By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - They clambered gingerly up the riser behind President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House, white-haired, bespectacled, their coach in a motorized chair, former athletes there to receive an accolade 40 years late.
Members of the Miami Dolphins, whose undefeated 1972 season culminated in a Super Bowl victory in January, 1973, stood smiling behind the president on Tuesday, blinking in the TV lights and basking in the applause of the crowd and the praise of the First Sports Fan.
"In 1972, these guys were a juggernaut," the president said, ticking off their accomplishments: a perfect 17-0 record that included a misleadingly close 14-7 thrashing of the Washington Redskins in the title game, leading the league in offense and defense, and fielding seven future football Hall of Famers.
It is the only National Football League team to have gone undefeated or untied all season since the National and the American Football Leagues merged in 1970.
The White House offered no clear reason why it is honoring the team decades after its signature accomplishment. Championship teams are routinely invited to the White House nowadays, a testament to the American passion for sports, not to mention the public relations benefits of posing the president with successful athletes.
But the practice of welcoming Super Bowl victors to the White House didn't start until 1980, the president said, so it was time to make amends.
"I know this is a little unorthodox, four decades after the fact - but these guys never got their White House visit after winning Super Bowl VII," he said. "And let's face it, this is also just a fun thing to do."
Obama, fresh from holiday on Martha's Vineyard last week, appeared relaxed. The president, who turned 52 in July, joked that he had to explain to his staff, many of whom are 20 years younger than he is, the significance of the team's football dominance at the start of President Richard Nixon's second term.
"I know that some people may be asking why we're doing this after all these years. And my answer is simple: I wanted to be the young guy up here for once," he said, to laughter.
Obama noted the players' accomplishments after their football careers as well, such as the support of former linebacker Nick Buoniconti, who son was paralyzed in a football accident, for spinal cord research.
Hall of Fame players Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, and Larry Little were among members of the team who were at the White House.
Coach Don Shula said it was his first time at the White House - but not his first contact with a president. Nixon, who vacationed in Florida, would call him to suggest plays, Shula said.
"I would always listen to him" and once used one of his suggestions, he said.
Not every member of the team was pleased to be at the White House. At least three, Bob Kuechenberg, Manny Fernandez, and Jim Langer told the Florida Sun-Sentinel that they would pass on the visit because of differences with the president.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)