Former NFL quarterback Earl Morrall dies at 79

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Former NFL quarterback Earl Morrall dies at 79
FILE - This is a 1972 file photo showing Miami Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - This 1966 photo provided by NFL Photos shows New York Giants quarterback Earl Morrall. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)
FILE - This Dec. 15, 1968 photo provided by NFL Photos shows Baltimore Colts quarterback Earl Morrall (15) throwing a pass during the Colts 28-24 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Los Angeles, California. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)
This photo provided by NFL Photos shows Baltimore Colts quarterback Earl Morrall in 1968. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)
Don Shula, selected by the Associated Press as the pro coach of the year, confers in a game with Miami Dolphins quarterbacks Bob Griese, right, and Earl Morrall, left. Shula has announced he will start Griese against the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl game at Los Angeles on January 14. (AP Photo/FLS)
Former Miami Dolphins players, from left, Earl Morrall , Dick Anderson, Jim Kiick, head coach Don Shula, Larry Little, and Mercury Morris wave to the crowd after an interview at the Farewell to the Orange Bowl Stadium festival Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008, in Miami. Seats and other souvenirs are being sold as part of festivities that will serve as a farewell to the old stadium, due for demolition this year. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Earl Morrall quarterback with the Baltimore Colts, Jan. 1969. (AP Photo)
Quarterback Earl Morrall of the Miami Dolphins, at 42, is now the oldest player in the National Football League. Morrall has been injured and there is speculation that he will be dropped, but Coach Don Shula doesn’t agree. (AP Photo/Jim Kerlin)
Miami Dolphins’ quarterback Earl Morrall was injured on this play while being tackled by New England Patriots’ linebacker Steve Zabel during game in Miami, Fla., Monday, Dec. 2, 1975. Morrall suffered ligament damage to his left knee. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 1973 file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, left, talks with quarterback Earl Morrall during a practice session in Long Beach, Calif. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/File)
Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula talks with quarterbacks Bob Griese, left and Earl Morrall during picture session at the Dolphins? practice field in Long Beach California on Monday, Jan. 9, 1973. (AP Photo)
Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula (L) poses with his two quarterbacks, Earl Morrall (C) and Bob Griese (R) on Jan. 4, 1973 in Miami. Shula announced that he will start Griese against Washington in the January 14 Super Bowl. Morrall has captained the Dolphins since Griese went out with an injury early in the season. Griese returned to action in the AFC playoff against Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/MTF)
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 1973 file photo, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, center, poses with quarterbacks Earl Morrall, left, and Bob Griese in Miami. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014.(AP Photo/Mark Foley, File)
Don Shula, Miami Dolphins coach, left, with Earl Morrall, center, and Bob Griese, right, Miami Dolphins quarterbacks, Jan. 3, 1973. AP Photo/Mark Foley)
Miami Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall (15) with his receivers covered in the second half, Morrall scoots across the goal for a Dolphin score as Miami went on to down the New York Jets, 28-24, for their 11th win of the season against no losses. (AP Photo/Steve Starr )
Miami Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall gets to hurl another pass in their game against the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon, Nov. 12, 1972 at Miami's Orange Bowl. Up in the air to block is Patriot linebacker Ed Weisacosky (66) and blocking for Morrall is Jim Kiick (21). The Dolphins, pro football's only undefeated team, enjoyed a 31-0 halftime lead. (AP Photo)
Miami Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall (15) scoots across the goal for a Dolphin score as Miami went on to down the New York Jets, 28-24, Nov. 19, 1972 in Miami, Fla. (AP PHOTO)
Pittsburgh Steeler corner back John Rowser blocks would-be touchdown pass from Earl Morrall to wide receiver Willie Richardson. The Morrall-Richardson combination connected for two touchdowns as the Baltimore Colts whipped the Steelers 34-21 in National Football League action on Sunday, Nov. 1, 1971 in Baltimore. (AP Photo)
Baltimore quarterbacks John Unitas, left, and Earl Morrall talk before practice in Miami on Jan. 13, 1971. Unitas said on Tuesday that the Colts would be ?wide open? on offense for their Super Bowl appearance against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. (AP Photo/William Smith)
Baltimore kicker Jim O'Brien (80) leaps with joy after kicking the winning field goal against the Dallas Cowboys in the final seconds of the Super Bowl V game today, January 17, 1971. At right is quarterback Earl Morrall (15), who held the ball for O'Brien. (AP Photo/stf)
Baltimore Colts pass receiver Tom Mitchell (84) falls as the ball flies over his head toward Minnesota Vikings Karl Kassulke (29) who intercepted the Earl Morrall pass in the first half in the Twin Cities, Monday, Oct. 25, 1971, Minneapolis, Minn. (AP Photo)
Baltimore Colts Tom Matte (41) hugs ball as he is hit by Minnesota Vikings Roy Winston (60) from behind and Karl Kassulke (29) from below during National Football League game in the Twin Cities at Minneapolis, on Monday, Oct. 26, 1971. Matte took short pass from quarterback Earl Morrall for the 2-yd gain. Minnesota downed Baltimore, 10-3. (AP Photo)
Balitmore Colt star quarterback John Unitas, left and Earl Morrall chat after their arrival and prior to their first workout Friday Jan. 9 1970 at Miami.(AP Photo/mf)
Quarterback Earl Morrall of the Baltimore Colts, who still has a somewhat outmoded crew cut hairdo, laughs as he views the pink jump suit and handbag worn by teammate Roy Jefferson, Dec. 24, 1970 in Baltimore, Md. Jefferson, a wide received who has caught 45 passes this season, has several mod outfits that wow the Colts and the post-game crowds. (AP Photo/William A. Smith)
FILe - This Jan. 6, 1969 file photo shows Baltimore Colts quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, left, and Earl Morrall in Boca Raton, Fla. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/File)
Mike Curtis, left, and Earl Morrall reflect the victory of their Baltimore Colts, Dec. 22, 1968. (AP Photo)
Jim Martin (left) Detroit Lions placekicking artist holds the hand of Quarterback Earl Morrall, who sued the hand to throw three touchdown passes in their game with the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 19, 1961 in Minneapolis. Martin set a new team record when he kicked his 50th field goal in the third period. The Lions won 37-10. (AP Photo/GEH)
Three members of the Detroit Lions who played key roles in the club’s 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the National Football League opener at Milwaukee County Stadium smile happily in the clubhouse after the game on Sept. 27, 1961. Left to right, quarterback Earl Morrall, who pitched a touchdown pass; Dick Lane, who snuffed out a late Green Bay threat with a pass interception, and Nick Pietrosante, who scored two touchdowns. (AP Photo/DVN)
FILE - In this Dec. 18, 1960 file photo, Detroit Lions fullback Nick Pietrosante (33) and quarterback Earl Morrall smile in the dressing room after beating the Chicago Bears 36-0, in Detroit. Morrall, an NFL quarterback for 21 years who started nine games during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, has died at age 79. The Dolphins confirmed Morrall's death Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/File)
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MIAMI (AP) - Earl Morrall stepped in when the 1972 Miami Dolphins needed him most. And then he willingly stepped aside, earning enduring admiration from his teammates and coach Don Shula.

Morrall, who started 11 games during the Dolphins' perfect season and spent 21 years as an NFL quarterback, died Friday at age 79. He had been in failing health for some time.

"There would be no perfect season, and probably no Super Bowl win in 1972, without Earl Morrall," Bob Griese said Friday.

When Griese broke his ankle in 1972, Morrall came off the bench and started the final nine games of the regular season. Morrall won praise from Shula for returning to the sideline without complaint when Griese came back to play in the final two postseason games, including the Super Bowl to cap the only perfect season in NFL history.

Morrall also played for the 49ers, Steelers, Lions, Giants and Colts, winning three Super Bowl rings. He came off the bench to replace an injured Johnny Unitas and help the Colts win the Super Bowl to cap the 1970 season, and he was the backup to Griese on the Dolphins' 1973 championship team.

Morrall also was the starting quarterback opposite Joe Namath in the 1969 Super Bowl after guiding the Colts to the conference title and winning the league's MVP award. He struggled in that famous 16-7 loss to the Jets, throwing key interceptions, and was benched during the second half for Unitas.

The '72 Dolphins were led by such future Pro Football Hall of Famers as Shula, Griese, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield, but their season might be long forgotten if not for Morrall, then regarded as a journeyman who looked the part with his old-school flattop haircut.

That's why Shula - who also coached Unitas and Dan Marino - held Morrall in special regard as a quarterback.

"When Bob went down, Earl stepped in like nothing happened, and we just won all the games," Shula said in a 2007 interview. "Then Griese was healthy for the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh, and I put Bob in the second half and he helped us come from behind and win the game.

"Then I had a decision to make, which to me has always been the toughest decision I've ever had to make - who to start in the Super Bowl. Earl had done such a great job to get me there, but Bob was my quarterback going into the season, and he was my quarterback of the future. So I figured as long as Bob was healthy and ready to go, I was going back to Bob.

"So I've always said Unitas, Griese and Dan Marino are in the Hall of Fame, and Earl is in my own personal Hall of Fame."

Griese said Morrall acknowledged he didn't like Shula's decision, but accepted it.

"He said, 'I don't agree with you, but whatever you think is best for the team, I'll go along with it,'" Griese said. "That's the way Earl was throughout his career.

"He was the most popular guy in the locker room because of his personality. He always had a smile, a good word, a pat on the back, whether he knew you or didn't. He was just an upbeat good guy."

The 1972 Dolphins finished 17-0, but Morrall said they seldom dwelled on their perfect record as the season progressed, because they were focused only on winning the Super Bowl after losing in the title game the previous year.

He recalled a teammate raising the subject of being undefeated just once - before the final regular-season game.

"We were going to play the Colts, and that's the only time I heard something about it in the locker room," Morrall said in 2007. "It wasn't about going undefeated. It was, 'Guys, if we're going to lose a game, this is the one to lose.'"

At 38, Morrall was the oldest player on the 1972 Dolphins. He attended their 40th reunion in 2012 and said he thought most of his ex-teammates looked good.

"We've all gotten a little bigger and stronger," Morrall said with a smile.

He was inducted into the Dolphins' Walk of Fame that year. Morrall also attended an 80th birthday party for Shula in 2010.

"We're just happy Don made it this long," Morrall said. "When he cut some of the players, they had ill feelings and might have got to him."

Morrall was a Michigan native who played at Michigan State. He led the Spartans to two Rose Bowl victories, and was an infielder in the 1954 College World Series.

"He was a great Spartan," current Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio said.

Morrall was the second overall pick in the 1956 draft. He was never able to hold a No. 1 job for long but developed a reputation as a super sub and was once traded for Bobby Layne, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

In retirement Morrall lived in Naples, Fla., where former teammate Charlie Babb also lives.

"I was the youngest guy on the '72 team," said Babb, a defensive back. "Earl was 37 when I'm a 22-year-old rookie. He was kind of like Pops, and he was the king of the flattop. He was kind of a father figure to us young guys, until it was time to hit him. Then we didn't mind hitting him.

"Earl was a gentleman and a great representative of the NFL. He'll be missed."
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