Larry Csonka

American football player (born 1946)

American football player
Larry Csonka
refer to caption
Csonka in 1972
No. 39
Personal information
Born: (1946-12-25) December 25, 1946 (age 77)
Stow, Ohio, U.S.
Height:6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight:237 lb (108 kg)
Career information
High school:Stow-Munroe Falls (Stow, Ohio)
College:Syracuse (1965–1967)
NFL draft:1968 / Round: 1 / Pick: 8
Career history
  • Miami Dolphins (1968–1974)
  • Memphis Southmen (1975)
  • New York Giants (1976–1978)
  • Miami Dolphins (1979)
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Rushing yards:8,081
Rushing average:4.3
Rushing touchdowns:64
Receiving yards:820
Receiving touchdowns:4
Pro Football Hall of Fame
College Football Hall of Fame

Larry Richard Csonka (/ˈzɒŋkə/; born December 25, 1946) is an American former professional football fullback in the National Football League (NFL) for the Miami Dolphins for the majority of his career, along with the New York Giants for three years. He also had a short stint with the Memphis Southmen in the WFL. Nicknamed "Zonk", Csonka is widely regarded as one of the greatest running backs of all time.[1] Csonka is mostly remembered for his success during his tenure with the Dolphins, which included being a member of their 17–0 perfect season in 1972, and winning Super Bowl championships in 1972 and 1973, the latter of which he was named Super Bowl MVP when he ran for a then-record 145 yards. He was also a commentator for the original run of American Gladiators.

A five-time Pro Bowler, and three-time first-team All-Pro, Csonka remains to this day as the Miami Dolphins franchise's all-time leading rusher with 6,737 yards and 53 touchdowns. In his last year with the Dolphins in 1979, Csonka also won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Csonka was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. Csonka is also currently one of three former Miami Dolphins to have his jersey number (#39) retired—alongside Bob Griese (#12, 1985) and Dan Marino (#13, 2000) -- with his being the most recent, in 2002.


One of six children, Csonka was born in the Akron suburb of Stow, Ohio, where he was raised on a farm by his Hungarian family.[2]

High school career

Csonka began his football career at Stow High School in Stow, Ohio. He was the starting fullback on the 1962 Stow Bulldogs football team that won the Metropolitan League of the Akron-area championship under coach Dick Fortner. Csonka played for Stow from 1960 to 1963. He was also a wrestler while in high school.[3]

Csonka would become a running back by accident. Because of his size, he played defensive end on the varsity team as a sophomore. In the last game that year, he was sent in as a substitute on the kickoff return team. The ball just happened to go to him and he took off running with it. Csonka wrote,

I ran over two tacklers before I realized what I was doing. 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.[4]

College career

Csonka was recruited by Clemson, Iowa, Vanderbilt, and Syracuse. He chose Syracuse, where he played middle linebacker in his first season before being switched to fullback from 1965 to 1967, the position where he was named an All-American. He established many of the school's rushing records, breaking several that had been held by Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, Floyd Little, and Jim Brown.

In his three seasons at Syracuse, Csonka rushed for a school-record 2,934 yards, rushed for 100 yards in 14 different games, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. From 1965 to 1967, he ranked 19th, ninth and fifth in the nation in rushing. He was the Most Valuable Player in the East–West Shrine Game, the Hula Bowl, and the College All-Star Game. In 1989, he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Professional career

Miami and the Super Bowl years

Csonka was the No. 1 pick by the American Football League's Miami Dolphins in the 1968 Common Draft, the eighth player and first running back drafted in the first round. He signed a three-year contract that paid him a signing bonus of $34,000 (equivalent to $298,000 in 2023) and a car, and a salary of $20,000 (equivalent to $175,000 in 2023), then $25,000 (equivalent to $219,000 in 2023), then $30,000 (equivalent to $263,000 in 2023) each year.[5]

Csonka's pro career got off to a shaky start. In the fifth game of the 1968 season, at home against Buffalo, he was knocked out and suffered a concussion when his head hit the ground during a tackle. He spent two days in the hospital. Three weeks later at San Diego, he suffered another concussion, plus a ruptured eardrum and a broken nose.[6] There was talk he might have to give up football. He missed three games in 1968 and three more in 1969. Writes his teammate Nick Buoniconti,

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 ... 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. Shula and his backfield coach Carl Taseff basically reengineered Csonka to where he became the Hall of Fame player. Csonka emerged as the offensive leader of the Dolphins ...[7]

Over the next four seasons, Csonka never missed a game, and he led the Dolphins in rushing the next five seasons. Writes teammate Jim Langer, "Csonka had the utmost respect of every player on the team, offense and defense."[8] By the 1970s he was one of the most feared runners in professional football. Standing 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m) and 235 lb (107 kg), he was one of the biggest running backs of his day and pounded through the middle of the field with relative ease, often dragging tacklers 5–10 yards. He was described as a bulldozer or battering ram. His running style reminded people of a legendary power runner from the 1930s, Bronko Nagurski. Said Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jeff Siemon after Super Bowl VIII, "It's not the collision that gets you. It's what happens after you tackle him. His legs are just so strong he keeps moving. He carries you. He's a movable weight."[9] He rarely fumbled the ball or dropped a pass, and he was an excellent blocker.

Stories abound about Csonka's toughness. He broke his nose about ten times playing football in high school, college, and the pros, causing it to be permanently deformed, and he would remain in the game with blood pouring out of it. He may be the only running back to receive a personal foul for unnecessary roughness while running the ball, when in a game against the Buffalo Bills in 1970, he knocked out safety John Pitts with a forearm shot that was more like a right cross.[10] In a close game against the Minnesota Vikings in the perfect season of 1972, Csonka was hit in the back by linebacker Roy Winston in a tackle so grotesque it was shown on The Tonight Show. Csonka thought his back was broken and he actually crawled off the field. Once on the sideline, he "walked it off" and in a few minutes was back in the game. His return to the game was crucial, as the winning touchdown pass to tight end Jim Mandich was set up by a fake to Csonka. He was named the 10th toughest football player of all time in the 1996 NFL Films production The NFL's 100 Toughest Players. Dolphins' offensive line coach Monte Clark was asked about Csonka's bruising running style, and he responded, "When Csonka goes on safari, the lions roll up their windows."[11]

The Dolphins had one of professional football's best rushing attacks in the early 1970s. The Dolphins led the NFL in rushing in 1971 and 1972, setting a new rushing record in 1972 at 2,960 yards. Csonka's 1,117 yards that season combined with Mercury Morris contributing exactly 1,000 yards made them the first 1,000 yard rushing duo in NFL history. That rushing attack led the Dolphins to Super Bowls VI, VII, and VIII, with victories in the last two. Csonka's powerful running style set the tone for the ball-control Dolphins. He chose to run through defenders instead of around them, leading to three straight 1,000-yard seasons (1971–1973) and two seasons (1971–1972) in which he averaged more than 5 yards per carry, amazing for a fullback. His 5.4 yards per carry average in 1971 led the NFL.[12] Teammate Bob Kuechenberg said that Csonka was the best back he ever saw for turning a 2-yard gain into a 5-yard gain. "The line got him the start, he got the finish and it added up to 4 or 5 yards every time," said Kuechenberg.[13] Csonka's 1971 season was also the only year in the 1970s that a running back gained over 1,000 rushing yards without a single fumble.

During the 1971 off-season, Csonka starred in the critically well-received off-Broadway play of "Larry Csonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Due to financial backing and Larry's contract with the Dolphins barring him from any off-season "strenuous activity", the play never gained commercial success, but for his efforts Csonka was nominated in the 1972 Obie Award for best Actor, where he eventually lost to Douglas Rain for his role in Vivat!Vivat Regina!

During the 1972 season, the Dolphins became the only team since the AFL–NFL Merger to go undefeated, and Csonka was an instrumental part of the success, rushing for a career-best 1,117 yards. Csonka led all rushers in Super Bowl VII with 112 yards on only 15 carries. Late in the third quarter, Csonka had a run that epitomized his style. After breaking several tackles near the line of scrimmage, he rumbled for 49 yards. Near the end of that run, Washington Redskins cornerback Pat Fischer, who was known as a fearless and gritty tackler, came up to try to tackle Csonka. Instead of trying to avoid Fischer, Csonka actually turned toward him and threw a forearm at him, brushing the 175-pound Fischer aside.

In 1973, Csonka was voted Super Athlete of the Year by the Professional Football Writers Association.[2] That season, the Dolphins won a second straight title and "Zonk", as he was known, was the Super Bowl VIII MVP. Exploiting brilliant blocking by his offensive line, he rushed 33 times for two touchdowns and a then-record 145 yards.

Csonka and his friend, Dolphins running back Jim Kiick, were known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The August 7, 1972 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a profile of Csonka and Kiick. This issue has become a collector's item because of the cover photograph of Csonka and Kiick by famed Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss, with Csonka (inadvertently) making an obscene gesture with the middle finger of his right hand. In 1973, Csonka and Kiick, in collaboration with sportswriter Dave Anderson, wrote a book, Always on the Run. (A second edition, with an additional chapter covering the 1973 season, Super Bowl VIII, and their signing with the World Football League was published in 1974.) Csonka and Kiick discuss their childhoods, their college football careers, their sometimes stormy relationship with Don Shula, their experiences as pro football players, and the sometimes outrageous behavior of their teammates. The book provides insight into the history of the Dolphins and the state of pro football in the late 1960s and early and mid-1970s.

Move to WFL

In March 1974, he was selected second overall in the WFL Pro Draft. The same month, Csonka, Kiick, and Dolphin wide receiver Paul Warfield, announced they had signed contracts to play with Toronto in the fledgling World Football League starting in 1975. Csonka signed a three-year guaranteed contract for a salary of $1.4 million. While their signings are credited with giving the WFL credibility, the league was plagued by financial problems from its start. The three played for the Memphis Southmen, but Csonka and the others had minimal success and the league folded midway through its second season. Csonka carried the ball 99 times for 421 yards for 1 touchdown for Memphis in 1975.[14]

Giants and return to NFL

A free agent again, he joined the New York Giants in 1976, along with Memphis coach John McVay.[15] (The Giants' head coach at the time was Bill Arnsparger, who had previously been the Dolphins' defensive coordinator.) He tore ligaments in his knee, prematurely ending his first season there. He blamed the injury in part on Giants Stadium's artificial turf, and has been a vocal critic of the surface and its injury potential ever since,[16] (The Giants currently use a newer, more flexible Fieldturf). When the Giants started the season 0–7, Arnsparger was fired and replaced by McVay.[17]

Two seasons later, he was on the field for The Miracle at the Meadowlands, the play that for years epitomized Giants' fans exasperation with the franchise's long-term mediocrity. On November 19, 1978, New York had apparently secured a 17–12 victory over the favored Philadelphia Eagles. However, with 31 seconds left to play and the Eagles out of timeouts, offensive coordinator Bob Gibson overruled quarterback Joe Pisarcik and called for the ball to be handed off to Csonka for a run up the middle, as Gibson felt Pisarcik was risking too much injury falling on the ball in an era before the quarterback kneel to run out the clock was common. However, Pisarcik botched the handoff and Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards returned the fumbled ball 29 yards for the winning touchdown.[18] The Giants went into a tailspin afterwards, and finished 6–10 after a hopeful start.[19]

The Giants let McVay go after the season ended. Csonka's contract was up, too, and he returned to Miami the next year.[20] He ran for over 800 yards, his best since their Super Bowl days, and rushed for a career-high 12 touchdowns while catching one more.[21] Csonka won Comeback Player of the Year for his 1979 season. Unable to come to terms with the Dolphins on a new contract, he retired after the year was over.

In his 11 NFL seasons, Csonka carried the ball 1,891 times for 8,081 yards and 64 touchdowns. He also caught 106 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns.[22] He was among the NFL's top 10 ranked players in rushing yards four times, in rushing touchdowns five times, total touchdowns three times and yards from the line of scrimmage once. He earned All-AFC honors four times and was named All-Pro in 1971, 1972, and 1973. He was also selected to play in five Pro Bowls.

NFL career statistics

Led the league
Won the Super Bowl
Super Bowl MVP
Bold Career high

Regular season

Year Team Games Rushing Receiving Fum
GP GS Att Yds Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Avg Lng TD
1968 MIA 11 10 138 540 3.9 40 6 11 118 10.7 65 1 1
1969 MIA 11 11 131 566 4.3 54 2 21 183 8.7 42 1 3
1970 MIA 14 14 193 874 4.5 53 6 11 94 8.5 54 0 3
1971 MIA 14 14 195 1,051 5.4 28 7 13 113 8.7 25 1 0
1972 MIA 14 14 213 1,117 5.2 45 6 5 48 9.6 14 0 2
1973 MIA 14 14 219 1,003 4.6 25 5 7 22 3.1 9 0 3
1974 MIA 12 11 197 749 3.8 24 9 7 35 5.0 11 0 2
1975 MEM 99 421 4.3 13 1 5 54 10.8 25 1 [23]
1976 NYG 12 12 160 569 3.6 13 4 6 39 6.5 14 0 2
1977 NYG 14 13 134 464 3.5 15 1 2 20 10.0 12 0 0
1978 NYG 14 12 91 311 3.4 12 6 7 73 10.4 23 0 0
1979 MIA 16 16 220 837 3.8 22 12 16 75 4.7 18 1 4
Career 146 141 1,891 8,081 4.3 54 64 106 820 7.7 65 4 21

After football

Larry Csonka in 2013

Since his retirement, he has become a motivational speaker and has hosted several hunting and fishing shows for the NBC Sports Network (formerly OLN and Versus). Csonka has been featured in many shows, such as The Ed Sullivan Show, and had a role in the 1970s medical drama Emergency! He played the part of commander Delaney in the 1976 movie Midway. He worked for the United States Football League (USFL) Jacksonville Bulls in the mid-1980s, first as director of scouting and then as general manager. Csonka was also a color analyst for NFL games on NBC in 1988, and an analyst for the syndicated show American Gladiators from 1990 to 1993 (seasons 2 through 4).

Csonka was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 and his #39 was retired by the Miami Dolphins in 2002. He is one of 11 Dolphins (Jim Langer, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield, Larry Little, Dwight Stephenson, Nick Buoniconti, Jason Taylor, Dan Marino, Don Shula and Zach Thomas) in the Hall of Fame. Csonka was named a member of the Super Bowl Dream Team in an NFL Films production.

Between 1985 and 1990 Csonka started spending time in Alaska, eventually living most of the year in Anchorage. While observing the 1,161-mile (1,962-km) 2005 Iditarod dog sled race he said, "when I was playing and practicing in that heat in July and August in Miami with shoulder pads on, it just vaporized me".[24]

From 1998 through 2013, Csonka was producer and co-host of Napa's North to Alaska, before retiring the show. Csonka also did Csonka Outdoors, 1998–2005 on ESPN-2 and OLN. In early September 2005, Csonka and five others were returning by boat to the village of Nikolski on Umnak Island in Alaska's Aleutian Islands after filming a reindeer hunt on the island for Csonka's TV show, North to Alaska. The boat was caught in a severe storm and nearly capsized. They rode out the storm for 10 hours before a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter could reach them and rescue them one-by-one in a basket.[25]

Csonka and North to Alaska co-host Audrey Bradshaw currently live in Wasilla, Alaska. He also maintains a farm in Lisbon, Ohio[26] and operates Goodrich Seafood House in Oak Hill, Florida. Csonka currently appears in television commercials for the Alaska Spine Institute, an Anchorage-based physical rehabilitation center.

In November 2013, Csonka was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of "Hometown Hall of Famers," a national program honoring the hometown roots of the sport's greatest coaches, players and contributors with special ceremonies and plaque dedication events in local communities. Csonka was presented with a plaque during a ceremony in the Stow High School gym, where the plaque will stay permanently to serve as an inspiration for the school's students and athletes.[27]

Csonka played a fictional version of himself in the HBO series Ballers and was named head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He also made a cameo with Dolphins legendary former head coach, Don Shula, during a fishing trip.

In 2022, he released a memoir titled Head On.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Gil Brandt's 25 greatest NFL running backs of all time".
  2. ^ a b Csonka's website Archived March 24, 2005, at the Wayback Machine accessed on 10–22–07
  3. ^ Underwood, John. (August 7, 1972). The Blood And Thunder Boys. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved June 4, 2023.
  4. ^ Csonka, Larry, Jim Kiick, with Dave Anderson, Always on the Run, p.101. Random House, 1973 ISBN 0-394-48589-0
  5. ^ Always on the Run, p.187
  6. ^ Hyde, Dave, Still Perfect! The Untold Story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, p90. Dolphins/Curtis Publishing, 2002 ISBN 0-9702677-1-1
  7. ^ Danny Peary, ed., Super Bowl: The Game of Their Lives, pp.100–101. Macmillan, 1997 ISBN 0-02-860841-0
  8. ^ Peary, Super Bowl: The Game of Their Lives, p. 116
  9. ^ Herskowitz, Mickey, "Purple People Eaten by Dolphins," The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America's Greatest Game. Simon and Schuster, 1990 ISBN 0-671-72798-2
  10. ^ Hyde, Still Perfect!, pp. 89–90.
  11. ^ Holmes, Dan (September 17, 2016). "Monte Clark was a master at football's trenches". Vintage Detroit Collection. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  12. ^ "Pro-Football-Reference Larry Csonka". Retrieved July 20, 2007.
  13. ^ Hyde, Still Perfect!, p.96.
  14. ^ "World Football League (1974-1975)". Archived from the original on October 20, 2009. Retrieved May 2, 2021.
  15. ^ Wallace, William N. (April 8, 1976). "Giants Sign Csonka To a Multiyear Pact". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Underwood, John (August 12, 1985). "Just An Awful Toll". Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  17. ^ Katz, Michael (October 26, 1976). "Giants Drop Arnsparger as Coach, Name McVay". The New York Times. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  18. ^ Ellenport, Craig. "The Fumble That Changed Football: Miracle at the Meadowlands, 40 Years Later". ABG-SI LLC. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  19. ^ "1978 New York Giants Rosters, Stats, Schedule, Team Draftees". Sports-Reference, LLC. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  20. ^ Rosen, Ron. "Csonka Mends Fences With Dolphins". WP, LLC. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  21. ^ "Larry Csonka". Sports-Reference, LLC. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  22. ^ "Larry Csonka Career Stats". NFL Enterprises LLC. Retrieved August 27, 2022.
  23. ^ "1975 Memphis Southmen Statistics". Stats Crew. Retrieved September 3, 2023.
  24. ^ Wilstein, Steve (March 8, 2005). "Csonka feels right at Nome at Iditarod". Associated Press. Archived from the original on March 12, 2005. Retrieved May 11, 2017 – via San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
  25. ^ "Csonka reportedly rescued from Bering Sea". ESPN. Associated Press. September 12, 2005. Retrieved January 18, 2023.
  26. ^ Reiner, Michael (February 8, 2024). "Former NFL player with Lisbon connection to help present Super Bowl trophy". WKBN-TV. Retrieved February 8, 2024.
  27. ^ "High school notebook: Larry Csonka to earn honor at Stow on Monday". Akron Beacon Journal. November 20, 2013. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved November 28, 2013.
  28. ^ Oliva, Mike (May 20, 2022). "Dolphins Legend Larry Csonka Releasing a Memoir". Dolphins Talk. Retrieved September 17, 2022.

Further reading

  • Csonka, Larry (October 2022). Head On: A Memoir. Ben Bella Books. ISBN 9781637743256. OCLC 1308793651.

External links

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