Buoniconti, Kiick: Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season suddenly doesn’t feel perfect

Nick Buoniconti poses next to his bust during festivities for the 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions. (Tom Pidgeon/Allsport)

Garo Yepremian was only 70 when he died in 2015, but that was of cancer. Earl Morrall died three years ago, after suffering with the same debilitating brain diseases we’re now associating with old-time football players, but he was 79. Bill Stanfill, who died last year at 69, long suffered from dementia, but he did so privately.

Today, there are no “buts.”

Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick — and their families — are paying a price for playing football no one should have to pay. Buoniconti is 76, but a youthful 76, we thought by his public persona. Kiick is 70. They and their relatives stepped forward this week to share details of their struggles with brain disease, threatening the romanticism South Florida has clung to regarding 1972.

[RELATED: ‘I’m paying the price’: Prognosis bleak for ex-Dolphins LB Nick Buoniconti]

Whenever we hear that year, we think 17-0.

We think perfection. Or used to.

We did not think of these heroes wrestling with a telephone because they couldn’t remember how to hang up. We did not think of them needing help going to the bathroom — or sometimes not bothering to go to the bathroom before relieving themselves.

Sports Illustrated wasn’t responsible for peeling back the curtain on 1972 with its series this week on the downward spirals Buoniconti and Kiick face. Buoniconti came to SI, wanting his story to be told. Truth is, neither story could be responsibly reported by Scott Price without cooperation from the families — families who say they’re speaking out not just for their benefit, but on behalf of all other old-timers who may be suffering in silence and struggling for their piece of the $1 billion NFL concussion-settlement pie.

Larry Csonka (left) and Jim Kiick pose as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1972.

More? Oh, yes, there are more such Dolphins. We just don’t know how many. Former Dolphins tight end Marv Fleming, who helps organize reunions for the 1972ers, said he couldn’t estimate what percentage of his former teammates have issues beyond the norm for their age.

But one ’72 Dolphin, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed to two other teammates who clearly were in distress at their last reunion. One brought a caregiver but appeared to be in good spirits, the anonymous player said. The other player seemed out of it, he said.

If correct, of 45 members of that team, that would make six players unable to live out their golden years in golden fashion. Six that we know of.

“You don’t know … until you know,” the anonymous player said, referring to any who might be suffering in silence.

The Buoniconti story shocked me. Kiick’s didn’t.

It was only two years ago that I met with Buoniconti and son Marc at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to discuss the 30 years since Marc was paralyzed while making a tackle for The Citadel. Wearing shorts, tanned and vibrant, Nick looked like a man who just stepped off the tennis court but was itching to go a few more sets. The very first minute of our interview, he made it seem he was as fit mentally as physically.

“In 30 years, we’ve gone from a 1,000-square-foot research center to a 135,000-square-foot research center with 200 scientists and technicians with an annual budget of $25 million, which we have to raise every year in order to keep our doors open … ,” he said.

[RELATED: Doctor says Jim Kiick has ‘holes in his brain’]

You think about the advances The Miami Project and The Buoniconti Fund have made, you think about how vital Nick was in raising those millions and you think about where Nick is now. And you want to stop thinking before this gets even more depressing.

Several months before that interview, I was speaking with Kiick about a documentary NFL Network recorded on the 1972 backfield trio he formed with Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. Most of our conversation was a delight — a  Jersey guy sharing hell-raising stories that always came back to them giving Don Shula gray hairs and Shula blaming Kiick for the mess du jour, whether Kiick deserved it or not. Kiick jokingly continued his decades-long pouting over why he had to block for the much-bigger Zonk rather than the other way around. He laughed about freezing his fanny during a trip to Alaska to fish with Csonka. He talked poignantly about how grateful he was to be a part of that historic team.

(L to R) Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Mercury Morris fish in Alaska during taping for the NFL Network special on ‘The Perfect Backfield.’ (Audrey Bradshaw/Zonk Productions)

But I hung up feeling sadness. Late in the conversation, I casually asked how long of a trip it was to fly to Alaska to see Csonka. His answer was nonsensical, saying he had to first fly through Seattle or Denver but then flew and drove to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Davie en route to Alaska.

That’s when, to borrow from the anonymous player, I knew what I didn’t want to know.

Here’s something else to know: If you want the NFL to switch to an 18-game regular season, rethink that. In wondering why the Dolphins are suffering this way, I realized that over that three-year span starting with the 1971 season, they played more games than any other team.

More games, more hits.

There’s a tendency to hit the pause button and say that was in a 14-game era, not today’s 16, but look closer. The Dolphins played three postseason games each of those Super Bowl years, meaning 17 “real” games. There’s more. Teams routinely played six — six! — preseason games then, and the Dolphins compounded it by also playing the college all-stars in a 1973 preseason with a mind-numbing seven exhibitions.

Add that up and you’ve got 70 games in three years, or 23.3 per. All in an era of no mercy on defenseless receivers, quarterbacks or brains.

They knew what they were getting into? Like hell.

“Obviously, if you take a pounding all those years, or even a few years, you’re not going to be the same as you were,” said Pro Bowl guard Bob Kuechenberg, among the toughest Dolphins ever. “We used to say, ‘Boy, I really rang his bell that time.’ That means you also got a concussion. But we all knew what we were getting into in terms of that.

“We didn’t know the part about the brain damage.”

There’s a lot we know today.

Whether it’s what we want to know is another story.

Nick Buoniconti’s health progressively failing

Dave George: In light of Buoniconti news, doctor struggles for answers

Will more 1972 heroes face same tragic ending as Earl Morrall?

Follow Hal Habib on Twitter

Reflections on the Miami Dolphins roster post free-agency, draft

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