The old running back is late for the holiday show at the assisted-living facility, and by the time he finds his front-row seat, the trivia questions have started. A resident on the makeshift stage, Oleta Krauss, says from her wheelchair, “I’m 101 years old. Who knows how to write ‘101’ in Roman numerals?”
As the audience of few dozen friends and family considers the question, the old running back, Mercury Morris, says, “Just in time.”
His former teammate, Jim Kiick, is up next. Kiick, 72, is seated beside Krauss and offers Morris a wan smile. This event was planned long ago, and Morris and his long-time girlfriend, Debbie Ronca, visit Kiick regularly at the facility, Independence Hall. But Kiick called Morris early that morning to confirm.
“Are you coming tonight?” he asked.
“I’m coming,’’ Morris, 71, said.
A few minutes later, Kiick called again. “Are you coming tonight?” he asked.
Morris confirmed again he was coming. An hour later, Kiick called again to check. And then again. And again. He called 12 times that day. Each time, Morris listened like it was the first call from his longtime friend, and said he was coming, often with a kicker like, “… and I’m going to bust your chops all night.”
Now Kiick is handed the microphone, and he reads a question from an index card asking for the Dolphins opponent in The Longest Game, an epic playoff game on Christmas Day in 1971 that was decided by kicker Garo Yepremian, their late teammate.
No one answers. New England, someone finally mumbles, drawing contemporary chuckles.
“You don’t know, Merc?” said the home’s administrator, Lori Musto.
Morris smiles. “Kansas City.”
Forty-seven years after that winning kick signaled the magic-carpet ride going up on their Super Bowl Dolphins, the two running backs who shared a position and competed against each other now lock eyes and smile.
“You’re right, Kansas City,’’ Kiick says.
The movie script would have the years melt away in their smiles, and the screen freeze at that famous game: the black kid from Pittsburgh whose feet moved as fast as his mouth still does, and the white kid from New Jersey with the soft-spoken streak of a rebel.
But this stopped being that movie script a while ago. Everything changes. Time soldiers on. A few minutes later over a chili dinner for the holiday event, Morris is skipping through their stories like a stone on the water: A touchdown Kiick scored in a Cleveland playoff game where Morris was first off the bench to hug him … a basketball team they played on for a decade after football … a pregame coin flip where they served as ceremonial captains before a 2006 Dolphins game.
“Heads,’’ New England captain Mike Vrabel called.
It landed tails.
“You can’t even get that right,” Morris told him.
Kiick, who has sat motionless through Morris’ talk, says, “Where are my ear plugs?’’
Morris chuckles. “That’s his favorite line.”
Kiick smiles. “Where are my ear plugs?”
Morris detected a change in Kiick on an Alaska trip in 2014 to meet former teammate Larry Csonka for an NFL Films’ show called, “The Perfect Backfield.” Kiick called him from the airport parking garage before their flight.
“I can’t find my car,’’ he said.
“You just got out of it,’’ Morris said.
Kiick still couldn’t find it. His family knew something was wrong, too. Memory problems. Repeating himself. Disorganization from a man ruled by organization. Kiick moved in with his son, Austin, now 29. But Austin was on a trip to Colorado visiting his tennis-playing sister, Allie, when his father called to say his ankle was swelling.
Austin had to provide play-by-play directions as his father drove to the hospital on streets they’d lived for years. After entering the hospital, officials refused to let Kiick leave by himself. So Kiick moved to Independence Hall, where on this night the holiday event involves a raffled Dolphins football and playing cards of Kiick and Morris.
“See this card?” Morris says, holding up a bearded Kiick from the early 1970s. “Look at him. [Coach had this rule, ‘If you don’t have hair on top of your head, you can have it on the bottom.’ Otherwise, you couldn’t [have a beard]. But Jim shaved a little slit on his chin and told Shula it was all sideburns.”
“It was sideburns,’’ Kiick says.
Kiick’s living room in the facility has dozens of pictures from his playing days, the better to remember his life. There’s another picture, one of a muscled Kiick and Morris getting an eight-track tape deck out of a car, that Morris keeps close.
“That’s who we are then, and that’s who we are now,’’ he says. “Same teammates. Our friendship, our camaraderie, that’s part of me. It’s tough watching him gradually deteriorate, but we’re going through this together.
“We made a great running back together — 1,597 yards and 18 touchdowns in the undefeated season. We had a bond then, and we have that same bond today. It was all about the team in those days.”
His voice grows softer, “It’s still about team.”
So Morris makes the trek from his home in Homestead to Kiick in Wilton Manors every few weeks. He takes Kiick to John Offerdahl’s annual grill-off charity event. They eat at Jersey Mike’s, a sub shop the Jersey kid in Kiick likes. Often, they just sit together and talk.
The romantic story would involve that full team staying together. Several teammates and Dolphins alums came to Kiick’s birthday party in August. No one except Morris and another regular, former team security director Stu Weinstein, have visited since. One teammate had a local autograph show set up with Kiick before backing out when the money wasn’t deemed enough.
“You know what you don’t get to take with you?” Morris told the teammate.
Kiick’s story is a growing one as the possible toll of football and age align. Just on that Dolphins team, Nick Buoniconti, Tim Foley, Hubert Ginn and Kiick are suffering from mental deterioration. Austin Kiick says the MRIs and CT scans show dark spots on his father’s brain from concussions, leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
That’s a question of science.
Morris asks a question of humanity.
“Did you see what he did when I came in late to the show?” he says.
Morris goes through the scene of him taking his seat, of looking at Kiick, of trading smiles. Then Morris noticed Kiick do something telling. He tapped his wrist where a watch would be. This tells Morris his good friend is still there.
“That’s what Shula did when we were late,’’ Morris said.
He laughs after all these years in a way the movie script should include, the real script, the one that erases the happy ending for the real-life one.
“Jim was up there, calling me out like Shula would.”