• Sal Maiorana

Happy birthday to a real character: Miami's Manny Fernandez

When Manny Fernandez signed with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent prior to the 1968 season, neither he nor the team thought it would be a long-lasting relationship.

“I reported to camp with the idea I didn’t have a chance,” said Fernandez, who today is celebrating his 74th birthday. “I looked at my contract as an all-expense paid trip to Florida with an open-end ticket home. If I didn’t make it in pro football, I probably would have stayed in the Miami area and worked as a lifeguard or something.”

As for the Dolphins, they were in their third year of existence in the American Football League and were looking for a way to draw more fans into the Orange Bowl which was usually fairly empty on game day. When they saw Fernandez’s name on the free agent list, they immediately thought bringing in a player of Latin descent would help boost attendance.

“I certainly hope you make the final squad cut,” said the team’s PR man. “It will be great having you here to speak to the Cuban population. I’m sure you’ll get them interested in football.”

Fernandez replied, “I hope those Cubans all speak good English because that’s the only language I know.”

Obviously disappointed by this fact, not to mention Fernandez’s poor vision and lousy practice habits, the Dolphins were ready to send him packing. However, once he put the game uniform, he became a different player. He was a whirling dervish in the middle of the defensive line, a force against the run and a surprisingly good pass rusher.

“I didn’t do the first bit of scrimmaging or hitting until three days before the first cut,” he recalled. “I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was gonna go, but the rookie in front of me got hurt. One of the coaches came up to me and asked if I wanted to play. I said, ‘What the hell do you think I’ve been doing here all this time, besides getting a suntan?’”

Fernandez was an instant hit, and he became a starter in his rookie season, soon to become the anchor in the middle of Miami’s great Super Bowl defenses.

Just days before his Dallas Cowboys were to meet the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, coach Tom Landry was asked to assess the Miami defense that had allowed just 198 points during the 1971 regular season.

“I can’t recall their names,” Landry said, “but they are a matter of great concern to us.” Thus was born the “No-Name Defense.”

The Cowboys won that Super Bowl rather easily, 24-3, but Miami went on to win the next two, defeating Washington to cap the perfect season of 1972, and then defending the title by shutting down Minnesota.

Five offensive players from Miami’s 1972 perfect team have made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (fullback Larry Csonka, guard Larry Little, quarterback Bob Griese, wide receiver Paul Warfield and center Jim Langer), and so has their coach, Don Shula.

But only one member of that great defense is enshrined: Linebacker Nick Buoniconti.

“Bothersome,” is the word Shula once used when asked about that. “They took a lot of pride in being unselfish, but we had some great performances. Nick Buoniconti, Dick Anderson and Manny Fernandez are all deserving.”

For six straight years, Fernandez was named the team’s outstanding defensive lineman and during Miami’s 17-0 season, he made 107 tackles, five sacks and two fumble recoveries. He saved his best for the biggest game of that year, the Super Bowl VII victory over Washington when he made 11 tackles and one sack.

“I’ve never seen Manny play better,” Nick Buoniconti said after the game. “Our defensive line won it. There’s only one way to analyze the game.”

Fernandez spent all eight of his AFL-NFL seasons with Miami, starting 94 of the 103 games he played, before retiring after the 1975 season.