Seventeen years ago, Bob Kuechenberg had his future to decide, and his father, who worked as a human cannonball in circuses around the Midwest, provided an odd legacy.
"My decision was either to go to college or become a cannonball," says Kuechenberg, 35, the Miami Dolphins' left guard.
Kuechenberg is 6-foot-2, 255 pounds and has the physical presence of a viking pillager. His beard is graying and bristly as steel wool, his voice is as resonant as a tuba.
Short of winding up as a heap of ashes, he probably could have led a safer, quieter life as a cannonball than as a college and professional football player. His fractures alone are enough to support a team of free-spending orthopedists for life.
"My injuries? Let's start from the bottom up," he said. Broken toes, broken bones in both feet, broken ankles (one in seven places, the other in five), torn knee ligaments, "hip pointers don't count," a broken back, three fractures of the transverse process, a shoulder separation, a broken forearm, three broken fingers, a cracked neck, a slipped disc, several concussions and a nose that has been fractured four times.
When it rains, he creaks.
Don Shula has coached Kuechenberg since 1970. "He's a throwback," Shula said. "He just loves the mud and the dirt and the blood and the guts and everything that goes along with it."
The injuries are only a part of what has gone along with it. After he graduated from Notre Dame in 1968, having played on both the offensive and defensive lines, Kuechenberg was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles.
After the Eagles cut him in training camp, he was put on the Atlanta taxi squad. That lasted a week, and Kuechenberg trundled off to Chicago to sell business forms.
He also spent 1969 playing with the "illustrious Chicago Owls" of the Continental Football League. "If I couldn't play with the Eagles, I'd play with the Owls," he says.
The Owls were supposed to pay Kuechenberg $200 a week, but he received his salary for only three of eight games. The pregame meal was a box lunch and a carton of milk. Soldier Field, where the Owls played their games, then seated more than 100,000, but Kuechenberg remembers crowds of 120.
"They had rats in the stadium and they had cats living there to eat the rats," he says. Kuechenberg remembers how the stadium management heaped raw meat for the cats on a wooden platform outside the locker room.
"You gotta love it," he says.
The Owls played such teams as the Pottstown Firebirds and the Michigan Arrows. "After the game we'd have pizza and beer and brag about it," he says. "I treasure those days. I think back with affection. I'm amazed at the things I had to go through to make it. If I knew the odds, I never would have done it."
After the CFL season, Kuechenberg ignored the odds and decided he could still make it in the NFL. By studying the 1970 college draft, he determined that one of the teams most in need of guards was Miami. He tried out. A players strike in training camp made him one of only two guards left, and Kuechenberg won a spot on the roster.
In the same year, the Dolphins traded for wide receiver Paul Warfield and added Bill Arnsparger to the coaching staff. Kuechenberg found himself on one of the finest teams in football history, a ranking confirmed by the Dolphins' undefeated season in 1973.
Kuechenberg and defensive end Vern Den Herder, who came out of retirement at Shula's request, are the only Dolphins left from those Super Bowl victories 10 and 11 years ago.
Kuechenberg remembers fondly the Dolphins' 14-7 victory over Washington in Super Bowl VII: "You wondered whether the coach or President Nixon had more power. The Dolphins were the underdogs in that game. We were 16-0 and they were 13-3, and we were the underdog. I guess that's because we're from a little town in the Southeast."
Like the gritty throwback he is, Kuechenberg smiles when he recalls how Diron Talbert spit tabacco juice in his face from across the line of scrimmage.
Less fondly, he remembers Garo Yepremian's pass into the hands of the Redskins' Mike Bass that narrowed Miami's margin over Washington. "Nobody would say a word to him," he says. "We'd have just as soon killed him when he got to the sidelines, everyone from the coaches on down to the trainer." Kuechenberg says he started talking again to Yepremian only a year ago.
The departure in 1974 of Larry Csonka, Warfield and Jim Kiick for the World Football League ended Miami's dominance.
The success of the Dolphins was enough to spoil a guy.
"I thought you came to training camp and played the regular season and went to Super Bowl. I took it for granted," says Kuechenberg. "Then there was a long drought. I'm certainly appreciative of being back."
Even with two Super Bowl victories, Kuechenberg is hungry for another: "This is what makes football worthwhile. They say gold doesn't tarnish, but the Super Bowl ring I have is looking old. I want another one."
Now, as the Dolphins prepare for their first attempt at the world championship in almost a decade, Kuechenberg is revered by both his teammates and the press as a sort of Bernard Baruch--the wizened statesman.
He was the only player in the NFL this year to report to his team's practice field after a strike had been called; he is old enough to remember when players used to pop ice used for injuries into their mouths because drinking water was prohibited on the practice field, and yet the four-time Pro Bowl player appears to have overcome the generation gap.
Bob Kuechenberg wants to stay young a little longer than most people.
"You're in the boneyard before you know it," he says. "I always knew I'd probably be the last dog to die."