Dave Hyde: The good life of Jim Kiick — and the mounting good-byes to South Florida’s greatest sports generation

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Now it’s my friend, Jim Kiick, who is gone, isolated for weeks in his assisted living facility, able to talk with friends and family only through a window on a telephone, with a mind they feared didn’t let him to fully understand the coronavirus or why he couldn’t leave his room.

Slowly, sadly, we’re losing them. Don Shula, the chisel-jawed face of South Florida, went last month. Jim Langer, as tough as they came, and Nick Buoniconti, whose second act was greater than his Hall of Fame football act, left last summer.

Our greatest Dolphins generation is leaving the lineup. Bob Kuechenberg. Earl Morrall. Garo Yepremian. Jim Mandich, whose great personality was such that Miami Heat president Pat Riley entered the media room after his death with some Heineken beer (Mandich’s “green lizards”) and said, “Let’s tell Mandich stories.”

What’s the line a surviving compatriot sings in “Les Miserables?” “Empty chairs at empty tables?” That’s how it felt around the dinner table, how it feels looking at the lineup of the missing names from those great Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970s.

The only coach remaining on the staff of the Undefeated Season is Howard Schnellenberger, whose great work with that rumbling voice was just beginning in South Florida in 1972. There were six assistants then. They worked in one room.

Shula, the king of detail, went through calisthenics with his assistants upon arriving in 1970 to assure they taught players properly. He also instituted the dreaded “12-minute run,” which became a staple for years and where Kiick’s story starts.

Kiick hated to run unless it was toward the end zone. So halfway through the 12-minute run he started to walk. Larry Csonka joined him. And here came Shula, sprinting across the field at them screaming with all his famous passion. That got Csonka running again. But Kiick?

“I’m not joining a cross country team,” he told Shula.

He always was rebellious like that. Look at the 1967 team picture of his Wyoming team. He’s the one without a cowboy hat. The only one. He said his friends back in New Jersey would never let him forget getting dressed up like that.

So much is lost as time tramples on. Csonka and Kiick were “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But what’s lost is Kiick had the lead role when the nickname initially was given with resulting posters, videos and then a book deal. In 1968 and 1969 Kiick had more rushing yards — and far more receiving yards — than Csonka.

Together, they led the league in fun. Once, in a rainstorm in Boston, Kiick landed in a puddle, face down, when tackled. When he got to the huddle, Csonka reminded him of their Saturday night out on the town and said, “Don’t swallow that water, Kiick, and spoil that good bourbon.”

Shula did what great coaches do in assessing talent. Csonka took a more pronounced role. Kiick remained a star, even when Shula started alternating Kiick and Mercury Morris in 1972 to take advantage of all their various skills.

Neither Kiick nor Morris were happy with Shula’s newfangled idea of platooning. But five decades later there was Morris, making an hour drive to visit Kiick every few weeks at his assisted- living facility, a good teammate to the end. And the more talkative one, to be sure.

“Get out the earplugs,” Kiick would say when Morris kept talking, an old joke between them, the two of them still chuckled at all decades later.

Stu Weinstein, the Dolphins former director of security, was a regular to visit Kiick, too. He helped Kiick get a new Super Bowl ring made a few years back when his was stolen.

Now the Boys of ‘72 will gather again, assuming gathering is allowed in these times. The first funeral I went to for this team was for left tackle Wayne Moore in 1989. He was just 44. The line went out the church to the point the signature book was filled and a second one brought. Then a third one.

Tim Foley, the great defensive back, delivered the eulogy for Moore, talking of their work at a youth camp more than the Super Bowl rings they earned. Now it’s Kiick whose good life will be celebrated. The table is emptying. Our greatest sports generation is leaving. Tears are allowed. But raise a green lizard in remembrance.


(Dave Hyde has been a Sun Sentinel sports columnist since 1990.)


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