Morrall engineered a playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns, but Griese replaced him during the AFC title game against the Steelers and sparked a comeback victory. Shula chose Griese to start the Super Bowl game.
“The perfect backup for the perfect team.”
That’s how Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula once described quarterback Earl Morrall.
“He was an unbelievable guy,” Shula told the Miami Herald earlier this year when Morrall passed away. “There were no negatives with him. He was the best guy in the locker room. Great in practice. And on the field he mad
e big plays in big games. He was just a fine human being and that transcended everything else. It wasn’t just about his career. In everything he tried, people recognized what a fine individual he was.”
Shula is the best person to reflect on Morrall’s 21-year NFL career as he played witness to the pivotal moments of the Muskegon native’s professional career. He had coached Earl in Baltimore in 1968 when Morrall, covering for the injured legend Johnny Unitas, led the Colts to a 13-1 record. Morrall’s threw for 2,909 yards and 26 TDs while leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl. Still, most only remember the New York Jets victory over the Colts in the championship game that season.
Morrall accepted this fact about the job. That was part of his brilliance.
Joe Namath’s pre-game guarantee of victory over the heavily favored Colts remains one of the defining moments in league’s past. While recapping the loss over a quarter century later, Morrall, who threw three interceptions that day, told The Baltimore Sun, “I have no excuses.”
Four years after the title game, it appeared Morrall might be out of the league. With what was then considered a large salary, the 38-year-old was released by the Colts in April 1972. Fortunately he had a friend in Shula, now coaching the Dolphins.
“I knew what Earl could do from our time in Baltimore,” recalled Shula in the Herald. “He was an intelligent quarterback who won a lot of ballgames for me. I wanted to pick him up as an insurance policy. I had to talk [then-owner] Joe Robbie into doing it because Earl was making $90,000. I wanted to claim him off waivers, and Robbie said, ‘Paying $90,000 for a backup — are you out of your mind?’ ”
The Dolphins were Morrall’s sixth pro team. Drafted by San Francisco out of Michigan State in 1956, he was moved to Pittsburgh a year later in exchange for two first-round draft picks. Another year passed, and he found himself in Detroit when the Lions traded swashbuckling quarterback Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh. For the next six seasons, Morrall was the starting quarterback for Detroit. After posting an outstanding season in 1963, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury mid-way through the 1964 season. Prior to the 1965 season, he was in New York, playing for the Giants. He was dealt to Baltimore at the start of the 1968 season, and when Unitas went down to injury in the final pre-season game, he became the Colts’ starter.
For Earl, lightning struck a second time in Miami.
When starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his ankle in the fifth game of the season against San Diego . Shula again turned to Morrall. “Old Bones,” as he was nicknamed by his teammates, led the talented team through an undefeated regular season then quarterbacked the team to a playoff opening-round victory over the Cleveland Browns.
“I wanted to play as much as anybody, but I told the coach I wouldn’t make waves,” Morrall told The Boston Globe in 2002. “A younger guy might have sulked.”
At season end, Morrall was named the AFC’s Player of the Year and was selected to the AFC All-Pro team as a member of the first team. He also was presented with the league’s inaugural “Comeback of the Year” award.
Over 40 years later, Muskegon residents continue to beam with pride.
A true prep legend in West Michigan, Morrall guided the Big Reds to a Class A state championship season in 1951. His total of 851passing yards and 11 TDs that season stood alone as a MHS records until 2003. An outstanding all-around athlete, he earned all-state recognition in both football and basketball. In baseball, he helped Muskegon win what was then considered the pinnacle of the sport – the Memorial Day tournament in Battle Creek.
Heavily recruited, he chose Michigan State over Notre Dame and in-state rival Michigan, coached by MHS alum Bennie Oosterbaan. As a Spartan, he led MSC to a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA as a senior. He was rewarded with All-America honors and finished fourth in the Heisman voting.
He also played baseball at State earning three letters as an infielder, and helped the Spartans advance to the semifinals of the College World Series in 1954.
Sadly, health issues prevented Earl from joining the Dolphins at the White House this past August when President Barack Obama honored the 1972 Miami squad for their incredible championship. The President did not forget Morrall.
“In 1972, these guys were a juggernaut,” recalled the President. “They had a grinding running game that wore opponents down. They became the first team ever with two 1,000-yard rushers. They had the league’s best offense. They had the league’s best defense. They posted three shutouts. They doubled the score of their opponents eight times. And they did most of it after their outstanding Pro Bowl starting quarterback, Bob Griese, broke his leg in Week 5. And that brought in backup Earl “Old Bones” Morrall -- who unfortunately couldn’t be here today. As one teammate later said, “Earl couldn’t run and he couldn’t throw.” But Earl could win, and that’s what he and the Dolphins did again and again and again.”
While Muskegon lost a son this past May, he will never be forgotten. Few Big Reds have had the spotlight shine on them as brightly as Morrall. On that stage, he always made us proud.