'72 Dolphins keep perfection in perspective

Members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, including Bob Griese (12), Paul Warfield, Jim Langer (62), and Larry Csonka, celebrate their 17-0 season during halftime of the Dolphins' game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Marc Serota/Getty Images

The ice on the lake was 10 inches thick, and the old man was up before dawn. He still works 55 hours a week, still gripes about the way things should be. He hates touchdown dances, Heisman poses and anybody who disrespects the game of football. He didn't smile for three days after a loss, but those didn't happen very often.

"You think I'm a grumpy old man?" Jim Langer says.

"I am one of the grumpier ones."

The tips of his mustache are white, but Langer's oven-mitt paws still carry a powerful handshake. It won't let go. Thirty-five years have passed since his Miami Dolphins became the first in NFL history to go undefeated, and no one has touched them yet. It makes them special.

In many spots outside of Florida, it makes them punch lines.

There is a theory that every time the New England Patriots play -- and each time the Indianapolis Colts took the field during their unbeaten run in 2005 -- that Langer and his buddies gather in front of television sets, a keg of Metamucil on ice, hoping that the whippersnappers fall. The pundits say these old men have no desire for the Patriots to join them as the only unbeaten team in the history of the NFL. The pundits say they have no lives.

The grumpiest of them don't much care about theories. They've been through marriages, mortgages, grandkids, liver spots and funerals. But like the humidity and the traffic in Miami, they could always count on this: Every five years, they'd meet for another reunion, and that record would still be theirs. And time would move on at a dizzying pace.

On a Sunday morning in December when New England faced one of its last big hurdles to an unbeaten regular season, the fish were biting and the Patriots-Steelers game was playing in suburban Minneapolis, where Langer lives.

Langer grabbed a pole and headed for a lonely shack with no TV, radio or champagne.

"Whatever happens, happens," Langer says. "I've got other things to do."

The first thing to know about the '72 team, post Super Bowl, is that the reunions are well-attended and the three-day extravaganzas are loaded with two familiar words. Perfect Season golf tournament, Perfect Season news conference, Perfect Season complimentary gift bag.

By noon last Friday, when the boys straggled in to the Blue Monster Course at Doral, five years away from each other was swallowed up with five seconds of hugs and "Hey, how you been?"

Don Shula, the heavy-handed coach who ran four-a-days, is now known simply as "Shu." He's holding court with a group of reporters near the pavilion, telling old stories, when Bob Griese interrupts and asks 'bout that young quarterback Shula had.

"You mean Earl Morrall?" Shula cracks.

Morrall is the veteran who filled in for an injured Griese for much of that '72 season. A few of the Dolphins are quick to point out that the Patriots have rolled with the luxury of a healthy Tom Brady. Shula lays another good-natured crack on Griese, the recipient of a 29-yard sack, the longest in NFL history. Griese laughs and wanders off.

They were personalities back then, not superstars, former safety Charlie Babb says. Characters. They played with heart and used their heads.

"It was just the proper mix of people who were studious," Babb says. "We had a couple of wild guys. But when you put your helmet on Sundays, a whole different character came out."

Shula always seemed to find all the right buttons. The Dolphins didn't talk a lot about going perfect in '72. They just wanted to survive.

Now Shula holds the season close, like a coach clutching on to a game script. When the Patriots started out 9-0 this fall, Shula said an unbeaten season ultimately would be diminished by Spygate. When New England was struggling against the Ravens, Shula tried to contain his giddiness in the "Monday Night Football" booth.

But as history creeps closer, Shula has toned down, maybe for one rare moment conceding defeat. He believes deep down that the Patriots can't top the Dolphins' perfection. They can only stand beside them.

He's smiling until he's asked why the mark is so important to him.

"Wait a minute now," Shula says. "That's a picture you're painting. I mean, we've been painted as a bunch of guys who hang around together and can't wait for that last undefeated team to get beat and then we all run out and toast each other with champagne. None of that's true.

"We're a happy-go-lucky bunch of guys. And we have a good time. I've always said if somebody runs the table, I'm going to call that coach and congratulate him. Until somebody else does it, we're proud of what we accomplished."

The phone jangles at Manny Fernandez's house in southern Florida, and he knows exactly how the questions will start. Every time a team rattles off seven or eight wins to start a season, the Dolphins do the obligatory interviews about whether the Colts or the Broncos or the Chiefs will finally do it, join them in the Perfect Season club.

Not all of them say that records are meant to be broken, or in this case possibly matched. Forty-plus men, on a team full of characters, can't have the same voice. Fernandez usually says that he has no control over it, and if somebody does it, God bless 'em. But they'll never know what it felt like in '72.

They made pittances then, with salaries as low as $13,000. Fernandez, who worked construction some offseasons, figures he pulled in 1 percent of what current Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas makes. But they were kings in Miami.

"I can't tell you [stories] without causing a whole lot of divorces," Fernandez says. "Let's just say the Beatles didn't have anything on us. We were the only pro team in the entire state of Florida. Life was good. It was like being a rock star."

Now Fernandez sleeps roughly five hours a night, a payback for his years of fun. His shoulders hurt so bad he tosses and turns most of the night. When he wakes up, his knees ache the rest of the day.

He has no regrets. And he does admit to partaking in a champagne toast once when an undefeated team finally fell. He's not even sure which team it was. He was bass fishing in Hendersonville, Tenn. But when the game was over, a group of Dolphins fans went nuts at a hole-in-the-wall, and Fernandez ordered two bottles of cheap champagne. Nobody knew who he was.

As he left the bar, a woman followed him out and whispered, "I knew who you were, but I didn't tell anybody.

"You're Dick Anderson."

Jim Riley doesn't watch the NFL much anymore. He lives in college football territory in Edmond, Okla. When the Patriots were sweating it out with the Ravens a few weeks ago, Riley fell asleep in front of the TV.

"I've got way more important things in my life going on than some team tying our record," says Riley, a defensive end on the '72 team. "We'll always be the first to do it."

Professional football brought fame to Riley, but it also introduced him to painkillers, amphetamines and booze binges. In 1985, after a long night of drinking, Riley was jostled out of bed by his wife at 7 a.m. There in the family den, his 15-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter and a handful of friends were shaking and crying, begging him to stop.

"That's what did it," Riley says.

Twenty-two years later, Riley runs an outreach program in Oklahoma for men who struggle with substance abuse. He helped troubled Sooners star Dusty Dvoracek deal with his alcohol issues. Dvoracek, who was once booted off the team by OU coach Bob Stoops, now plays for the Chicago Bears.

And Riley has been sober for 22 years. Though the beer flows with the stories every five years, Riley is a regular at the reunions.

"There was a bond between us [in '72] because we went undefeated," Riley says. "But there would've been a bond between us anyway because of what we had to go through.

"I'm not the only one who turned my life around. I'm just one of many."

The rain ends by halftime Sunday, when they walk through an inflatable tunnel, jerseys tucked in slacks, and climb on a stage to remember the past. It's an odd combination, the Perfect Season with the imperfect Dolphins of 2007. A fraction of the half-empty stadium is on a beer run when the old men gaze and wave.

"They accomplished something no other team has ever done," Shula says over the microphone.

He knows that might change. He knows he has no control over it. Shula steps away from the microphone, and the men of the Perfect Season walk off the field.

As some limp, and others move briskly, the '07 ragtags run past them for the start of the second half.

It's time to move on.

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