No sport tells its history better than the NFL. The variety and quality of films produced by NFL Films and other filmmakers can suck in even the most recent convert to the sport. America’s Game and similar documentaries help to turn great players and teams into legends. Soccer by comparison has never managed quite the same feat with, for example, World Cup films often failing to capture the broader context of the teams and the tournaments.
In a sport of carefully crafted legends, no team stands out more in the mythology of the game than the only team to go an entire season undefeated – the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Going undefeated in any sport for an entire league season is the kind of rare achievement that garners nicknames like ‘The Invincibles’. While NFL seasons might be shorter than most, the sheer brutality and physicality of the game, together with the embrace of salary caps, drafts and other anti-free market measures explains why only one team has achieved this feat in the Super Bowl era.
Fifty years on from that historic season, Marshall Jon Fisher has recounted the story of the season, the players, the coach, the city and the country. Fisher was a kid growing up in Miami, a Dolphins fan and present at a number of the games. The book is brilliantly crafted around each of the 17 games with the spotlight zooming in and out on various players and staff as the narrative progresses. The story is very much set in its time and place with the changing face of a rapidly growing Miami and the slow building political turmoil of elections, conventions and Watergate simmering in the background throughout the story. The tensions, drama, turmoil and energy of the time and place pour out of every page.
The team themselves were no ordinary team and not just in their achievements. The Dolphins had only been founded in 1966 and had prior to Don Shula’s arrival in 1970 had never won more than 5 games in a season. Perhaps more than any subsequent Super Bowl winners, the players were a team of misfit pieces, players who often hadn’t lived up to potential elsewhere or whose potential was never apparent until they became Dolphins. Despite a batch of future Hall of Famers, the relative lack of ‘stars’ was epitomized by the nickname “The No-Name Defense” applied to half of the team. Fisher is careful to slightly pierce the myth of the ragtag nature of the team pointing to the ability and star status of players like wide receiver Paul Warfield.
Central to the narrative is, of course, coach Don Shula, at the time a young genius of a coach who had reached, but lost two Super Bowls by the time the 1971- 1972 season came around. Shula is depicted as a man clearly comfortable in his ability to build and lead a football team and determined to learn from mistakes in previous Super Bowls.
All sports history struggles with the challenge of creating a connection with the reader (through some drama or tension) when the sporting results are usually well known. This challenge is even greater when the outcome of the sporting event is in the book title! Fisher overcomes this by brilliantly recreating the mindset of the players and fans as the story progresses. The book also includes a poignant look at the price the players would ultimately pay for the knocks, injuries and concussions suffered during their careers – one far too many professional footballers have and will continue to play.
Seventeen and Oh is a very enjoyable, entertaining read – sports writing at its very finest. Highly recommend it for any NFL fan. After reading you should definitely watch the America’s game episode on the 1972 Dolphins here.
17 and OH will be published on 12 July by ABRAMS Press.