For football fans, it’s exciting watching a fleet-footed running back dart in and out of trouble for a huge gain.
Arguably, it’s just as much fun seeing a big, bruising ball carrier run over an opponent as they plow their way to a first down.
That’s what watching Larry Csonka was like.
Larry Csonka busting through the middle💪 pic.twitter.com/c8QpUKl9wK
— Goat Jerseys (@GoatJerseys) December 15, 2019
During his NFL career, Csonka was a brute chiseled from granite who could give as much punishment as he got.
While playing with the Miami Dolphins, he was part of a three-headed running back committee that was second to none.
That same group also carried Miami to the only unbeaten season in NFL history.
This is the story of Larry Csonka.
Born to be a Running Back
Larry Richard Csonka was born on Christmas Day, 1946 in Stow, Ohio.
It’s been said that kids that grow up on a farm often become big and strong due to the work required to keep the operation running.
Csonka was no different.
As he became a young man, Csonka’s strength and power came from the work he did on his parent’s farm outside of Stow.
“I had my own body-building program. I grew up on a farm,” Csonka said. “I picked corn, shoveled dirt, baled hay, milked cows, and every day I ran two miles home for supper.”
When Csonka started playing football at Stow High School, he was already starting to fill into his eventual 6’3”, 240-pound frame.
“I had my own body-building program. I grew up on a farm—I picked corn, shoveled dirt, baled hay, milked cows, and every day I ran two miles home for supper."
Miami Dolphins 1968-1974 pic.twitter.com/YhGXlvl6uf
— Jorge Carvajal 🐊 (@carvperformance) July 20, 2022
His coaches initially put Csonka at defensive end to take advantage of his size.
That changed during the final game of his sophomore year.
Csonka was playing on the kickoff return team when the pigskin bounced his way.
After scooping up the ball, Csonka’s life changed forever.
“I ran over two tacklers before I realized what I was doing,” said Csonka. “I didn’t score or save the game, but I got a tremendous feeling carrying the ball. I was thrashing around, trying to run six ways at once. I loved it. I knew then that I wanted to run with the ball.”
His coaches weren’t convinced, yet.
Csonka and Stow Have Success
Before his junior year, Csonka sprouted even more by growing another two inches and gaining over 30 pounds.
He was built like a tank, and the Stow coaching staff pondered whether a kid Csonka’s size could carry the rock.
He was finally given an opportunity as a fullback and made the most of it.
“He was a ‘Glory Boy’ in the backfield,” childhood friend and Stow teammate Ron Marhofer joked. “When he ran the ball it would take several players to take him down. Many times he would take three or four defenders into the end zone with him.”
Csonka was a fan of former NFL great Bronko Nagurski and did everything on the field to emulate Nagurski’s running style.
“If you check the records, you will see I did seven book reports on Bronko Nagurski, seven years in a row,” Csonka said. “I idolized that man.”
As a senior in 1963, Csonka helped lead Stow High School to a league championship.
By the time he graduated in 1964, Csonka was feted by a large number of colleges.
His choice would take him to the place considered the cradle of running backs.
A Bulldozer for the Orangemen
Csonka took a scholarship opportunity to attend Syracuse University in New York state.
Syracuse was a perfect choice for someone who wanted to excel at the running back position.
Now “Running Backs University” had Csonka and Floyd Little, who was a year ahead of Csonka, toting the rock.
After seeing time at the middle linebacker position during his first collegiate season, Csonka was switched to fullback in 1965.
He split carries with Little, but Syracuse had a run-based offense, so Csonka got enough touches to pick up 795 yards and four touchdowns.
In 1966, Csonka and Little helped the Orangeman power their way to an 8-3 record and berth in the Gator Bowl versus the Tennessee Volunteers.
That season, Csonka rushed 197 times for 1,012 yards and seven scores.
During the Gator Bowl, both Little and Csonka did the heavy lifting as they rushed for over 300 yards combined and scored a touchdown each.
— Kevin Procter (@KProcterTN) December 24, 2014
It wasn’t quite enough as the Volunteers came away with an 18-12 victory.
Still, Csonka was named a first-team All-American after the season.
Ground Breaking Senior Year
In the first round of the 1967 NFL Draft, Little was selected by the Denver Broncos.
Now that his former teammate was off to the pros, the Orangemen running game rode on the mighty legs of Csonka.
As a senior that year, Csonka carried the ball 261 times (tied for first in Syracuse history) for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns.
He also found time to collect 11 receptions for 125 yards and an additional two scores.
College Football Countdown…39 days until kickoff!
RB Larry Csonka, Syracuse (1965-67)
In ‘66 & ‘67, logged back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and earned All-America honors
1967 ECAC Player of the Year
Career, averaged 4.9 ypc. & scored 19 TDs#CollegeFootball Hall of Famer pic.twitter.com/tQZ7EDyLZ3
— John Laub 🇺🇸 (@GridironSchol91) July 19, 2022
During a game against Maryland, Csonka had 43 carries, which ranks first in program history.
By the end of the season, Csonka had the fifth most yardage in the nation.
He gained his yardage the hard way, between the tackles and over opponents, just the way Csonka liked it.
“My role is to make the power running game work,” Csonka stated. “A lot of plays I run are momentum plays. They are not designed for long gains. If you make four or five yards, everyone is happy. It’s not a spectacular strategy but I’ve lived and breathed it, and I know it works.”
He was named a first-team All-American in 1967 for the second time and named conference Player of the Year.
In three years as a starter for the Orangemen, Csonka had 594 carries for 2,934 yards and 21 total touchdowns.
Csonka exited Syracuse with numerous records, many of which are still in the top five of program history.
These include number of carries per game (against Maryland), carries in a season, 15 career 100-yard games (ranked second), career rushing yards per game (104.8, also ranked second), and career rushing yards (ranked fourth).
His number 39 has been retired by the program.
Miami Selects Csonka and Builds a Contender
In 1966, the Miami Dolphins were named an expansion franchise with the American Football League.
For the next two years, head coach George Wilson began building the team from scratch.
After a 3-11 inaugural season in 1966, Miami drafted Purdue quarterback Bob Griese in the first round of the 1967 draft.
Griese coaxed the team to four wins that year.
In the 1968 draft, the Dolphins selected Csonka with the eighth overall pick in the first round.
Only 8 days until the 2021 NFL Draft!
The @MiamiDolphins drafted Larry Csonka No. 8 overall in the 1968 NFL Draft!
Csonka's Career Stats (Dolphins Franchise Rank)
6,737 Rush Yds (1st)
53 Rush TDs (1st)
4.5 Yds/Rush (2nd)*
*Min 750 Attempts pic.twitter.com/bYjDINCrS4
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) April 21, 2021
A few rounds later, the Fins added safety Dick Anderson from Colorado then running back Jim Kiick from Wyoming in the fifth round.
As a bonus, Utah defensive end Manny Fernandez was added as an undrafted free agent.
Csonka started 10 games in his rookie year and then 11 games in 1969.
Due to his hard-charging running style, Csonka’s first two seasons were marred by severe concussions that nearly ended his career.
According to former Miami teammate Nick Buoniconti, if it wasn’t for Don Shula, who arrived in 1970 after Wilson was fired, Csonka’s NFL career might have been short-lived.
“There was some question [after the 1969 season] whether Csonka would ever play fullback again, not just because of injuries but because he didn’t play well,” Buoniconti said. “When Shula came in [in 1970] he literally had to teach Csonka how to run with the football. He used to run straight up and down and Shula impressed upon him that he had to lead with his forearm rather than his head.”
As an insurance policy against Csonka’s injuries, Miami drafted West Texas State running back “Mercury” Morris in the third round of the 1969 draft.
That same offseason also saw the drafting of Georgia defensive end Bill Stanfill and the addition of former Boston Patriot linebacker Buoniconti.
Csonka Hits the Ground Running
Shortly after the ‘69 season ended, the Dolphins fired Wilson and hired Shula away from the Baltimore Colts.
Wilson was bitter over the firing as he felt that, although the franchise had only won 15 games in their first four years, the roster was showing promise.
Shula arrived, and the Fins added receiver Paul Warfield, linemen Larry Little, Bob Kuechenberg, and Jim Langer, safety Jake Scott, and kicker Garo Yepremian.
Shula and his staff went to work on molding the team into a cohesive unit.
They rebuilt Csonka’s running style as well, which led to 874 yards rushing and six touchdowns in 1970, and he was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
A closeup of Miami Dolphins Larry Csonka on the sidelines during game vs Buffalo Bills Oct 18, 1970
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) April 8, 2022
It was a big improvement for Csonka as his injuries the previous two years had limited him to just over 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns total (including two receiving scores).
Miami began clicking on all cylinders and went 10-4, the most wins in franchise history at the time.
The Dolphins made their first playoff appearance after the year and lost to the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional round.
Super Bowl Run and Undefeated in 1972
1970 proved to be just a foreshadow of what was to come for Miami.
As 1971 began, Shula had the team practicing like they were preparing for war.
Throughout the year, the trio of Csonka, Kiick, and Morris wore opponents down, while Griese kept them honest through the air.
Not to be outdone, Miami’s “No Name” defense intimidated offenses all season.
Csonka rushed for 1,051 yards (including a league-leading 5.4 yards per carry average) and eight total touchdowns including one receiving.
He was voted to his second Pro Bowl and also received first-team All-Pro recognition.
The team won 10 games again, then defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in two overtimes in the Divisional round followed by a victory over the Colts in the AFC Championship game.
In just their sixth season, the Fins were Super Bowl VI bound to face the Dallas Cowboys.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys proved too tough to handle and limited Miami to only a field goal in a 24-3 lopsided win.
During the contest, Csonka was held to 40 yards rushing.
Undeterred, the team returned with a vengeance in 1972.
Miami was akin to a buzz saw that year as they went 14-0 during the regular season.
Csonka ran over and through opponents on his way to a career-best 1,117 yards and six scores.
Larry Csonka led the AFC in 1972 in looking like a guy who would beat you up for using fancy words he doesn't understand. pic.twitter.com/7Q2Jet31rG
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) December 24, 2021
He then went to his third Pro Bowl and was named a second-team All-Pro.
During the ‘72 playoffs, the Fins beat Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds before facing the “Over the Hill Gang” Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
Csonka was the leading rusher during the game, racking up 112 yards.
Both defenses kept the score low and it was 14-0, Miami, with just a few minutes remaining.
Then, on a field goal try by Yepremian, the kick was blocked and the ball bounced back to Yepremian.
The kicker picked up the ball and desperately tried to throw it to Csonka, who was blocking on the play.
Comically, the ball slipped from Yepremian’s hand and went straight into the air.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 14, 2022
His attempt to then bat the pigskin to the turf was picked off by Washington’s Mike Bass who returned the pick 49 yards for the Redskins’ only score of the day.
Thankfully “Garo’s Gaffe” didn’t keep Miami from destiny, and they won the game 14-7 to complete the only undefeated season in NFL history.
Super Bowl MVP
By now the Dolphins were on a roll.
They blew through the 1973 regular season with a 12-2 record and eliminated Cincinnati and Oakland in the playoffs.
Csonka tallied over 1,000 yards for the third time when he posted 1,003 yards and five touchdowns, resulting in his fourth Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors.
For the third straight year, Miami was in a championship game.
This time, they faced the Minnesota Vikings and their fabled “Purple People Eaters” defense in Super Bowl VIII.
Vikings fans would end up being disappointed as their defense was nowhere to be found during the game.
Larry Csonka, Super Bowl VIII MVP,#Dolphins
145 yards of savagery pic.twitter.com/jdEOPIJRjG
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 13, 2022
Csonka had a day for the ages as he abused the Purple People Eaters for 145 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
He was named the game’s MVP for his efforts, and Miami returned to South Florida with a decisive 24-7 victory.
Csonka Leaves for the World Football League
As the euphoria from a second straight world championship was fading, Dolphins fans received bad news in early 1974.
The World Football League was formed as a direct competition to the NFL and would begin play that year.
During its draft in March of 1974, Warfield, Kiick, and Csonka were selected by the Memphis Southmen.
WFL contracts promised to pay more than NFL contracts, and all three men announced that they would be leaving Miami for Memphis after the ‘74 season.
It was no surprise that Kiick and Csonka were leaving together.
They were close friends who also gave each other nicknames.
Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. This photo would mandate a tearful apology press conference today. pic.twitter.com/u1SYUwUULl
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) March 2, 2021
Kiick was known as “Butch Cassidy” and Csonka was “Sundance Kid,” two characters from the 1969 movie of the same name.
During the season, Csonka put together 749 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also voted to his fifth Pro Bowl.
The Dolphins’ magic faded that year as the team lost to the Raiders 28-26 in the Divisional round.
Miami lost in the final 30 seconds when Oakland’s Clarence Davis came down with an improbable touchdown catch among a bevy of Dolphins defenders.
The play was immortalized as the “Sea of Hands.”
Return to the NFL
Kiick, Csonka, and Warfield reported to Memphis, Tennessee in 1975 for their new jobs as Memphis Southmen.
Paul Warfield, Jim Kiick, and Larry Csonka pose at Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis TN around 1975 after the trio of former Dolphins signed with the WFL’s Memphis Southmen. pic.twitter.com/oMrOJ1swk6
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) March 28, 2020
Csonka was excited as he had in hand a new three-year, $1.4 million contract that was guaranteed.
Regrettably, it turned out that the WFL wasn’t the money maker it hoped to be.
Almost from the beginning, the league experienced financial difficulties.
The 1974 season was completed, but before Week 13 of the 1975 season, the WFL ceased operations.
Memphis was a solid team that year with Csonka rushing for 421 yards and a touchdown and Kiick adding 462 yards and nine scores.
Warfield had 25 catches for 422 yards and three touchdowns.
The Southmen franchise then tried to petition the NFL to become an expansion franchise but was rebuffed.
Now a free agent, Csonka was signed by the New York Giants.
The Miracle at the Meadowlands
New York desperately hoped that Csonka would help the franchise return to the postseason for the first time since 1963.
He was having a fairly good season through the first 12 games of 1976 (569 yards and four touchdowns) before a knee injury kept him out the remainder of the year.
The following season, Csonka had 464 yards and one score as the Giants improved from three wins in ‘76 to five wins in 1977.
In 1978, Csonka began showing his age and mustered just 311 yards, yet added six touchdowns.
During a Week 12 game against the Philadelphia Eagles in New York’s Meadowlands Sports Complex, the Giants held a 17-12 advantage and had the ball with less than a minute to play.
At the time, quarterbacks were not permitted to kneel down and run out the clock.
So, the Giants coaching staff called a handoff to Csonka up the middle.
When the ball was snapped, it hit Giants’ quarterback Joe Pisarcik’s hands awkwardly and he turned to handoff to Csonka.
On this date in 1978. Herm Edwards. The Miracle at the Meadowlands. You play to win the game!
— Honest☘️Larry (@HonestLarry1) November 19, 2021
The ball instead hit the running back’s hip and fell to the turf.
Meanwhile, the Eagles were blitzing and defensive back Herman Edwards gathered the loose ball and returned it for the game-winning touchdown.
Eagles players immediately began celebrating, and the play became known as the “Miracle at the Meadowlands.”
The win helped Philadelphia stay alive for a berth in the ‘78 postseason and led to the firing of New York coach John McVay.
Back to Miami
Csonka’s contract with the Giants ended after the 1978 season, and the franchise let him walk.
The Dolphins reached out and signed their former star for the 1979 season.
Feb 22, 1979: FB Larry Csonka, 32, re-signed with @MiamiDolphins as a free agent after four-year absence in the World Football League (1975) and with the NFL’s New York Giants (1976-78). Scored 13 TDs and named NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Then he retired. pic.twitter.com/PekGpbjWkg
— Jack Eich (@jackeichsays) February 22, 2020
That year, Csonka seemed rejuvenated and rushed for 837 yards, his best since the 1973 season.
He also had a career-high 13 touchdowns that included one receiving score.
Miami went 10-6 in ‘79 and played the Steelers in the Divisional round.
During the game, Csonka scored a touchdown from a yard out but it was too little, too late.
Pittsburgh won the game easily 34-14.
Csonka won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award and looked ready to play again in 1980.
However, Dolphins management and Csonka couldn’t agree on numbers for a new contract, and he decided to retire rather than try to sign with a new team.
In 11 years, Csonka had totals of 8,081 yards, 64 rushing touchdowns, 106 catches for 820 yards, and four more scores.
He was a two-time first-team All-Pro, a second-team All-Pro once, five-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl winner, and Super Bowl MVP.
Csonka’s number 39 was retired by Miami, and he has since been added to the organization’s Honor Roll.
After leaving the NFL, Csonka stayed active.
He appeared in several television and movie roles and also worked in various capacities for the USFL and NBC.
When six million dollars isn’t enough to get the job done you call Larry Csonka. pic.twitter.com/tYi6z60DfV
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) December 9, 2021
In 1987, Csonka was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
By that time, he had begun spending more time in Alaska, which was a dream come true for Csonka.
“I was 9 years old and on a farm in Ohio growing up, had never heard about Alaska,” Csonka said in 2019. “When I saw a picture of a Kodiak bear on the front of the hunting/fishing magazine my mother had bought me at the supermarket that day. I sat right down and read the entire article and had designs on going to Alaska for the next 30 years before I finally got there.”
His love of the Alaskan outdoors led to Csonka hosting a series of hunting and fishing shows for OLN and ESPN 2 that ran until 2019.
Csonka and his partner, Audrey Bradshaw, currently reside in Wasilla, Alaska.