The opening kickoff of the regular season always brings great anticipation.
For the Miami Dolphins and Joe Auer, the first regular-season play in franchise history always will be special.
On September 2, 1966, Auer stood in the west end zone of Miami’s Orange Bowl, waiting for the opening kickoff by the Oakland Raiders.
“I knew I would do something unusual as the ball was hanging up there,” Auer told journalist Bill Braucher in the 1972 book, “Promises to Keep.”
Boy, did he ever.
On a muggy Friday night, Auer returned the kickoff 95 yards into the east end zone for a touchdown. Flipper soared in his tank, and entertainer and Dolphins minority shareholder Danny Thomas jumped on his back in the end zone.
“My dad was so excited that he jumped off the bench and ran along the sidelines the entire way with Auer, his cigar clenched in his teeth, his change falling out of his pockets, yelling ‘Go, baby, go!’ ” actress Marlo Thomas wrote years later. “When Auer finally crossed into the end zone, my father grabbed him and kissed him.”
Thomas was lucky. Auer almost put an elbow into the TV star’s mouth, explaining “I thought it was one of their guys giving me a cheap shot.”
Auer’s feat is rare, which brings to mind some of the football cards he has appeared on. The most unusual card was part of the 1967 Royal Castle Dolphins set, which is arguably the scarcest among cards featuring AFL players.
This was a 28-card release issued by the hamburger chain, which once had 185 restaurants in the South Florida area. Coach George Wilson, 26 players and a “Jr. Dolphin” card comprised the set. The cards, which were not numbered, measured 4 ¼ inches by 3 inches and were printed on thin, flimsy cardboard.
The cards had a brown border, and a rectangular box at the bottom that contained a facsimile autograph.
Ten of the cards, including Auer’s, are short prints, making a scarce set even rarer. PSA has graded only 110 Royal Castle Dolphins in all and just one Auer. SGC has examined only 38 in all and no Auer cards. A check of eBay Wednesday showed only five total Royal Castle cards up for sale.
The backs of the cards included the player’s basic information in a very bland design. The Dolphins’ team logo, along with the Royal Castle company logo and marketing cartoon, also graced the card back. Collectors were advised to bring their Royal Castle Jr. Dolphin card every week to receive two new cards each week.
Not surprisingly, the key card in the set was a short print of rookie quarterback Bob Griese, Miami’s No. 1 pick that year.
The Dolphins, now beginning their 50th season, were awful in their debut season. Despite Auer’s kickoff return, Miami lost 23-14 in the opener and dropped their first five games before beating Denver 24-7 on October 16 at the Orange Bowl. The Dolphins went 3-11 that inaugural season. The other two victories came at the expense of the Houston Oilers as Miami completed a home-and-home sweep.
In addition to Auer, who was the 1966 team MVP with 414 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, the 1967 Royal Castle set included Griese (whose first touchdown pass was caught by Auer); Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel, who achieved greater fame as a pro wrestler; and Abner Haynes, a fine player whose gaffe in overtime in the 1962 AFL title game — “We’ll kick,” Haynes told an incredulous referee after the Dallas Texans (now Kansas City Chiefs) won the toss — became legendary, even though Dallas won the game in the second overtime against the Houston Oilers.
Along with Griese, two players in the set who were original Dolphins — Norm Evans and Howard Twilley — would last long enough to play in Miami’s first Super Bowl after the 1971 season.
There is one Royal Castle card of Auer in the PSA registry, graded 5. Mike Thomas, who goes by the name Nearmint, owns the top PSA graded set, with 17 of 27 cards graded (the Jr. Dolphin card is not included). He is missing all 10 short-printed cards.
If you’re not up to the challenge of hunting down one of the rarest football card sets ever issued, you can find Auer and some of his teammates on that original Dolphins team in the 1967 Topps set. His photo shows him wearing a Bills jersey with a generic helmet, seeming almost as if Topps didn’t realize they needed to include the team’s reigning MVP until it was too late. His card can usually be found on eBay for less than $20 unless in high grade.
And what about Auer? Now 74 years old, he once joked that more people have told him they saw his kickoff return live than actually attended the game (26,776). Auer was a local boy who played at Coral Gables High School. Coached by legendary Florida prep coach Nick Kotys, Auer and Coral Gables sometimes played before bigger crowds than the Dolphins drew in their early years.
Auer was a second-team left-halfback in the Miami News’ All-City team in 1958, his senior season. But his greatest moment came against rival Miami High on November 13, 1958. Coral Gables’ fullback Ted Sauselle caught the opening kickoff at the 20, doubled back 10 yards and handed off to Auer.
You can guess what happened next. Auer raced 90 yards for a touchdown, sidestepping a pair of Miami tacklers at the 20-yard line to complete the game-opening score. Coral Gables would prevail, 13-12.