Tuesday brought another twist to the White House tradition that shows no sign of abating, with Obama dipping four decades back to honor the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who defeated the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl to complete the only unbeaten season in NFL history.
The 31 former Dolphins who trouped into the East Room of the White House, along with their Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula, bore the years well for the most part. Wide receiver Paul Warfield was as trim as Obama himself. Larry Csonka’s mustache was bushy as ever. And Shula still sported a shock of white hair and that chiseled jaw. Collectively they have signed untold autographs and cycled through nearly as many marriages, divorces, second careers and joint-replacement surgeries in the last four decades.
But on Tuesday, they were reduced to wide-eyed children on the field trip of a lifetime, gamely taking their place on risers behind the president with youngsters’ vigor and a pride that made each stand a little taller.
Most acknowledged the honor wouldn’t have resonated as deeply in their youth, when they sat atop the sporting world, setting records on the field and raising hell off it.
Former tight end Marv Fleming, a veteran of five Super Bowls and the driving force behind the belated honor, equated the visit to “another Super Bowl of a different kind.”
Ex-quarterback Bob Griese’s only lament was that his mother, Ida Marie, hadn’t lived to hear tell. “She’s up in heaven high-fiving everybody and telling them her son is going to the White House,” Griese said on the eve of the ceremony.
None was more humbled than kicker Garo Yepremian, born in Cyprus to Armenian parents.
“I came to America when I was 22 years old with hopes of getting a scholarship and going to school,” said Yepremian, 69. “And here I am, 47 years later, going to the greatest house in the world — the White House — in the free-est country in the world, the greatest country in the world, the most giving country in the world, the most forgiving country in the world.”
The tradition of U.S. presidents hosting sports champions dates to Andrew Johnson, believed the first to invite a baseball team to the White House, according to William B. Bushong of the White House Historical Association.
Though Richard M. Nixon was an avid NFL fan, frequently phoning Shula with suggestions for offensive plays (as well as the Redskins), including a slant route that already was part of Griese’s repertoire, he hadn’t invited the Dolphins to the White House following their Super Bowl triumph. The practice became routine under Ronald Reagan, who formalized the proceedings, with the president welcoming each championship team, then yielding to the coach or star player who typically presented the Commander-in-Chief with a commemorative jersey.