Column: How SD politicians created the Miami Dolphins

Farm Forum

While there are many divisions between East River and West River in South Dakota — political, social and cowboy hat vs. seed corn cap — one obvious difference is NFL teams.

Most people on the east side of South Dakota are long-suffering Minnesota Vikings fans. They love and loathe their Vikings.

On the western side, the Denver Broncos are the favorites. People still fondly recall John Elway and now treasure Peyton Manning.

Maybe there should be a lot more Miami Dolphin fans. They have been to five Super Bowls, and won a pair. More importantly, the team wouldn’t even exist without the efforts of three South Dakota natives.

It’s true. Three guys from a state without an NFL franchise were behind the team’s creation.

When the American Football League was founded in 1959, former South Dakota Gov. Joe Foss was named commissioner. Foss didn’t have an extensive football background, but the charismatic, ruggedly handsome World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor winner was a national hero.

There was no team in Miami then, but in 1965, Foss was contacted by an old friend named Joe Robbie, a lawyer, politician and a true hustler. Robbie wanted to put a team in Miami, and Foss agreed to grant an expansion franchise to his former University of South Dakota Law School classmate.

Robbie, a Sisseton native, had served as a lawyer in Mitchell, and also taught at Dakota Wesleyan University, where he met and befriended George McGovern. Robbie was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1950, but lost and moved to Minnesota. Once there, he became close to Sen. Hubert Humphrey, like Robbie a South Dakota native.

In the mid-1960s, Humphrey was the vice president of the United States, and he had contacts everywhere. He helped Robbie obtain bank loans and support to get the Dolphins afloat.

Although Foss was a Republican, he didn’t let partisan differences get in the way. Before he stepped down as AFL commissioner in 1966, Foss made sure Robbie got the Miami franchise.

There was yet another South Dakota tie to the team then. Its All-Pro center, Jim Langer, was a South Dakota State University graduate. Langer was a star football and baseball player at SDSU and still attends Jackrabbit games. His grandson Cole is a Jacks linebacker.

The ’72 Dolphins went 17-0, and defeated Washington 14-7 in the Super Bowl.

But unlike most championship teams, they weren’t feted at the White House. President Richard Nixon was a fan of D.C.’s team, and as Watergate closed in on him, the Dolphins were ignored.

Finally, on Aug. 20 of this year, that oversight was rectified. President Barack Obama invited the team to the White House to recognize coach Don Shula and his players for that unblemished season. But Langer, along with teammates Bob Kuechenberg and Manny Fernandez, skipped it.

“We’ve got some real moral compass issues in Washington,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a room with those people and pretend I’m having a good time.”

That’s in keeping with how most South Dakotans feel about Obama, but I bet a lot of them would still attend a White House ceremony. I think that’s how Foss, Robbie and Humphrey would want it, too.

Fourth-generation South Dakota native Tom Lawrence has been writing about the state since 1978. Write him at, and read his blog at His column publishes Tuesdays.