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NFL – Special – Men Who Played The Game – Miami Dolphins RB Larry Czonka

DOG COMMENTARY:

Lawrence RichardLarryCsonka (born December 25, 1946) is a former professional American football fullback with the Miami Dolphins….as a member of their perfect season team in 1972….while winning Super Bowl championships in 1972 and 1973.

One of six children, Csonka was born in the Akron suburb Stow, Ohio….where he was raised on a farm by his Hungarian family. He weighed almost ten pounds at birth….150 pounds at age 12….and 220 pounds at 16….who began his football career at Stow High School as the starting tailback on the 1963 Stow Bulldogs squad that won the Metropolitan League of the Akron-area championship under coach Dick Fortner….as he played for Stow from 1960 to 1963….where he became a running back by accident. Because of his size, he played defensive end on the varsity team as a sophomore….but in the last game that year, he was sent in as a substitute on the kickoff return team….when the ball just happened to go to him….he took off running with it…..and as Csonka said it so well….”I ran over two tacklers before I realized what I was doing. I didn’t score or save the game, but I got a tremendous feeling carrying the ball. I was thrashing around, trying to run six ways at once. I loved it. I knew then that I wanted to run with the ball.”  Even so, the next year Csonka had a tough time before the start of the season convincing his teammates and coaches that he could play running back. They said he was too big and too slow. Although there were doubts about his abilities, he did well in the first game of the season.

Csonka chose Syracuse University after being recruited by Clemson, Iowa and Vanderbilt…where he played middle linebacker in his first season before being switched to fullback from 1965 to 1967….which was the position where he was named an All-American….establishing many of the school’s rushing records….including some previously held by Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, Floyd Little, and Jim Brown.  In his three seasons at Syracuse, Csonka rushed for a school record 2,934 yards….while exceeding 100 yards in 14 different games….and averaging 4.9 yards per carry. From 1965 to 1967….Czonka ranked 19th, 9th and 5th in the nation in rushing….and was the Most Valuable Player in the East–West Shrine Game, the Hula Bowl, and the College All-Star Game.  In 1989, he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Csonka was the No. 1 pick by the American Football League’s Miami Dolphins in the 1968 Common Draft by being the eighth player and first running back drafted in the first round. He signed a three-year contract for $20,000 the first year….$25,000 in year two….and $30,000 for the third year….plus a $34,000 bonus which included a car.

Csonka’s pro career got off to a shaky start….for in the fifth game of the 1968 season against the Buffalo Bills….he was knocked out and suffered a concussion when his head hit the ground during a tackle. He spent two days in the hospital….then three weeks later against San Diego, he suffered another concussion, plus a ruptured eardrum and a broken nose….as there was talk he might have to give up football. He missed three games in 1968 and three more in 1969….for there was some question after the 1969 season whether Csonka would ever play fullback again….and not just because of injuries…but because he didn’t play well.  When Coach Shula came in 1970, he literally had to teach Csonka how to run with the football….as he used to run straight up and down….but Shula impressed upon him that he had to lead with his forearm rather than his head….cuz Shula and his backfield coach Carl Taseff basically reengineered Csonka to where he became a Hall of Fame player….as Csonka emerged as the offensive leader of the Dolphins.

Over the next four seasons, Csonka never missed a game, and he led the Dolphins in rushing the next five seasons. Writes teammate Jim Langer, “Csonka had the utmost respect of every player on the team, offense and defense.”  By the time the 1970’s rolled around….he was one of the most feared runners in professional football. Standing 6 ft 3 in (191 cm) and 235 lb (107 kg)….he was one of the biggest running backs of his day….who pounded through the middle of the field with relative ease….often dragging tacklers 5–10 yards….as he was described as a bulldozer or battering ram.  His running style reminded people of Bronko Nagurski….a legendary power runner from the 1930’s.  Said Minnesota Vikings LB Jeff Siemon after Super Bowl VIII,….”It’s not the collision that gets you. It’s what happens after you tackle him. His legs are just so strong he keeps moving. He carries you. He’s a movable weight.”….plus he rarely fumbled the ball or dropped a pass….and was also an excellent blocker.

Stories abound about Csonka’s toughness….like when he broke his nose about ten times playing football in high school, college, and the pros, causing it to be permanently deformed….for he would always remain in the game with blood pouring out of it. He may be the only running back to receive a personal foul for unnecessary roughness while running with the ball when in a game against the Buffalo Bills in 1970….he knocked out Safety John Pitts with a forearm shot that was more like a right cross….not to mention the fact that in a close game against the Minnesota Vikings in the perfect season of 1972….Csonka was hit in the back by linebacker Roy Winston in a tackle so grotesque it was shown on The Tonight Show….for  Csonka thought his back was broken and he actually crawled off the field…. then once he was on the sideline….he “walked it off” and in a few minutes was back in the game. His return to the game was crucial….cuz the winning touchdown pass to tight end Jim Mandich was set up by a fake to Csonka. He was named the 10th toughest football player of all time in the 1996 NFL Films production The NFL’s 100 Toughest Players.  Dolphins’ offensive line coach Monte Clark was asked about Csonka’s bruising running style, and he responded, “When Csonka goes on safari, the lions roll up their windows.”

The Dolphins had one of professional football’s best rushing attacks in the early 1970’s….leading the NFL in rushing in 1971 and 1972….while setting a new rushing record in 1972 at 2,960 yards….with Csonka’s 1,117 yards that season combined with Mercury Morris contributing exactly 1,000 yards made the Dolphins’ tandem the first 1,000 yard rushing duo in NFL history. That rushing attack led the Dolphins to Super Bowls VI, VII, and VIII….with victories coming in the last two. Csonka’s powerful running style set the tone for the ball-control Dolphins. He chose to run through defenders instead of around them….which led to three straight 1,000-yard seasons (1971–1973) and two seasons (1971–1972) in which he averaged more than 5 yards per carry….which is absolutely amazing for a fullback. His 5.4 yards per carry average in 1971 led the NFL….as teammate Bob Kuechenberg said that Csonka was the best back he ever saw for turning a 2-yard gain into a 5-yard gain….saying that “The line got him the start, he got the finish…and it added up to 4 or 5 yards every time.”

During the 1972 season, the Dolphins became the only team since the AFL-NFL Merger to go undefeated, and Csonka was an instrumental part of the success….rushing for a career best 1,117 yards….plus leading all rushers in Super Bowl VII with 112 yards on only 15 carries.  In 1973, Csonka was voted Super Athlete of the Year by the Professional Football Writers Association.  That season, the Dolphins won a second straight title and “Zonk”, as he was known, was the Super Bowl VIII MVP….after exploiting brilliant blocking by his offensive line….he rushed 33 times for two touchdowns and a then-record 145 yards.

Csonka and his friend, Dolphins RB Jim Kiick, were known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid….as the August 7, 1972 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a profile of Csonka and Kiick….an issue that has become a collector’s item because of the cover photograph of Csonka and Kiick by famed Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss….with Csonka inadvertently making an obscene gesture with the middle finger of his right hand. In 1973, Csonka and Kiick, in collaboration with sportswriter Dave Anderson, wrote a book, Always on the Run….in which Csonka and Kiick discuss their childhoods….their college football careers….their sometimes stormy relationship with Don Shula….their experiences as pro football players, and the sometimes outrageous behavior of their teammates. The book provides insight into the history of the Dolphins and the state of pro football in the late 1960’s and early and mid-1970’s.

In March 1974, Csonka, Kiick and Dolphin WR Paul Warfield announced they had signed contracts to play in the fledgling World Football League starting in 1975. Csonka signed a three-year guaranteed contract for a salary of $1.4 million. While their signings are credited with giving the WFL credibility, the league was plagued by financial problems right from the start. The three played for the Memphis Southmen in which Csonka and the others had minimal success and the league folded midway through its second season. Csonka carried the ball 99 times for 421 yards for 1 touchdown for Memphis in 1975.

As a free agent again….he joined the New York Giants in 1976, along with Memphis coach John McVay….as the Giants’ head coach at the time was Bill Arnsparger….who had previously been the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator….while hopes among fans were high that he could reverse the team’s fortunes….it just didn’t happen after tearing ligaments in his knee and prematurely ending his first season there. 

Two seasons later, Larry Czonka was on the field for “The Miracle at the Meadowlands”….the play that for years epitomized Giants’ fans exasperation with the franchise’s long-term mediocrity….as on November 19, 1978….the Giants had apparently secured a 17–12 victory over the favored Philadelphia Eagles. However, with 31 seconds left to play and the Eagles out of timeouts….Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson overruled quarterback Joe Pisarcik to take a knww….and called for the ball to be handed off to Csonka for a run up the middle….as Coach Gibson felt Pisarcik was risking too much injury falling on the ball in an era before the quarterback kneel to run out the clock was common. However, Pisarcik botched the handoff and Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards returned the fumbled ball 29 yards for the winning touchdown. The Giants went into a tailspin afterwards, and finished 6–10 after a hopeful start.

The Giants let McVay go after the season ended. Csonka’s contract was up also….so, he returned to Miami the next year….where he ran for over 800 yards and his best season since their Super Bowl days….while also rushing for a career high 12 touchdowns while catching one more. Csonka won Comeback Player of the Year for his 1979 season. On that high note, and unable to come to terms with the Dolphins on a new contract, he retired after the year was over.

In his 11 NFL seasons, Csonka carried the ball 1,891 times for 8,081 yards and 64 touchdowns….while catching 106 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns. He was among the NFL’s top 10 ranked players in rushing yards four times….in rushing touchdowns five times…..in total touchdowns three times….and yards from the line of scrimmage once. He earned All-AFC honors four times and was named All-Pro in 1971, 1972, and 1973….while being selected to play in 5 Pro Bowls.

The Zonk was a power to be reckoned with….and more than worthy of being featured in one of NFL Films production of the Men Who Played the Game….which makes Larry Czonka deserving of being remembered for his presence on the NFL gridiron. 

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