"We used to play them a lot back then so we knew everybody and they knew us. It was a rivalry at that point. It wasn't Dolphins and Jets, but we played them enough to where it was a good rivalry and it was always fun to play that team."
The Miami Dolphins last Super Bowl appearance required the team to exorcise some demons. Former Dolphins defensive end/outside linebacker Kim Bokamper played in 127 games from 1977-1985, all for Miami. He also played in 13 postseason games, leaving the field victorious in six.
With losses in the opening game of the 1978, 1979 and 1981 playoffs, it wasn't revenge that fueled those Dolphins teams. It was the same goal every year.
"Our goal wasn't to beat the San Diego Chargers or anybody else," Bokamper said. "Our goal was to get to the Super Bowl. That's what drove us."
And that's where that season ended, at the Rose Bowl against Washington for football's ultimate prize. However, as coy as he tried to play it, Bokamper couldn't help but admit that losing to the Chargers in 1982, after what happened in 1981, was not an option.
"Having met them a year later in the divisional round, we weren't going to let that happen again," Bokamper said. "We remembered everything and we were dead set on not letting that happen again."
The loss that created the possibility of a revenge game is known as The Epic in Miami; a 41-38 shootout that went deep into overtime. The back-and-forth affair ended when the Chargers put a 29-yard field goal through the uprights to advance to the AFC Championship game.
After beginning his Dolphins coaching career with an 8-2 mark in the postseason, Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Shula was facing a three-game playoff losing streak over the span of four years. Even as the Epic in Miami turned towards the Chargers, Shula had his team believing throughout the entirety of the game.
Shula was many things: leader, disciplinarian, the winningest coach in the history of the National Football League. Perhaps above all of that was his unrelating strength and willpower.
"The sheer willpower and unwillingness of Don Shula to give up kind of pushed us back into that game where we went into overtime and had a number of chances to win the game," Bokamper said. "We just didn't do it."
Coaches don't last without the mental fortitude described by Bokamper, but they're just as liable to flame out in the absence of an adaptive mindset. Shula oversaw one of the NFL's all-time great rushing attacks spearheaded by a collection great backs. Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick helped lead Miami to back-to-back Super Bowls before Shula would go on to coach arguably the most transcendent quarterback to ever play the game in Dan Marino.
Shula's penchant for innovation helped create the most memorable play in one of the league's most memorable games; the play that originally put Miami back in the game after the 24-0 deficit.
"The hook and lateral play worked to perfection with Tony Nathan, Duriel Harris and Don Strock," Bokamper said. "I didn't even see it. I was sitting on the sideline with my head in the oxygen tank. I look up and said 'what the hell happened?' (Defensive end) Doug Betters told me they ran the hook and lateral, and it worked! We saw it in practice 50 times and it never worked. Then, of course, we get in the game and it works."
The unwillingness of Shula to give up became present once more. As the razzle dazzle of the hook and lateral failed repeatedly in practice, Shula and his staff remained diligent in correcting it and perfecting the play.
"Even though you may not have run it properly, Shula corrected it in film study and told you what you were doing wrong," Bokamper said. "When Shula or (Defensive Coordinator) Bill Arnsparger asked you to do something, the recall was there. They knew how to do it properly and they executed it. It really was one of the iconic plays in the National Football League."
Unfortunately, the magnitude of iconic plays doesn't determine winners and losers in the NFL. The Chargers would seize victory thanks in large part to tight end Kellen Winslow. The Hall of Fame tight end put together a 13 reception, 166-yard performance with a touchdown and a blocked field goal.
Winslow said after the game that he had never felt so close to death, evident by his teammates helping him off the field.
That classic moment is remembered a little bit differently among the Dolphins alumni who shared the field with Winslow that night.
"After the game, I was still down on my knees and a friend of mine had somehow gotten down on the field," Bokamper said. "He came up to me and said 'what a great game, come on let's go.' I said 'you gotta go because it's going to take me a while to get off the field.' We were all tired as hell."
Eventually, unlike Winslow, Bokamper would walk off the field unassisted. Legendary Dolphins offensive guard Bob Kuechenberg was a little more brash in his feelings, according to Bokamper.
"Kuechenberg, who was never one to mince words, said 'look at Kellen Winslow dragging off the field. I played every down, I would be embarrassed to be dragged off the field like that.' Some guys said Winslow should've gotten an Academy Award," Bokamper said.
The Dolphins walked off the field that night in defeat, but the story would have a different ending one year and 14 days later.
After finishing the strike-shortened season 7-2, Miami breezed past New England in the Wild Card Round before welcoming the Chargers back to South Florida. Just as San Diego had done the year prior, a 24-0 lead opened up but this time Miami was in control and never looked back. Early, after his first sack, Bokamper warned Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts how the game was going to play out.
"I sacked Fouts early in the game," he said. "And I usually didn't say much, but I remember coming around the corner, beating Billy Shields and sacking Fouts. I just said, 'get ready because it's going to be like this all day long.'"
The Dolphins would hold onto the lead and win going away, 34-17. Miami blanked the Jets 14-0 in the AFC Championship game the following week before falling short to Washington at the Rose Bowl. Amid all the postseason success and big games in his career, Bokamper remembers The Epic the most.
"It was one of the greatest games I ever played in," Bokamper said. "The emotion of playing in a playoff game and the emotion of playing the Chargers – it was the game of the decade in the 80's."