doubt it made Bob the highest-paid lineman in the NFL," says his agent, Howard Slusher.

Robbie, who isn't a profligate man, made the deal for a couple of reasons. First, he didn't want to lose stars to the USFL the way he had lost Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the WFL in 1975, and Baumhower was being wooed by the USFL Jacksonville Bulls. Second, Robbie wanted to re-sign Shula. And insiders said Shula wouldn't sign unless several key players, Baumhower among them, were safely in the Dolphins' fold. With his team intact, Shula recently signed a three-year contract for $2.6 million.

The big money hasn't changed Baumhower, a man who dislikes fancy clothes and who'll drive a good distance to get the cheapest gas for his 1976 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL. All it has done is give him more freedom to do what he wants off the field.

"I talked with Manny Fernandez recently and he said, 'Remember what I told you six years ago,' " says Baumhower. "And I do think about getting hurt now. I don't worry about it, but I know it'll happen. I'm trying to make the most of the time I have left in football. But what I work for is that." He gestures at his TV screen, which is playing a videotape he made of some recent trips on the Nauti Dolphin. The blues of the sea and sky are enticingly serene. Miami Linebacker Kim Bokamper holds up a kingfish and moves it toward the camera until its mouth envelops the screen. Some of the skipper's guests stand in knee-deep translucent water off deserted beaches, talking quietly. The calm is so far from what Baumhower does for a living that it seems unreal.

But nothing is really safe, of course. While snorkeling in the Bahamas not long ago, Baumhower was approached by a curious shark. He tried to push the fish away with his spear, but the spear dropped from his hand and fell 20 feet to the bottom. "The shark wasn't a big one, and it swam away after a while," says Baumhower. "But I was helpless and just scared to death."

The thought seems to evoke perspective. "I don't want to sound like I'm crying about playing nose tackle," he says. "I'm so thankful for the way my career has gone. But there are some things that make the job hard. All the offensive linemen tailoring their jerseys real tight so you can't grab them, for instance. And hanging plates from the backs of their shoulder pads, so you can't get a grip on them, either. And tight ends coming in motion to get you. And the chop block, which is still legal on running plays.

"But my adrenaline gets pumping so hard in games that I barely feel blows that normally would cause pain. I look at the center, but I don't even see him. It's a sacrificial position, and I know that. But we play a real team defense here, and we don't let our egos get in the way. I take pride in that."

Physically, Baumhower is both ideal and unusual for a nose tackle. He's mobile, strong and exceedingly fit—his resting pulse is 47 and his body fat-level of 7.9% is the lowest of any Dolphin lineman. But at 6'5" he is one of the tallest nose tackles in the NFL. Squatness generally is considered an advantage at the position, for the simple reason that it's harder to move a boulder than an upright log. But Baumhower gets around this because he has the legs of a sumo wrestler. "He's the only guy on the team whose knee socks can't stretch past his calves," says Linebacker Bob Brudzinski. "His low center of gravity helps him keep low and keep people from cutting him," says Shula. "If he had normal legs and a big upper body, he'd never play nose."

Emotionally, Baumhower seems out of sync with his job. A nose tackle should be a twitching psychopath with the glare and warmth of Mr. T. Baumhower, though, is calm, courteous, friendly with strangers and always ready to laugh out loud. "Sometimes in a game it's hard to keep your temper," he says. But it's hard to imagine Baumhower losing his.

"He's a very intelligent, aware player," says Shula. He also seems too even-keeled to get into a fight. And he's so softhearted that he sometimes refers to Ralph, his parrot, and Captain, his dog, as "my kids."

Baumhower is known for never bad-mouthing an opponent and for reacting with decorum after getting a sack, forms of dignity that manifest the "calm confidence" he says he needs to play well. He doesn't understand players like the Jets' Mark Gastineau, whose ludicrous sack dance is the epitome of egocentricity in football today. "I think Mark just wants people to like him," says Baumhower.

The oldest of Bob and Patricia Baumhower's five children, young Bob grew up in good spirits in Michigan and Florida. "He was a great kid—easygoing, friendly and sensitive," says Patricia. "And his teachers always liked him." The family moved around a lot—Baumhower's dad, who's now a regional sales director for a hydro-filter company in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was always getting transferred—and because of that, young Bob seldom played organized sports., "I didn't have any heroes when I was growing up, except maybe Elvis," he says. "I wasn't into sports at all. Like that autograph session the other night—I never would have been one of the kids there."

He didn't play football until his junior year at Palm Beach Gardens High in Palm Beach, Fla., and he went out for the team only because "somebody told me it would be a good way to make friends." That same year his dad decided he could use some toughening up and talked him into wrestling a 450-pound bear at a local boat show. Baumhower tried to take the bear down low, and the animal knocked him across the ring. He then went high, and for a triumphant moment held the bear in a hammerlock. An instant later the bear was sitting on top of Baumhower, licking him with its long, stinking tongue. It was a show of force that Baumhower cannot forget.

At Alabama, Baumhower made the starting defensive unit during spring practice of his freshman year. But he came back the next fall in terrible shape, and Bear Bryant, a man who also was familiar with wrestling bears, demoted him to fifth string. Baumhower quit in a rage. Bryant called him into his office and ripped into him as nobody ever had. He told Baumhower that he was lazy and wasting his talents.

"I had my speech all prepared," recalls Baumhower, "but Coach Bryant just made me feel like a toad. He was right—I'd never put my heart into football. I was just doing it for fun. He changed everything for me, made me want to be as good as I could be. I came back, worked my way up, and from the fourth game on I was a starter." Baumhower learned much from the two bears in his life.

The Dolphins have just whipped the Cincinnati Bengals 38-14 at the Orange Bowl in a recent Monday-night game. Baumhower has showered, dressed and headed to a parking lot where several Dolphins and their families are tailgating. Brudzinski is there with his wife, Susan. Last December when Baumhower piled most of the Miami team on the Nauti Dolphin and piloted the craft in Fort Lauderdale's annual Christmas Boat Parade, Brudzinski dressed up as Santa Claus and perched on the bow, where he was illuminated by spotlights. He waved to the kids on shore, and everything was fine until safeties Lyle and Glenn Blackwood, the notorious Bruise Brothers, a subdivision of the Killer Bees, mugged him. The kids looked on in horror. "Don't beat up Santa," they screamed.

Baumhower asks Brudzinski if he'd like to go out on the boat the next day. Brudzinski says he'd love to, but first he has to go to the Dolphins' practice site for treatment on a hip pointer.

"I feel good," says Baumhower.

But what is good? He played an outstanding game, several times fending off 288-pound Bengal Center Dave Riming-ton to tackle 272-pound Fullback Pete Johnson. But as he signs autographs now, his hands start cramping.

Baumhower was impressed with Rimington. "You know how I look at guys I play against and don't see them?" he says. "Well, tonight at the end I looked at his eyes, and he really looked young. And is he big."

Baumhower smiles faintly. The sharks are out there, but they haven't hit yet.



Baumhower's parrot, Ralph, volunteers to answer the phone and speaks Spanish, too.



The 6'5" Baumhower keeps the 65-foot Nauti Dolphin just as shipshape as his body.



Baumhower leaves no place to run, no place to hide.



Baumhower and Monica are tight friends.