Larry Csonka was the No. 1 pick by the American Football League’s Miami Dolphins in the 1968 Common Draft….for as the 8th player and 1st running back drafted in the first round…he would signed a three-year contract for $20,000 the first year….$25,000 the second….and $30,000 the third….plus a $34,000 bonus, including a new car….which is a far cry from the $20+/- million signed by the 8th player picked in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Csonka’s pro career got off to a shaky start….as in the 5th game of the 1968 season against Buffalo….he was knocked out and suffered a concussion when his head hit the ground during a tackle….after which he spent two days in the hospital….then just three weeks later….he suffered another concussion, plus a ruptured eardrum and a broken nose. There was talk he might have to give up football….as he missed three games in 1968 and three more in 1969.
An interesting discription of Czonka at this point was express by his teammate L B Nick Buoniconti….who said, “There was some questions [after the 1969 season] whether Csonka would ever play fullback again….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….cuz he used to run straight up and down….and Shula impressed upon him that he had to lead with his forearm rather than his head. Shula and his backfield coach Carl Taseff basically reengineered Csonka to where he became the Hall of Fame player….as Csonka emerged as the offensive leader of the Dolphins for the decade of the 1970’s.”
Over the next four seasons, Csonka never missed a game….leading the Dolphins in rushing the next five seasons. By the 1970s he was one of the most feared runners in professional football….who stood 6 ft 3 in (191 cm) and 235 lb (107 kg)….making him one of the biggest running backs of his day…a running back who pounded through the middle of the field with relative ease….often dragging tacklers 5–10 yards. He was described as a bulldozer or battering ram. His running style reminded people of a legendary power runner Bronko Nagurski 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 an excellent blocker.
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 NFL rushing record in 1972 at 2,960 yards…..as Csonka’s 1,117 yards during the season….combined with Mercury Morris contributing exactly 1,000 yards….made them 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 in the last two. Csonka’s powerful running style set the tone for the ball-control Dolphins….choosing to run through defenders instead of around them….while leading 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 amazing for a fullback. His 5.4 yards per carry average in 1971 led the NFL….as teammate OL Bob Kuechenberg said that Csonka was the best back he ever saw for turning a 2-yard gain into a 5-yard gain.
The 1972 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….after which he led 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….a season in which the Dolphins won a second straight title and “Zonk” 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 running back Jim Kiick, were known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. 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….where Csonka inadvertently makes an obscene gesture with the middle finger of his right hand.
Any way you cut the pie…..Larry Czonka was an incredible running force that had to be reckoned with any time you suited up against him.