It’s tough to be both athlete and businessman,” says Larry Csonka. The thought of a muscle-headed jock worrying over P&L statements once was unimaginable. No more. Csonka, the Miami Dolphins’ 28-year-old fullback is a perfect example of the modern pro football superstar, who may study commodities futures and tax laws as closely as he does off-tackle plays and zone defenses.
This summer, professional football is in unprecedented disarray, racked by a players’ rebellion and talent raids by the new World Football League. The 6’3″, 240-lb. Csonka, like every other National Football League veteran, has been wrestling with his conscience—and his pocketbook—over whether to honor the Players Association strike against the team owners. He also was looking after his share of the more than $3.5 million used to lure him and two other members of the Super Bowl champion Dolphins to the new World League for the 1975 season. The financial problems don’t end there for Csonka. The fullback has turned himself into a bull-shouldered conglomerate, branching out into acting, investment counseling, real estate and, in the future, breeding Black Angus cattle on a ranch in Ohio.
Csonka grew up on a farm near Stow, Ohio and began working at a tender age on the reputation that has awed pro football. When he was 3, he bit the family dog. (“He bit me first,” Csonka recalls defensively.) He parlayed his rough-and-tumble farm background and a massive but fast-moving body into a running style that conjures images of an elephant stampeding downhill. His ability to carry hundreds of pounds of would-be tacklers across yards of chalk-striped grass won him a scholarship at Syracuse University, where he broke school rushing records. It also earned him a fierce reputation as a hard-nose. (His actual proboscis has been broken ten times.)
“I’ve read that I’m hard and mean,” Csonka says. “Well, I am that way on the field—I have to be. But the rest is a paper and ink image.”
Since he joined the Dolphins as their first draft choice in 1968, Csonka has nonetheless cultivated that image, unofficially leading the league in bloody uniforms. He also is credited with one of the few personal foul penalties ever meted out to a ballcarrier when, early in his pro career, he whacked Buffalo safety John Pitts for having the audacity to try to tackle him.
He and Dolphin teammate Jim Kiick became known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because of their havoc on the field and their back-pounding, good-ole-boy friendship off.
Now, however, after six seasons, two consecutive Super Bowl victories and the most valuable player award (in the 1974 win over Minnesota), Csonka has matured into an elder statesman in shoulder pads.
“The primary reason I thought of the World Football League and the chance to make money is that I’m a very old man at my playing position,” Csonka says. Yet he ran for 1,003 yards last season, and his age did not deter WFL franchise-holders John Bassett Jr. and John Eaton from paying nearly $4 million for his services, along with Kiick’s and Paul Warfield’s. The deal will make Csonka financially secure even if he is injured in his last year with the Dolphins or suddenly loses his ability to stomp defensemen.
Though Dolphin coach Don Shula has resolutely if grumpily avoided any bridge-burning criticism of his three lame ducks, the managing partner of the team, Joe Robbie, is suing them. Csonka says of his final season with Miami, “I intend to play football all-out. I have to be totally involved. My feeling is with the coach and the team, not management.”
Although Csonka has been mostly a bystander in the labor-management scrimmaging of the players’ strike, the would-be tycoon in him is offended. “The entire situation is chaos, a scandal rather than a rational thing,” he says. “The players’ demands are too vast. The owners are still paternalistic. My point would be to narrow down the issues to a few important ones and then negotiate. If football is a big business, it should be handled like big business.”
That is exactly how Csonka is handling his life these days. But he and his wife Pam, who were married when Csonka was a junior in college, have two sons, Douglas, 7, and Paul, 5. And Csonka says that his soon-to-be opened investment firm and his budding acting career (the Sonny and Cher show, a segment of Emergency) are means, not ends.
“I’ve set goals regarding money and business,” he says, “but not at the sacrifice of my family and their love. When we had our first baby, the doctor walked out and handed me that little red wrinkled thing barely three breaths into life and said, ‘Here is your son.’ Well, that’s what it’s all about.”