CLEVELAND, Ohio – Larry Csonka had many paths to take in life. The one he usually took was pretty direct: Go down, find the hole, run through it.
There were others, however, including the dirt road she lived near growing up in Stow.
“I grew up in between two dairy farms, 300 or 400 acres on a small piece of 18 acres of land on which we raised a couple of cows,” he said. “The dirt road three quarters of a mile long? Well, the second time I ever saw a school bus I got on it. That tells you how remote we were growing up. “
He sat in the middle of the Csonka clan, with siblings several years older and younger.
“It was very remote. A three-quarter mile dirt road when you’re four is like 20 miles, right? So I grew up with creatures around me, and the older children went to school and I was with mum all day. She had chores to do, and we would wander off in the woods with the dogs.”
He was four months old when his father moved the family to Stow from Akron. His father, raised by Hungarian immigrant parents, had grown up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He lived near South Street in Akron, worked in a movie theater, and after World War II got a job at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
Csonka’s life was full of its share of victories and hard work, rooted in growing up on that farm in Stow. He played football at Syracuse and went on to become part of the famous undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins team. Csonka is out with a comprehensive, fascinating memoir from his life in Northeast Ohio to Syracuse to Miami, to his love of the outdoors and much more. It would be easy to come up with one word to define Csonka: Adventurer.
But those ways. There were always ways on his way to those adventures.
In college, he hiked the 350 miles from Ohio to Syracuse.
“When I did that, I didn’t realize how cold it got on Interstate 90 between Cleveland, Painesville and Syracuse, New York, and how cold you’ll be standing there in February with your thumb out, ” he said.
Csonka was so familiar with the trip that “a relationship developed because I was going back and forth so much, certainly during the heavy part of the winter, that the truck drivers who had routes up there started to recognize me. … I got to know some of those men, and I got to a place where I never stood more than about 20 or 30 minutes before one of them would come by to recognize me.”
The truckers were regular workers, he said. They got a kick out of a kid holding a cardboard sign advertising ‘frozen footballer’ or something like that. And the drivers who rolled over to Cleveland, Buffalo or Erie, Pennsylvania, they had someone to talk to.
“After I did it about six or eight times I got to where I started to remember who was presenting what on which day,” said Csonka.
Csonka wouldn’t know it, but one of the cities he would pass by – Painesville – would become part of his life. This was the hometown of Don Shula, who played at John Carroll University.
Shula was a young coach – even younger when his Baltimore Colts were shut out in the 1964 championship by the Cleveland Browns, 27-0. The young coach and the young running back did not see eye to eye, and they let each other know.
Calling Shula bold is like saying Bobby Knight is a bit impatient. His practices pushed players in the south Florida heat, play after play, drill after drill, run after run.
“We didn’t have to do this in Cleveland,” Csonka quotes Paul Warfield, another Ohioan who played for Ohio State and then the Browns and Dolphins.
“Shula and I probably have something in common because of our childhood and growing up in northeast Ohio,” Csonka said. “Our appreciation for Euclid Beach. And growing up in Ohio, which was a great place, especially if you like nature. It was quoted a bit more.”
In the book, Csonka’s perspective on Shula is a mature one – it took a while to warm to the other. But after a few seasons, Csonka eventually saw through to the coach’s goal: The means to the finish were getting worse, but the final game was to make sure every player knew he was part of a team.
As much of a team player as Csonka, there is an individual satisfaction that emerges – in print and when he speaks – with the former running back, a bruiser who was smart enough to find holes and competitive enough to make defenses pay when they do find it.
“Head On” shows that there is more to Csonka than football life. Unlike Csonka’s running style – catch ball, find hole, pierce through – the book takes a different approach. It’s wild, bouncing between different places and periods. But it’s all easy to read and easy to follow.
Csonka can’t really be pierced. He is a child who became fascinated with the outdoors after his mother gave him a Field & Stream magazine with a cover story on Alaska. He loved the challenges of outdoor life, loved winning on the field. He was content with the solitary life of remote Alaska, but he enjoyed tailgating after Dolphins games with his fans. And he had a tremendous friendship with his backfield friend Jim Kiick.
“Football was important, college was important. But I really needed to spend one day a week fishing,” he writes.
Now, it’s the family that keeps him on the ground. His visits to Alaska are down to four to six weeks a year after previously spending six or seven months in the state.
“But I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren now, and trying to get all of them scattered between Massachusetts, Ohio and Florida to come up is quite an undertaking. So it’s easier to be located in North Carolina, where they’re all driving distance from here. “
He likes to harvest elk or caribou meat, as well as bring back fish to “fill the freezer.”
“I’m a big believer in eating wild versus conventional game for health reasons, and for sporting reasons, too. It gives me a reason to be out there.”
Csonka splits time between North Carolina, Florida and a farm in Lisbon, Ohio, a village about 90 miles southeast of Cleveland. He still has family in the area. And it’s a good bet he’ll be watching Sunday’s game, considering he’s following the Browns, Dolphins and Giants.
He will watch the games and, of course, win-loss records when teams start the season undefeated. Rumors of Champagne toasts between ’72 teammates were dispelled when the last undefeated team finally lost.
“Oh, you have no idea,” he said, laughing. “(Manny) Fernandez, (Dick) Anderson — there’s a few guys, we’re talking. If they go past 4-0, 5-0, we start talking and we start communicating and the chant starts. We’ll end up around a TV set and put the hex on them.”
“I don’t know about Champagne – we have a bit of beer when we make it. Some of the guys had sparkled with Champagne glasses because someone had lost and that got carried into the media like that, but believe me, the Miami Dolphins weren’t Champagne drinkers, they were beer drinkers.”
The game he is watching is one that has evolved and changed a lot from the grass fields he used to walk across when he was playing. He watches with a critical eye, but he does not scream, bitter “back in my day!” type. He recognizes that the speed of a passing game can be more dangerous than a running approach, when players collide violently, but they don’t pick up the same speed as a receiver down the field.
“The rules have to change because the game is changing,” he said. “The power blocking and ball control give way to rule changes about the passing game which makes the game much more understandable and enjoyable for the fan. And that’s what football has changed from – a game of participation for satisfaction to a game of craftsmanship for the fans. And that is why it has evolved towards the passing game.
“When you’re a fan and you look at the power play, which happens in less than a second to a second and a half, you don’t understand the intricacies of the timing that goes on between the people because nothing but she is one. a big cluster of where you sit in the stands.”
Csonka knows what he is talking about. As he wrote: “My bag was power running. Secondary effort was my calling card.”
He returns to his roots in Ohio once or twice a year. Sometimes he hunts deer.
“I don’t go out and chase the deer as much anymore,” he said. “I get a kick out of sitting in a deer stand with my brother. Sometimes we make it to the deer stand, sometimes we don’t even get out of the cabin. We smoke cigars on the porch, watching our sons and our grandchildren.”
It’s okay. Csonka has earned the right to get off the road and relax.
About Csonka: He will turn 76 on December 25, Christmas Day. He played 11 years (1968-1979) in the NFL for Miami Dolphins (eight seasons) and New York Giants (three seasons). He played one year, 1975, in the World Football League. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Csonka on the Browns this season: “I think in a word, I think they look better. And I think the appearance of a running game is always, you know, splitting the sun on the horizon. So I like to see that come out. … Cleveland had a tradition of setting up a running game. And I would like to see that come back. There are signs of it.”
About the book: “Head On: A Memoir,” Matt Holt Books, 334 pages, $30.
About the game: Cleveland Browns (3-5) at Miami Dolphins (6-3), 1pm Sunday, November 13.
Sports betting is coming to Ohio on January 1, 2023: Your questions have been answered
I am on cleveland.comlife and culture team and covers food, beer, wine and sports related topics. If you want to see my stories, this is a directory on cleveland.com. WTAM-1100’s Bill Wills and I usually talk food and drink at 8:20am on Thursday mornings. Twitter: @mbona30.
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