WASHINGTON — Some were gray-headed, others a bit stooped, at least one carried a cane. But despite age, there were still hints of the large frames that had once donned football pads during an unforgettable season.
Nearly three dozen members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins finally received their White House moment on Tuesday, 40 years after they made history by winning 17 games and losing none — an achievement that no NFL team has matched.
President Obama welcomed the former players to the East Room, a periodic occurrence at the White House these days for sports champions. Four decades ago, however, saluting athletes was not an established tradition, and the Watergate scandal was preoccupying Richard Nixon.
The faces were still recognizable: fullback Larry Csonka, quarterback Bob Griese, offensive lineman Larry Little, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and coach Don Shula.
‘‘Some of them are a little harder to recognize these days,’’ Obama said. ‘‘They don’t have the Afros, the mutton chops, the Fu Manchus.’’
Obama, an avid sports fan, made clear to the Dolphins and his audience that as a Chicagoan, his football team is the Bears.
‘‘We understand,’’ Shula said. ‘‘You have to root for someone.’’
Obama noted that two years ago he recognized the 1985 Bears on the White House South Lawn. The team had not received the usual White House reception in 1986, a decision attributed to the space shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred two days after the Bears beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
‘‘That day I called them the greatest team ever. But, I mean, take it with a grain of salt,’’ the president added sheepishly with the Dolphins clustered behind him. ‘‘The Bears lost once in their nearly perfect season.’’ Then he paused for effect. ‘‘It happened to be to the Dolphins.’’
The politics of the moment aren’t always set aside. Three players — defensive lineman Manny Fernandez, and offensive linemen Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer — skipped the ceremony, citing disagreement with Obama’s policies, the Miami Herald reported.
“We’ve got some real moral compass issues in Washington,” Langer said. “I don’t want to be in a room with those people and pretend I’m having a good time. I can’t do that. If that [angers] people, so be it.”
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — a Republican — paid the players’ expenses.