Karl Noonan likes the Carolina Panthers. He really does. He watches them religiously on TV. He lives 20 miles from Bank of America Stadium.
But on Sunday, against the New York Giants, Noonan would like the 13-0 Panthers to lose.
He wants them to lose one game and one game only. And he wants it to come quickly.
Noonan, 71, has one of the most unique perspectives in the Carolinas on the Panthers’ quest for an undefeated season. A former NFL wide receiver, he was a member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins – the only NFL team to ever complete a perfect season.
To say Noonan is proud of this accomplishment would be an understatement. His Super Bowl ring says “17-0.” His license plate reads “17NO.” He was one of 31 former players from the 1972 Dolphins team that made it to the White House in 2013 as President Obama’s invited guests to celebrate the Perfect Season.
So Noonan has divided loyalties these days. The Panthers are his second favorite team. But the Dolphins are still No. 1.
“My ideal scenario for the Panthers, with three regular-season games left, is for them to lose one regular-season game,” Noonan said Thursday as we sit at his kitchen table. “Then I’d love to see them go on and win the Super Bowl.”
But what if the Panthers finish 16-0 in the regular season?
“If they win all the rest of the regular-season games,” Noonan says, “and get into the playoffs at 16-0, then I’d be looking for the Panthers to get beat. I’m sorry. It’s tough to say that. But we’ve had the Perfect Season for a long time, and we are so proud of that.”
If the Panthers go 19-0, Noonan says, he’s not going to be terribly upset. On a lot of Sundays he watches the Panthers at the Sports Page restaurant in Denver, N.C, along with his wife and about a dozen other couples. If someone must become the second owner of a perfect season, he would like it to be his hometown team (Noonan moved to the Charlotte area in 1980 and never left).
But if Noonan could have his cake and eat it too, he would give the Panthers their Super Bowl victory with an 18-1 overall record and let the 1972 Dolphins remain alone on the mountaintop.
I have met a lot of people who have known Karl Noonan over the years, and all of them have liked him. He’s a down-to-earth fellow who had a nasty fight with cancer and won. He still works part time for Metrolina Greenhouses because he likes to stay busy. He has eight grandchildren.
Noonan and his wife, Grace, are deeply embedded in the same East Lincoln County community where my family lives. The other day I ended up behind Noonan in the Bojangles’ drive-through line. He was in Grace’s car that time, the one with the ‘FINZ’ license plate.
I mention to Noonan the urban legend that some members of the 1972 Dolphins team raise a glass of wine or champagne in celebration when the last undefeated NFL team each year goes down.
“That’s their tradition,” Noonan says. “I’m pretty much a 9-to-5 type of guy. So I pop a Budweiser.”
Noonan knows his old coach, Don Shula, has a different idea about how he wants this season to end. Shula told me recently he is rooting for the Panthers to go 19-0, saying “that would make me so proud if that happened.”
“I totally understand that,” Noonan says. “If it turns out that way, Don would be the coach for the 1972 team and then his son Mike would be the offensive coordinator for the next team to do it.”
At my request, Noonan shows me his Super Bowl ring. It has 17 diamonds – one for each victory. It says “17-0” and “Perfect Season” on one side and “Noonan” on the other.
That season came at the tail end of Noonan’s seven-year NFL career, which was cut short by a severe shoulder injury. Originally from Iowa, Noonan was an undrafted rookie who specialized in making the tough catch over the middle. He became a Pro Bowler in 1968 and led the AFL with 11 touchdown receptions.
I ask him how much a Pro Bowl wide receiver earned in those days. He says the most money he ever made in any season was $48,000.
“I negotiated my own contracts,” Noonan says. “I went in after that All-Pro season and asked for a $3,000 raise. The general manager said, ‘We’ll give you $1,500. Take it or leave it.’ ”
He took it. With no NFL free agency at the time, there was hardly any other choice.
Noonan played in the 1971 Super Bowl, which Miami lost to Dallas, but never caught a pass or got into a real game during the Dolphins’ undefeated season the next year. He got hurt in the 1972 preseason was placed on injured reserve. He practiced with the team once his shoulder partially recovered. He traveled with the Dolphins to all their games, including the Super Bowl, where Miami beat Washington, but did not play.
But everyone considers Noonan a part of that famous ’72 team. He is invited to the all-expense-paid reunions the Dolphins hold for that squad every five years.
In turn, Noonan considers himself one of the keepers of the legacy of the Perfect Season. Hence the license plate, and the Miami Dolphins helmet he keeps and his wish for the Panthers to get beaten.
Just once. And very soon.