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26 Jul 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Island of the Blue Dol-fans

by Russell Levine
Before I delve more deeply into Ricky Williams' stunning retirement announcement, please indulge me for a few paragraphs as I spend some time commiserating with my Dolphin-fan friends.

My life as a football fan has been defined by the Miami Dolphins. Despite having never lived anywhere near Miami, and having never rooted for them myself, I have been surrounded by Dol-fans for as long as I have been watching the NFL.

To be fair, I've never lived anywhere near Tampa, either, but that didn't prevent me from becoming a fan of the Buccaneers. In fact, I can't stand Florida -- I've long advocated the U.S. should have the Army Corps of Engineers saw the state off at the panhandle and let it float away into the Atlantic.

It was of my Dolphin-fan friends -- of Richard and Matt and Hank and Frank and Richard -- that I first thought when I hit ESPN.com Sunday morning and learned that Ricky Williams has informed the team of his immediate retirement, just five days before the opening of training camp.

As a kid, I spent nearly every fall Sunday next door at Richard's house. Richard, the youngest of 14 kids, was a huge Dolphins fan. Sundays were spent setting up his shrine to his favorite team -- jerseys, books, magazines, even a stuffed Dolphin -- and watching the game with his best friend Matt, another Dolphin fan. I would come over in either my orange Bucs jersey (an unlettered #4, ordered from the back of some catalog for $30) or my white #32 James Wilder model (a huge step up in quality -- purchased at enormous expense and lettered exactly according to team specs) depending on whether the Bucs were home or away. It was an idea I got from Richard and Matt, each of whom owned multiple Dolphin jerseys in both home and away. I can't recall which aqua models they had -- Marino? A.J. Duhe? -- but on days the Dolphins were wearing white, Rich and Matt would be attired in Nos. 42 and 47 of Lyle and Glenn Blackwood. For the record -- Rich was from New Jersey, Matt from Virginia (no Florida connection).

In college at Michigan -- again, nowhere near the state of Florida -- I met another pair of Dolphins fans, Hank and Frank. Hank (from Ohio) and Frank (from Colorado) simply raised the bar on Dolphin-fandom. For the first few years I knew him, I never had a conversation with Hank that didn't involve Dan Marino in some way. In fact, I've known Hank for more than a decade and that statement might still apply. When my son Trevor was born, Hank dutifully informed me that the boy had a bright future because he was born on Marino's birthday. I think he was kidding, but I'm not really sure.

As for Frank, I never got to know him all that well until several years after college. That's because we (along with Hank) watched a Dolphins-Bucs preseason game together at an Ann Arbor bar in 1995. I apparently celebrated the Bucs' win a bit too vociferously because Frank didn't speak to me again for four years until we discovered at Hank's wedding in 1999 that we really didn't hate each other.

I had changed jobs around the time of Hank's wedding only to discover that my new boss was, you guessed it, a huge Dolphins fan. Rich (born and raised in New York -- and no relation to Richard, my boyhood neighbor) is the type of obsessive fan that can't watch a game with anyone else. He used to make a habit of coming into the office by himself on Sunday afternoons to watch the Dolphins on the Sunday Ticket-enabled office TV, all the better to be alone with his torture and misery. The Dolphins have played such a role in his life that he recently completed a book about it. Called This Could Be the Year - My 30 Years as a Miami Dolphins Fan, it is to be published this fall.  (You can pre-order a copy at the link below.)

Richard has never met Hank or Frank, who've never met Rich. Rich doesn't know Richard, either, except that I often include all four of them on an email anytime I see some story about some bad thing that has happened to their favorite club, and several lively discussions have broken out.

Frank even made it into Rich's book. In 2002, Frank, by then a New Jersey neighbor of mine, picked me up to go watch the Dolphins-Bucs preseason game. We had long since buried that hatchet over the 1995 outing and had tried to make this outing an annual tradition. I thought we'd head to the same local brewpub we had hit the year before. Instead, I was kidnapped and taken to hell. Hell is officially called the "10 West Bistro and Sportz Bar." Unofficially, it's known as "Miami Mike's." Miami Mike (and lest you think I'm making this up, click here and scroll down the page for a picture) is the owner/proprietor and he provides safe haven for Dolphins fans all over the New York metropolitan area. Here it was, early August, and I was looking forward to a low-key evening of watching the game with a friend. Instead, I walked into an environment where people were wearing jerseys, hats, even Zubaz pants. You might have thought it was the Super Bowl instead of the preseason opener. When the Dolphins scored a touchdown, Miami Mike handed out aqua shots to the entire bar. I relayed the incident to Rich, who found a home for it in his book.

I'm not sure how many other teams could generate such a gathering over 1,000 miles from their home city. The Dolphins created a quick legend in the NFL with the perfect season of 1972 and the repeat Super Bowl win the following year. For the 30 years since that second title, they have occasionally been very good, almost always been at least good, but never have they been great, or awful.

That may finally change in 2004, thanks to Ricky Williams (you may now consider my indulgence over). While it's certainly possible that Miami could surprise everyone and have a good season, perhaps invoking the Ewing Theory in the process, the more likely scenario is that they're going to be awful. We're talking 4-12 awful. First pick in the draft awful. And it might be exactly what the franchise needs to kick it out of its good-but-never-great doldrums and get it over the hump.

The Dolphins enter every season expecting to win. Of course they do -- they've only had two losing seasons since 1970, a simply ridiculous streak of consistent winning. But they've become just as accustomed to not being great. From 1990-2001, Miami made the postseason nine times in 12 years, even won a playoff game six times, yet never made the Super Bowl.

Miami seasons have become predictable -- they win the opener, cruise to a fast start, collapse in December, limp into the playoffs, eke out a wildcard win, and get destroyed in the divisional round. Then they sign some big-name free agents, come into the next season with renewed optimism, and repeat the process.

But the script has taken a slight detour the last two seasons as they missed the postseason entirely, even as Williams piled up impressive numbers. In 2004, with an offense built around the departed Williams, the Dolphins look to be in for a very long year.

If it does play out that way, if the Dolphins crash and burn and become reinvigorated enough to rise from the ashes and win another Super Bowl, perhaps Dol-fans will finally be able to forgive Williams, because they surely despise him right now. How could they not? If Williams had made this decision a week or a month ago, Miami could have gotten another running back. Heck, if he'd made the decision a couple of days ago, Eddie George would probably be a Dolphin instead of a Cowboy right now.

There's simply no way to forgive the manner in which Williams decided to quit, leaving his teammates in the lurch with no adequate way to replace him.

This was the point in the article when I was going to get into why Williams quit and why we shouldn't be surprised. But I don't think I can put it any better than Peter King of Sports Illustrated or Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald.

As King so eloquently put it, as fans we sometimes tend to forget how ridiculously violent the game of professional football can be. I've never been on the sidelines of an NFL game, but I watched a Michigan game from the field once and it was downright frightening. After every collision, I would wonder how everybody managed to get up -- if they all did. Williams might have decided that he didn't want to do it to his body any more, and there's no shame in that. Nobody takes more punishment than the running back. Ask Earl Campbell if he wishes he had quit after five seasons. I don't know what his answer would be, but I bet he'd be able to stand up for more than a few minutes at a time, something he can't do now.

Professional football players pay a frightening price for the dollars they make. Many, if not most, will be in pain for the rest of their lives. They will have arthritic knees, shoulders and hips long before most people deal with such things. That's why I will never hold it against a player that sits out for more money, and I will never hold it against one that decides to walk away early, rather than limp away late, as the expression goes.

I can't defend Williams' timing, but in the end, if this was the way he felt, he's doing the right thing. As fans we should appreciate an athlete that would rather quit than stick around for the paycheck when his heart isn't in it. The sports world has too few Ricky Williams and too many of the latter.

Who knows if things could have gone differently for Williams in his career, but, knowing what we know now, it's obvious the Saints put him in a position to fail when they traded their entire slate of draft picks to select him in 1999. Williams came to the team alone, without the camaraderie of other draft picks. He was expected to save a franchise that had known nothing but failure. When he agreed to a naive contract that forced him to put up record numbers to earn maximum money, the sports world mocked him. When he kept getting injured, he felt like a failure. After three seasons, a new coach and a new GM decided he was the problem and shipped him to Miami, where he flourished in 2002 and followed up with a solid 2003. More importantly, he was taking medication for social anxiety disorder and seemed to be genuinely happy.

To hear Miami coach Dave Wannstedt tell it, Williams was in tremendous shape this summer and was a full participant in the team's offseason program. That he still couldn't muster the enthusiasm to play tells you something about Williams, and about the game. His timing may be awful, but at least Williams is being true to himself, and that's something fans should respect -- even Richard and Matt and Hank and Frank and Rich, the last of whom can at least take solace in the knowledge that the Dolphins aren't going to win the Super Bowl this season and render his book a moot point.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 26 Jul 2004