Dolphins’ first camp in 1966 defined team’s rough beginning

It got so bad that players cut themselves.

The inaugural Miami Dolphins season of 1966 is mostly remembered these days for two things: The good was a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Joe Auer to open the team’s first regular-season game. The bad was much of everything that happened before then.

The Dolphins had perhaps the most harrowing training camp in pro football history in their first season. Camp began in St. Pete Beach, Fla., where the team practiced on sod placed over sand and oyster shells that routinely came up and led to injuries.

Players stayed at a rundown beach hotel where the air conditioning worked infrequently during a hot July. They were kept awake at night by seals barking at a nearby marine park. The food was said to have been atrocious.

The practices? The Dolphins had two sessions a day, each 2 1/2 hours with 1 1/2 of it spent scrimmaging in what seemed like 100 percent humidity.

“Guys would sneak out in the middle of the night just to get out of there,” Tom Nomina, a Dolphins defensive tackle from 1966-68, said of players cutting themselves. “You would hear tires screech of cars driving off at night. I would say 20 to 30 guys (of more than 100 in camp) just left themselves because it was so bad.”

When the 2013 Dolphins begin training camp Sunday, there undoubtedly will be some complaints. Players don’t exactly like camp.

But Miami’s facility at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla., is a country club compared with what the Dolphins endured 47 years ago. The fields are perfectly manicured and there is a practice bubble to use to escape unfavorable weather. Players are housed in a luxury hotel. The food is good.
 
“That was probably about as bad as one ever has been,” center Tom Goode, who played for the Dolphins from 1966-69, said of the 1966 Miami camp’s place in history. “It was as bad as an army camp. It was just a matter of survival.”

It all started after Dolphins original owner Joe Robbie, called by Sports Illustrated in 1969 as “the poorest man to obtain a sports franchise in the past 20 years,” was looking to save some bucks. A group of boosters called Suncoast Sports Group convinced Robbie to hold the team’s first training camp in St. Pete Beach, a move said to have saved Robbie $35,000.

The group first showed the Dolphins a beautiful hotel where the team would stay. But Suncoast Sports Group eventually ran low on money and the team instead was booked at the low-quality Colonial Inn, where rooms cost $11.50 a night.

“The air conditioning didn’t work a lot of the time, and it was hotter than hell,” Nomina said. “It got so bad that guys would take pillows out on the beach just to get some sleep.”

That only worked to some extent. They could still hear the seals.

“They would bark every morning, noon and night,” said tackle Norm Evans, who played for Miami from 1966-75, including winning Super Bowls after the 1972 and 1973 seasons. “They never stopped. I still remember (now-deceased Dolphins tackle) Maxie Williams imitating them by making seal noises. At least we could laugh about that.”

Evans remembers the players would hang their sweat-soaked jerseys after practice in their hotel rooms. He said it “got pretty ripe in there.”

You better believe players had sweated plenty during their long workouts. And then they nursed their wounds.

“They rolled this turf right down on these shells, and there was no way it was going to take hold,” Goode said. “It kept coming up like a carpet that wasn’t tacked down and a lot of the guys would just get cut up on the shells and develop infections. We were all skinned up.”

The field was so bad that after a few weeks, the team moved practices five miles away to Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport. It wasn’t much better.

“We’d ride a bus over to this high school and it was summertime and they hadn’t been mowing the field,” Evans said. “It was like six inches high of weeds, and we tried to practice on that.”

Players would get their cleats caught in the weeds and hit the ground. The only good news was they no longer were getting really cut up.

The team continued to stay at the same hotel and eat the same food. The stories are legendary about how bad it was.

“Lunch, you had two choices: bologna sandwiches or bologna sandwiches,” Nomina said with a laugh.

Dinner was cooked by a Chinese chef who did prepare meatballs and some other dishes using ground beef. But he most often served his native cuisine.

“At least three times a week, we had Chinese food,” Nomina said. “It was this really bad egg foo young covered with some sort of mystery stuff. It was mystery Chinese.”

After about a month, there was a near mutiny. The Dolphins finally agreed to bail out of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area altogether to move camp to Boca Raton, back in South Florida.

Players were so thrilled to leave behind the brutal conditions they sprinted to their cars. It was said to resemble the Indianapolis 500 as they sped the 250 miles across the state to Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton.

The dorms that housed players at Saint Andrew’s were spartan, but at least there was working air conditioning. There were rattlesnakes and alligators seen in the area, but at least they didn’t make noises like the seals. And there were few complaints about the practice fields or the food.

“That was a pretty nice place compared to what we had,” Goode said.

Still, by the time the regular season arrived, the Dolphins already were worn down. They lost their first five games and finished 3-11.

At least Auer provided a positive moment that always will be remembered. In that first game against the Oakland Raiders at the Orange Bowl, the running back took the opening kick 95 yards for a touchdown.

Perhaps Auer was fresher than many of his teammates. Because he had been with the Los Angeles Rams at the start of training camp before being released, Auer missed the entire portion of camp when the Dolphins were housed at St. Pete Beach. He didn’t arrive until after they had relocated to Boca Raton.

“Training camp is never fun, but I guess I’m glad I wasn’t there,” Auer said of the disastrous early part of camp. “I’m grateful that I could be part of history with that first play. People still make a big deal out of it today.”

Meanwhile, the Dolphins’ first training camp was an ordeal. Several holdovers from the 1966 team chuckled when it was suggested there still figure to be complaints this summer despite the pristine conditions at Miami’s camp.

But one thing is for sure. Players won’t be cutting themselves.

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson.