Perfect ending has '72 Dolphins bubbling over

Updated: February 4, 2008, 1:47 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Darkness covered the desert when Bob Kuechenberg awoke two time zones away Sunday morning. "Kooch" was nervous, amped and hopeful. The former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman was not afraid to say it: He was rooting for the New York Giants almost as hard as he rooted for his own team 35 years ago.

Imperfection is human, he says. Perfection is immortal.

"Hell, yeah, I think the Giants are gonna win," Kuechenberg said as he took off for a Super Bowl party at a friend's house in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"It's terribly important. The same passion that flowed through our bodies 35 years ago is still with us."

When one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history was complete, Giants quarterback Eli Manning raised his arms in the air and clutched the football. That was subdued compared to some of the celebrations going on amongst a bunch of 60-somethings from Florida to Phoenix.

The 1972 Dolphins laughed, cheered and hoisted champagne glasses late Sunday night, still uniquely immortal as the only team in NFL history to finish undefeated. This is how important the perfect-season club is to the Dolphins -- 24 hours earlier, Kuechenberg learned he'd been shut out again for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he said he'd be OK with that if the Giants could somehow find a way to drop New England from the ranks of the unbeaten.

"It's thrilling for us to still be alone in Perfectville," Kuechenberg said. "The Patriots had a remarkable run, but almost. ... Almost doesn't get it."

It has been a long, strange season for the old Dolphins. Their faces have been plastered in newspapers and on TV screens. Their phones never really stopped ringing after New England squashed everything in its path during the first half of the season.

Some cringed at it, but others would admit they didn't really mind the attention. A handful of them recently did a commercial for Reebok poking fun at their fixation with standing alone. One spot had them near a sign that said, "Perfectville, Population 1." The other, shot in the event of a Patriots victory, showed the Dolphins sending over a pie to their new neighbors.

When Sunday finally came, it all felt weird and almost sad to some of the '72 Dolphins. It was if they were about to lose a part of themselves.

"It has been an interesting year," Hall of Fame center Jim Langer said. "There has been so much attention on it, so many people talking about it. I think it brought back the '72 Dolphins and showed people who probably weren't aware of what happened just how tough it is to [go undefeated]."

Langer, one of the more quiet members of the '72 team, says he probably saw more football in 2007 than he had since his playing days. It was impossible not to watch. Roughly an hour after the game, he had three voicemails from people who said they'd bring champagne to his truck equipment business in Minnesota on Monday. Langer has no idea who the messages were from.

But even the subdued Langer was moderately happy Sunday, letting out an occasional chuckle in between game breakdowns. He watched the Super Bowl at his daughter's house in Wisconsin, a rather restrained party in a house that was looking forward to a Patriots-Packers matchup. Sometime on the ride home, his old buddy Kuechenberg called. It was late, but Langer planned on calling him back, so they could talk about Sunday's surprise.

"I really feel a little bad for the Patriots," Langer said. "Man, that's a hell of a season. To lose it tonight, I kind of feel for them.

"But I know my teammates are celebrating. It's a tough thing to go through what [the Patriots] went through. Anybody who played in the Super Bowl knows it's an empty feeling."

Several Dolphins migrated to Arizona to witness history. Former quarterback Earl Morrall spent much of the day doing speaking engagements in Phoenix, then scurried off to the stadium to take his seat near the 15-yard line. He was nervous in the final minutes, when Tom Brady rallied New England with a touchdown strike to Randy Moss.

At that point, many of the Dolphins were sure the game was over. When Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress connected for a 13-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left, the Dolphins exhaled.

"We're very pleased," Morrall said. "We're alive for another year."

Morrall had a piece of blueberry pie and a glass of champagne. None of them seemed to care about the media jokes, that the grumpy old men could pop their champagne bottles, then rest their creaky bones until another team embarks on a perfect run next season. All of them know this: For one more year, they'll be uniquely special.

"We're proud of it," former running back Jim Kiick said. "Why shouldn't we be? We never were against the New England Patriots. We have our accomplishments. We're not comparing ourselves to anyone else from other generations. We're happy with our own accomplishments. The Patriots are a great football team. Unfortunately, they didn't win this Super Bowl."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

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