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President Obama honors 1972 Miami Dolphins at White House


WASHINGTON D.C. -- It's never a rare day when President Barack Obama finds a way to interject his love for the Chicago sports scene into a speech. It is far less common, however, when someone is openly bold enough to interrupt Obama with a challenge.

Apparently, Obama has never messed with Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula.

In a lighthearted moment during a brief White House ceremony honoring the undefeated 1972 Dolphins on Tuesday, Obama attempted to playfully sidestep his 2011 comments when he dubbed the 1985 Chicago Bears the greatest team of all time.

"I've got to come clean here," Obama said, as 31 players from the '72 Dolphins crowded onto a set of risers around the president in the East Room. "A couple years ago, I hosted the '85 Bears out on the South Lawn. They'd also missed their chance to have a White House visit. And that day, I called them the greatest team ever. But, I mean, take it with a grain of salt.

"The Bears lost once in their nearly perfect season."

Enter Shula, who piped up from his seat in a motorized cart parked to Obama's left.

"Who beat 'em?!" Shula shouted over Obama, causing the room to break out in laughter.

"It happened to be to the Dolphins," Obama conceded. "So I think you made your point. Nobody can argue with this record."

While Shula made sure to stick up for his 1985 Dolphins team, this day was about the '72 squad. Current team owner Stephen Ross, a Miami native who grew up a fan of the Dolphins, made this happen by paying all expenses to cover the trip. (Three players -- Bob Kuechenberg, Manny Fernandez and Jim Langer -- opted to not accept the invitation for political reasons.)

"I know this is a little unorthodox, four decades after the fact, but these guys never got their White House visit after winning Super Bowl VII," Obama said. "I know some of them are a little harder to recognize these days. They don't have the Afros or the mutton chops or the Fu Manchus.

"And 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."

While that remark added more humor to an amusing speech from the president, the trip actually came about when Marv Fleming, a tight end on the '72 team, began to wonder last year if a White House ceremony was possible. Fleming reached out to a friend with connections at the White House who ultimately made it happen.

And so, on Tuesday, Obama delivered a brief speech on a day that will not soon be forgotten by several members in attendance.

"I can go no higher," Hall of Fame offensive lineman Larry Little said. "This is it. I mean, the Hall of Fame. 17-0. 32-2 in two years. And now being on the White House grounds? You can't beat it."

It wasn't always customary, as it is today, for the Super Bowl-winning team to visit the White House for a ceremony. And even if it had been a tradition, it wasn't much of a time for celebrating in the White House, as President Richard Nixon was becoming entangled in the Watergate scandal. Otherwise, who knows? Perhaps the Dolphins would have been the first team ever invited -- since Nixon was a major sports fan and also a bit of a Dolphins fan. After Tuesday's ceremony, Shula talked about how he used to get occasional phone calls from Nixon, who would sometimes ask the coach to run certain plays.

"President Nixon was a big football fan," Shula said. "He spent a lot of time in Key Biscayne (in South Florida). They called it the Key Biscayne White House. I would always listen to him. One play he suggested was a slant pass to (Paul) Warfield. I said, 'You know, that's not a bad idea.' "

Warfield, of course, was a major contributor to those Dolphins teams of the early 1970s, so it was no surprise that Shula did indeed run a slant pass to Warfield in Super Bowl VI -- in the season just prior to Miami's perfect run.

The 1972 Dolphins will now head back to their respective lives all over the country. It took awhile, but at least they can say they, too, had their trip to the White House.

"We had some private time (with Obama)," Shula said. "He's just an amazing sports fan. I'm thinking, 'You've got to be a great sports fan to talk about some of the things he talked about.' The game plans ... The 1985 Bears ..."

Shula then paused for a moment.

"I didn't let him talk much about the '85 Bears," Shula said. "You know, there's one team that beat them that year."

Yes, Coach. We know.

And so does the president.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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