He was a combination of toughness and resolve, smarts and tenacity, passion and grit, in so many ways representing what those great Dolphins’ teams of the 1970s were all about.
Former offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg passed away Saturday morning at the far-too-young age of 71 years old. You just know the man they affectionately called “Kooch” was fighting until his last breath. Truth is, he didn’t know any other way.
I’ll fondly remember so many things about Kooch. How eloquent he could be off the field. How violent he could be on it. How he never backed down, always forging straight ahead, clawing and fighting and taking so much pride in the craft he spent years refining. How he came here as a relative unknown, a free agent back in 1970 with only a year of semi-pro ball after a successful college career at Notre Dame. How he was Pro Bowl good, selected six times in a career that spanned 14 seasons, all with the Dolphins.
There’s a reason he was one of Don Shula’s all-time favorites. They just didn’t make them any tougher than Robert John Kuechenberg.
One game, more than anything else, put his entire career in perspective.
Back in Super Bowl VIII against the Minnesota Vikings, Kuechenberg played with a ten-inch alloy rod in his broken left arm that was wrapped in a plaster cast. Team doctors advised him against playing with it. The risks were too great, the pain too severe, the challenge too daunting.
But Kooch never wavered, suiting up for every playoff game that 1973 season and then facing the ultimate opponent, Minnesota’s future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page, in the Super Bowl. I’m not sure Kooch was ever better than he was that day, broken arm and all. Page was a non-factor in the game and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, he was so frustrated, so badly beaten by Kooch, that he was ejected after a late hit on Bob Griese.
Larry Csonka won the MVP of that game, rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns. But Csonka will tell you even today that the honor should have gone to Kuechenberg. “He’s the reason I performed so well,” said Csonka.
See, it wasn’t as if Kuechenberg had extraordinary talent because he really didn’t. He wasn’t overly big or fast and never really was the picture of perfect technique. He was instead simply a throwback, a dirt tough player who never stopped coming at you, who used that toughness and guile to overcome whatever skills he might have lacked.
He was a fighter through and through, the type of guy you always wanted on your side, a winner in so many different ways, as versatile as they come and a player who withstood the test of time, blocking for every quarterback from Griese to Marino.
I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of players come and go over my three-plus decades covering this team. But there truthfully was never anyone quite like Kooch. He was a special breed, a unique mixture of high intellect and unyielding ferocity. I mean one minute he’s throwing out multi syllable words that leave you scratching your head and searching for a dictionary and the next minute you see that unrelenting stare and a level of aggressiveness that was simply off the charts.
“Don’t try to figure out Kooch,” Don Shula once told me. “When they made him, they threw away the mold.”
It’s unfortunate that Kuechenberg never received the ultimate honor, selection into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a finalist for eight consecutive years (2002-09) in the modern day category. You look at some of the other linemen who have made it, and the resume they compiled, and it’s hard to understand why Kuechenberg didn’t join them.
Maybe he wasn’t a big enough name. Maybe with Larry Little and Jim Langer already representing that Super Bowl winning offensive line in the Hall of Fame there just wasn’t room for a third. Maybe history simply didn’t properly portray what he meant to those teams and this organization, how he dominated Alan Page in that Super Bowl and how he maintained a remarkable level of consistency throughout his entire 14-year career.
Perhaps there will someday be a spot for Kuechenberg in Canton, Ohio through the selection of the veterans committee. We can only hope. For now, though, we mourn the loss of one of the great icons of this franchise, a player so crucial to those back-to-back Super Bowl winning teams, a man so relentless in his passion and determined in his mindset.
Thanks, Kooch. We may never again see a player quite like you.