Larry Csonka Recalls His Upbringing in Northeast Ohio in Fascinating New Book, ‘Head On’
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Larry Csonka had many roads to take in life. The one he usually took was pretty straightforward: head down, find the hole, run through it.
There were others, however, including the dirt road he lived near growing up in Stow.
“I grew up between two 300 or 400 acre dairy farms on a small 18 acre piece of land where we raised a few cattle,” he said. “The three-quarter mile dirt road? Well, the second time I saw a school bus, I rode on it. It shows you how far we were growing remotely.
He sat in the middle of the Csonka clan, with siblings several years older and younger.
“It was very far away. A three-quarter mile dirt road when you’re four is like 20 miles, isn’t it? So I grew up with critters around me, and the older kids went to school, and I was with mom all day. She had chores to do and I was walking in the woods with the dogs.
He was four months old when his father moved the family to Stow from Akron. His father, raised by immigrant parents from Hungary, had grown up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He lived near South Street in Akron, worked at a movie theater, and after World War II got a job with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
Csonka’s life has been filled with her share of triumphs and hard work, rooted in her childhood on this Stow farm. He played football at Syracuse and went on to join the famed undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972. Csonka came out with a fascinating and comprehensive memoir of his life in northeast Ohio in Syracuse Miami, to his love of the outdoors and so much more. Finding a word to define Csonka would be easy: Adventurer.
But these roads. There were always roads on his way to these adventures.
In college, he hitchhiked the 350 miles from Ohio to Syracuse.
“When I did this, I hadn’t realized how cold it was on Interstate 90 between Cleveland, Painesville and Syracuse, New York, and how freezing you get in February with your thumbs up,” did he declare.
Csonka was so used to the trek that he “developed a relationship because I was going back and forth so much, certainly during the heaviest part of winter, that the truckers who had routes there started to to recognize me. …I got to know some of these guys, and I got to where I never stayed more than 20 or 30 minutes before one of them walked by and recognized me.
The truckers were regular workers, he said. They got a kick out of a kid holding a cardboard sign that advertised ‘frozen football player’ or a similar plea. And drivers driving to Cleveland, Buffalo or Erie, Pa. had someone to talk to.
“After doing it about six or eight times, I got to where I started to remember who was delivering what on what day,” Csonka said.
Csonka wouldn’t know it then, but one of the towns he would pass through – Painesville – would feature in his life. It was the hometown of Don Shula, who played at John Carroll University.
Shula was a young coach – even younger when his Baltimore Colts were shut out in the 1964 championship against the Cleveland Browns, 27-0. The young coach and the young running back disagreed, and they made it known to each other.
Calling Shula demanding is like saying Bobby Knight was a bit impatient. His workouts pushed players through the South Florida heat, game after game, drill after drill, race after race.
“We didn’t have to do that in Cleveland,” Csonka quotes Paul Warfield, another Ohioan who played for Ohio State and then the Browns and Dolphins.
“Shula and I probably had something in common because of growing up and growing up in northeast Ohio,” Csonka said. “Our appreciation for Euclid Beach. And growing up in Ohio, which was a great place, especially if you love nature. He was a little more urban.
In the book, Csonka’s perspective on Shula is mature – it took the two of them some time to become familiar with each other. But after a few seasons, Csonka realized the coach’s ultimate goal: the means to an end was aggravating, but the end of the game was to make sure every player knew he was part of a team.
As much of a team player as Csonka was, there’s a lonely contentment that comes through — both in print and when he speaks — with the former running back, a puncher who was smart enough to find holes and competitive enough to make defenses pay when they I found it.
‘Head On’ shows that there is more to Csonka than football life. Unlike Csonka’s running style – grab the ball, find the hole, drill – the book takes a different approach. It’s frenetic, bouncing between different places and times. But everything is easy to read and easy to follow.
Csonka really cannot be pigeonholed. He’s a kid who fell in love with the outdoors after his mother gave him a Field & Stream magazine with an Alaskan cover. He loved the challenges of the outdoors, loved winning in the field. He was content with the solitary life in remote Alaska, but liked to hound fans after Dolphins games. And he had a great friendship with teammate Jim Kiick.
“Football was important, college was important. But I desperately needed to spend one day a week fishing,” he wrote.
Now it’s the family that keeps him grounded. His visits to Alaska are reduced to four to six weeks a year after spending six or seven months a year in the state.
“But I now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and trying to disperse them all between Massachusetts, Ohio and Florida is a bit of a business. So it’s easier to locate in North Carolina, where they’re all a driving distance from here.
He enjoys harvesting moose or caribou meat, as well as bringing in fish to “fill the freezer”.
“I’m a big proponent of eating wild game over conventional eating for health reasons, and also for sporting reasons. It gives me a reason to be out there.
Csonka splits her time between North Carolina, Florida, and a farm in Lisbon, Ohio, a village about 90 miles southeast of Cleveland. He still has family in the area. And it’s a safe bet he’ll be watching Sunday’s game, given he’s tracking the Browns, Dolphins and Giants.
He will watch the games and of course the win and loss records as the teams start the season unbeaten. He dispelled the rumor of champagne toasts between teammates in 1972 when the last undefeated team finally lost.
“Oh, you have no idea,” he said with a laugh. “(Manny) Fernandez, (Dick) Anderson – there are a few guys we talk about. If they go over 4-0, 5-0, we start talking and we start communicating and the chanting starts. We’ll end up around a TV set and hex them.
“I don’t know about champagne – we drink a few beers when we do. Some of the guys had posed with glasses of champagne because someone lost and it was reported in the media that way but trust me the Miami Dolphins weren’t champagne drinkers they were beer drinkers.
The game he watches is one that has evolved and changed a lot from the grassy fields he walked through when he was playing. It looks critically, but is not a howling, bitter “back in my day”! type. He acknowledges that the speed of a passing game can be more dangerous than a running-based approach, when players collide hard, but they don’t reach the same speed as a receiver on the field.
“The rules have to change because the game changes,” he said. “Power blocking and ball control are giving way to rule changes regarding the passing game that make the game much more understandable and enjoyable for the fan. And that’s what football has changed – from a participation game for satisfaction to a showmanship game for the fans. And that’s why he evolved into the passing game.
“When you’re a fan and you watch the running game, which takes place in less than a second to a second and a half, you don’t understand the intricacies of the timing that goes on between people because it’s is just a big group of where you’re sitting in the bleachers.
Csonka knows what he is talking about. As he writes: “Running was my bag. The secondary effort was my calling card.
He returns to his Ohio roots once or twice a year. Sometimes he hunts deer.
“I don’t go out and chase deer as much anymore,” he said. “I enjoy sitting in a deer stand with my brother. Sometimes we make it to the deer stand, sometimes we don’t even get out of the cabin. We just smoke cigars on the porch, watch our sons and grandsons.
Its good. Csonka has earned the right to get off the road and relax.
About Csonka: He will be 76 on December 25, Christmas Day. Played 11 years (1968-1979) in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins (eight seasons) and the New York Giants (three seasons). Played one year, 1975, in the World Football League. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Csonka on the Browns this season: “I think in a nutshell, I think they look better. And I think the emergence of a racing game is always, you know, the sun is rising over the horizon. So I like to see that emerge. … Cleveland had a tradition of mounting a racing game. And I would like it to come back. There are signs.
About the book: “Head Down: A Memoir”, Books by Matt Holt, 334 pages, $30.
About the game: Cleveland Browns (3-5) at Miami Dolphins (6-3), 1 p.m. Sunday, November 13.
I am on cleveland.comfrom the Life and Culture team and covers topics related to food, beer, wine and sport. If you want to see my stories, here is a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I usually talk food and drink at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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