Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Put a cork in it

Cold Duck would be even better

The Indianapolis Colts' bid for an undefeated season ended Sunday when they lost to the San Diego Chargers. At 13-0 coming into the game, they were the last NFL team with a perfect record for 2005. Now they're 13-1. And that means it's time for the Champagne Story.

Perhaps you've heard the story: At the beginning of every NFL season, each surviving member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team ever to go undefeated, puts a bottle of champagne on ice. Then, when that season's last unbeaten team suffers its first loss, they take out the champagne, pop the corks and toast the demise of the latest challenge to their legacy. In some versions of the tale, they actually get together every year for this ceremony.

There are two ways to frame this story, and everyone who tells it must choose one or the other. This first way is to venerate the '72 Dolphins as football royalty, bow before their orange-and-teal throne and raise one's own glass to their eternal glory. Gregg Easterbrook, never one to let up when there's a dead horse to be beaten, takes this tack year after year. Here's how he phrased it in 2000, when the Minnesota Vikings lost to Tampa Bay after opening the season 7-0:
"Gentlemen of 1972, TMQ hopes you enjoyed your Sunday afternoon draught. You earned it and are likely to savor these bubbles annually until the day when the football gods summon you to Asgard for song and feasting."
The other way to handle this story is to hold up the '72 Dolphins as a collection of sad old men desperate to keep the color from bleeding out of their decades-old day in the sun. Monday, on his ESPN show Jim Rome Is Burning, Jim Rome spoke of
"... old 'Phins players, wearing their Dolphin gear over their dress shirts and toasting to another season of bitterness. Close call, eh, fellas? ... If you don't like being depicted like that, stop acting like that. ... Every last one of these guys was on his knees praying for a Charger win, and they got it."
This, er, less sympathetic portrayal has lately become the dominant one.

Every year in October, November or even December, the Champagne Story is pulled out of the archives, updated with the losing team's name (this year, the Colts), its pre-loss record (13-0) and the number of years since '72 (33), and shipped out on the wires. And as soon as the story moves, every one of the old Dolphins becomes That Guy Who Went to High School With Your Dad.

You know That Guy. About 20 years ago, he set all the football records at his high school. Ever since, he's been going to the games, sitting high up in the bleachers and rooting against any kid who might break his records. Nobody likes That Guy, but the bartender puts up with him because he comes in after every game and tips him five bucks to celebrate the kid's heartbreak.

The Champagne Story has become such an albatross weighing on the reputations of the surviving Dolphins that in recent years many of them have publicly denied the story. They say it's been blown way out of proportion ( stories notwithstanding). When the last team suffers it's first loss, they say, the most any of them really do is use it as an opportunity to reconnect and talk about old times. Within hours of the Colts' loss Sunday, the '72 Dolphins' coach, Don Shula, and their quarterback, Bob Griese, appeared at a news conference to praise Indy's run at history and say that they, too, had been rooting for the Colts to run the table.

So is there a champagne toast or isn't there? As with so many other matters in life, the truth probably lies in the middle. I believe the old Dolphins when they say there's never been a regularly scheduled, annual group celebration (though they can't dispute the footage from their occasional get-togethers staged for the cameras at one of Shula's restaurants). But I also think they never had a problem with the story when it was told in the fawning, Easterbrookian style. So long as the Champagne Story was a paean to ageless titans, rather than an indictment of aging has-beens, it was jake with them. But now that it's doing their image more harm than good, they want it to stop.

This leads us to the question of who's keeping this Fish tale alive if the '72 Dolphins themselves say it's not true. Think about it: What group in America worships 1970s icons most fervently? What group has been conditioned to believe that its heroes are the only ones that count? What group would most identify with 50- to 60-year-old men refusing to let go of their youth?

Baby boomers.

Folks my age and younger have spent our entire lives being lectured by baby boomers that their music was better, their drugs were trippier, their sex was more enjoyable, their ideals were purer, their causes were righter. Their shag carpet was shaggier, their wife swapping was groovier, their family-room paneling was more out-of-sight. Everything the boomers "dug" was the Best That Ever Was. (To this day, they even have a niche magazine dedicated to venerating boomer culture. It's called Newsweek.)

Boomers keep the Champagne Story alive because the 1972 Dolphins are The Greatest Football Team Ever. And in the boomer mind, any group of people their age whose signature accomplishment remains unmatched 30-plus years later should get together as often as possible to wallow in it. (Have you heard? The Rolling Stones are on tour again!) Because if the memory doesn't die, neither will they. The Champagne Story has such a strong appeal to the boomers because it's exactly what they would do. Further, by telling the Champagne Story, they get to experience the party vicariously. It's almost like they've been invited! The fact that it might not be true doesn't get in the way of the telling. I mean, bands agreed to play Woodstock mostly because they were promised enormous paychecks, but you don't hear about that much nowadays, do you?

So, who are these baby boomers recycling the story year after year? Media types, mostly -- but not serious sports journalists. The men and women who know pro football -- the writers, broadcasters and webjockeys who really know its traditions and history -- are all quite aware that the story as told isn't accurate, and they're loath to repeat it. In fact, sports journalists are often the first to point out that the Dolphins' perfect season relied on a lot of wins against 3-11 and 4-9-1 teams. No, the ones responsible for spreading the Champagne Story are the Easterbrooks of the world, the ones on the sports periphery. (Down and Distance excluded, of course!) They've been taken in by what is referred to in the news business as "a story that's too good to check." These people have also somehow gotten a measure of their own self-worth wrapped around the axle of the battered jalopy that is the 1972 Dolphins Bandwagon. In the past 33 years, they've only gotten themselves more tangled.

There's historical precedent for this. In 1961, as Roger Maris was closing in on Babe Ruth's 34-year-old record of 60 home runs in a season, he was the target of vicious attacks, from inside and outside the media. People who had grown up idolizing Ruth, and reporters who'd ridden on Ruth's coattails for years, considered Maris' pursuit of the home run record a desecration of Ruth's legacy. (In a way, they were right: Maris was by all accounts a decent, humble man, while Ruth was a drunkard and a womanizer, though his buddies in the press covered it up.) As Maris closed in on 60, the attacks mounted. By the time he broke the record, nerves had nearly killed him. And baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who had carried Ruth's water for years, added the final insult by putting an asterisk next to Maris' deed in the record book.

Just as Ruth's adoring legions screamed in Maris' ear all through 1961, so do the '72 Dolphin devotees crank up the Champagne Story whenever an NFL team starts a year 6-0: You're nothing unless you go undefeated. It doesn't matter unless you go undefeated. But they don't realize that society has changed, that what it means to be great has changed. Resting on your laurels is just fine, but nowadays, people expect you to rest on them -- not get up off them every year and wag them in everyone's face. Further, when someone comes along with a chance to match (or better) your accomplishments, you're expected to either root for him or keep your damn mouth shut. In the early 1980s, Franco Harris was on the verge of breaking Jim Brown's all-time rushing record, and Brown tore Harris down publicly. He accused Harris of staying in the league way past his prime just for the sake of the record. (It was true, but shut up.) Flash forward 20 years or so, and Emmitt Smith is about to break the rushing record, which was then held by the late Walter Payton. Did Payton's family rip Smith for hanging around just to set the record? No. The Paytons were there to hug Smith and call him their brother and assure him that Walter was looking down and giving him the thumbs-up. Maris' family did the same thing in 1998, when Mark McGwire was bearing down on the home run record. Not only were the Marises cheering the whole way, they were actually at Busch Stadium when McGwire hit No. 62.

Just last year, another storied Dolphins record was threatened: Dan Marino's 48 touchdown passes in 1984. And this one ultimately fell. When Peyton Manning -- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning -- broke the record, Marino was there to congratulate him on live TV. You could tell that Marino would have liked to have held on to the record, but he knew that the right thing to do -- the only thing to do -- was to pay homage to the new king.

After 30 years, the '72 Dolphins may finally be wising up. They may finally understand that it's far, far better for their image for them to be seen rooting for their accomplishment to be matched -- rooting for someone to succeed, rather than fail. They may realize that it's in their interest to be seen talking about how hard it is to go undefeated, and offering advice to the latest team trying to do it. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because you know what? No team is going to go undefeated again. Not when NFL teams are as evenly matched as they are today. Not with a schedule two games longer and a media climate infinitely more intense than in 1972. Every year from now on, the '72 Dolphins could pop up to be hailed as legends while at the same time being praised as great guys and great sports.

Or they can let the Champagne Story continue, and each year they'll become more marginalized as pissy, burned-out glory junkies desperately craving another fix. It's too bad, really, because the Champagne Story is now out of their hands.

It's in their fans'.

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