1972 Miami Dolphins Honored For Winning Season, 40 Years Late

They went undefeated through the season and playoffs and won the 1973 Super Bowl. But the Miami Dolphins of that legendary season were never honored at the White House — until Tuesday. Why?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There were some old Dolphins at the White House today, and we don't mean the Marine mammal. Here's President Obama to explain.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am proud to welcome the only undefeated, untied team in NFL history to the White House for the very first time. Give it up for the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us now from the White House to explain why the only team in NFL history to have a perfect season got this recognition about four decades late.

And, Ari, first describe the scene. You were in the room for this event, what was it like?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You know, you hear an announcer introduce an NFL team and you expect to see these huge, strapping, young guys. And this was really hard warming. All of these senior citizens shuffled in with white hair, if they had hair at all, a couple of them had canes; they all wore matching green Dolphins jackets. The legendary Hall of Famer coach Don Shula was there in a motorized wheelchair.

And they gave President Obama a green Dolphins' jersey with the Number 72 on it, for the year 1972. And where the name usually goes across the shoulders, it had the word: Undefeated.

CORNISH: And, of course, we're talking about this perfect season. But what makes this team so special?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, these charming senior citizens are sports legends. Together, they performed a feat that no one has matched in the 40 years since. Fourteen regular season wins, three post-season wins, Super Bowl champions. They played in three straight Super Bowls; seven people from this team have busts in the Hall of Fame. When Coach Shula retired, he had more wins than any coach in NFL history.

So there was really just so much history in the East Room of the White House today.

CORNISH: So what's the deal? Why didn't the White House visit happen 40 years ago?

SHAPIRO: It's kind of mystery. I count three possible reasons. I'll give them to you from sort of simplest to most conspiracy theorists.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The simplest reason is that back then in 1973, and not every Super Bowl champion team came to the White House the way they do now. There is a political possibility, which is that in that year, Watergate was unfolding. It kept President Nixon pretty busy, maybe too busy to, you know, entertain a sports team. And then the sports buff conspiracy theory suggests that the fact that Nixon was a Redskins fan and the Dolphins beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl that year could have had something to do with it.

CORNISH: All right, conspiracies aside, what's the reason why this is finally happening now?

SHAPIRO: Well, here is the reason President Obama offered.

OBAMA: I know that some people may be asking why we're doing this after all these years and my answer is simple. I wanted to be the young guy up here for once.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And it's true that, you know, if you cover the White House for a period of time, you see the president hosting a one championship team after another of all of these young, amazing people at the peak of their performance. But a simpler reason for doing this now is that the 40th anniversary of the Super Bowl win seems like a pretty good time. And this is actually not the first time that the Obama White House has hosted a kind of makeup session for a team that did not get recognized the first time around.

A couple years ago, Obama hosted the 1985 Chicago Bears, his hometown team. They did not get the come after winning the Super Bowl because it was right after the space shuttle Challenger exploded. At that time, President Obama called the '85 Bears the greatest team ever. Today he noted that the '85 Bears did lose once in their nearly perfect season, and that loss was to the Miami Dolphins.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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