Forty years later, the conclusion of a perfect season is getting its due.
Members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins football team today got their better-late-than-never congratulatory White House visit as President Barack Obama’s guests.
“I know this is a little unorthodox, four decades after the fact, but these guys never got the White House visit after winning Super Bowl VII,” Obama said as he stood with members of the Dolphins squad behind him in the White House East Room. The team “didn’t always get the credit they deserve.”
The Dolphins team, which ended the season 17-0 after a Super Bowl victory over the Washington Redskins in January 1973, was led by Hall of Fame coach Don Shula and offensive stars that included seven future Hall of Fame inductees, among them quarterback Bob Griese, running back Larry Csonka and receiver Paul Warfield.
Shula, who teased Obama for being a Chicago Bears fan, presented Obama with a team jersey with the number 72 and emblazoned with the word “Undefeated.”
“It’s been 40 years, but what the hell, we still feel honored,” Shula, 83, said.
The organization celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1972 season last year, holding a golf tournament and commissioning a film to commemorate the team and “its impact on the Miami area,” according to the Dolphins website.
Thirty-one players and two coaches attended the White House event. Harvey Greene, a team spokesman, said six players from the 40-member 1972 team and four coaches have died since the perfect season.
Credit for bringing about the White House recognition goes to Marv Fleming, a tight end on the team, who has been pressing the case for seven or eight years, Greene said.
“He thought that this team should be recognized,” because they accomplished something “that nobody else in all of sports had done” Greene said. Giving a team a White House-level honor “just wasn’t done in the 70s.”
Fleming lobbied people he had gotten to know at the White House, Greene said, and the arrangements came together about a year ago.
The team became known during its undefeated run for its defensive prowess, even as the unit lacked mainstream stars. The Dolphins defense eventually garnered the nickname the “No-Name Defense” during the season -- something its players took pride in, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When the Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII, the tradition of inviting sports champions to the White House hadn’t been established. Even though then-President Richard Nixon was a noted football fan, his administration was being enveloped by a growing furor over the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
The first NFL team brought to the White House was the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, who were invited by President Jimmy Carter to the White House at least in part to “salvage Carter’s sagging approval ratings,” according to an NFL Films history on the visits.
For presidents, the visit is a win-win scenario, according to Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The team visit provides a positive photo opportunity for the fan bases of the visiting team, while allowing the president to take a break from other politically divisive issues that may come across the desk of the Oval Office.
“The reason presidents are interested in doing this is they are seen by the public with champions,” Jillson said. “They are standing next them, basking in the glow of their accomplishments.”
The politics of the moment aren’t always set aside. Three players from the Dolphin team -- Manny Fernandez, Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer -- skipped today’s ceremony, citing disagreement with Obama’s policies, the Miami Herald reported.
Presidents have been connected to American sports for decades, beginning “by throwing out the first pitch” in major-league baseball games early in the 20th century, said Andrew J. Polsky, a presidential historian at Hunter College in New York. He added that today’s event was unusual.
“I’ve never heard of celebrating a championship team 40 years after it won the championship,” he said.
It isn’t the first time Obama, who was 11 when the Dolphins won the Super Bowl, has reached back in time to celebrate a team that didn’t receive full honors.
The 1985 Chicago Bears championship team, which fell one game short of the Dolphins’ undefeated record, was honored in 2011. The year that the team would have made the trek to the White House was marked by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The team that marred the Bears’ perfect record was the Miami Dolphins, which Shula noted when he presented Obama with the jersey.
“This is something that you can put in your office,” the Hall-of-Fame coach told the president, “and think about the whipping we put on that ’85 Bears team.”