In 2011 I wrote the following feature about the Miami Dolphins’ first permanent training camp at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton.
In it are quotes from a couple of former players, Tom Goode and Billy Neighbors, who unfortunately have passed on, and there also is a reference to it being the 50th anniversary for St. Andrew’s, when actually the school is up to 55 now. The rest of it still works just fine, however, with entertaining anecdotes about rattlesnakes, and about flying to San Diego for an exhibition game in a World War II-era prop plane, and about the head coach using his son at quarterback.
I’m hoping on this first day of Dolphins training camp 2016 you will find that it is worth your time. Here goes.
In 1966 the expansion Miami Dolphins debuted in Boca Raton with an isolated training camp that South Florida residents barely noticed and that the players of the day would prefer to forget.
Saint Andrew’s School was the Dolphins‘ first permanent training headquarters, inheriting that assignment when a brief and failed experiment with sloppy facilities on Florida’s Gulf Coast forced the team to pull up stakes and move on the fly.
The school, in just its fifth year of existence, was surrounded by undeveloped scrub and marshland, with one lonely road leading in and out.
That meant Boca Raton’s relatively small population center, situated far to the east, was far more a rumor than a daily reality to Dolphins coach George Wilson and his strange new conglomeration of rookies and scooped-up AFL veterans left unprotected by their former teams.
“There would be some people that would come out there to watch us practice, but you had to really want to come because of where it was located,” said former Dolphins center Tom Goode, 72, who had already played eight seasons with the Houston Oilers when Miami took him in an expansion draft.
“It was kind of hidden back off the road, full of palmetto bushes and snakes. Anywhere you could see water you’d see alligators, and you could always see a dead rattlesnake or something on the road coming into campus. Around the school they killed rattlesnakes, I know, and the mosquitoes, they’d just carry you off.”
The Dolphins had what they needed at Saint Andrew’s, however, in the way of multiple practice fields and dormitory rooms and hot cafeteria food.
What a nice change that was, because the first few weeks of training camp in St. Petersburg Beach were just plain silly.
Miami’s first-ever drills were held there on what amounted to an empty lot with background views of the Gulf of Mexico. No goalposts were in place to begin, plus no equipment to speak of and precious little turf.
A gaggle of businessmen known as the Suncoast Sports Group had talked Dolphins founder Joe Robbie into using that tourist-friendly setting, but the team soon had to move its practices to nearby Boca Ciega High School and finally, on Aug. 7, all the way across the peninsula to Saint Andrew’s.
“They tried to put a practice field down over by the beach,” Goode said from his home in West Point, Miss. “It looked pretty going down, with the grass rolled up like carpet, but as soon as we started playing, the stuff tore all up. Seashells started coming through it and we had a lot of infections from cuts on our knees and hands and arms. The team doctor stayed busy with all of that.”
Frank Emanuel, an All-America linebacker at Tennessee and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, was drafted by the Dolphins of the AFL and the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL but chose Miami because he wanted to stay in the South. His first impressions of that St. Petersburg Beach training camp must have had Emanuel questioning his decision.
“We stayed in this little hotel called the Dolphin Inn right on the beach,” Emanuel,
68, said from his Principal Financial Group office in Tampa. “Here I am a college guy, new to the pros, and I find out that we had to wear our same practice gear for both workouts during two-a-days. We’d hang it all up in the room, but that didn’t do much.
“They gave us a clean jock, thank goodness, but our pants and jerseys and so forth stayed wet.”
Miami’s first exhibition game was in San Diego, which presented another logistical problem. Five major U.S. airlines were shut down that summer because an estimated 35,000 industry workers were on strike. Robbie hustled up a ride to California for the Dolphins, but it was with Zantop International Airlines, a company that utilized World War II-era prop planes and only four years earlier had acquired a license to carry commercial passengers as well as freight.
“It took us days to get there, it seemed like,” Emanuel said. “We flew to the West Coast slow and low, and we had to stop on the way over and on the way back to gas up.”
After returning from that 38-10 loss to the Chargers, Wilson instructed his players to pile into their personal vehicles and carpool across the state to Boca Raton.
Move brings little fanfare
They arrived on a Monday at Saint Andrew’s, a private-school campus deserted for the summer by its all-male student body, and jumped right into preparing for that Friday night’s home opener against Len Dawson and the Kansas City Chiefs.
For an idea of the negligible impact that the Dolphins‘ arrival had on Palm Beach County, The Palm Beach Post splashed coverage and photos from the American Legion state baseball tournament across the front page of the sports section that week. The story about the Dolphins‘ opening practice in Boca Raton was on Page 2.
Teresa Vignau, the theater director at Saint Andrew’s, places a much higher value than that on the Dolphins‘ first training camp. She was 14 and living on campus with her family in 1966 because Vignau’s father, a French teacher, was a faculty member.
“We had a piano that my mother wanted to put in my bedroom but we weren’t having much luck because of the angle,” Vignau said. “My father, who stands all of 5-foot-6, runs out and asks these three tired linemen if they could help. They very sweetly came in and moved the piano for us.
“Some of the other guys on the team thought it would be really fun to shoot the ducks in the pond on campus. I didn’t see who did it, but I saw the duck. One of the animal-protection organizations came and relocated the flock after that.”
Wilson, who died in 1978, surely had his hands full that first summer.
He won an NFL title as coach of the Detroit Lions in 1957 but lost his first nine games with the Dolphins, counting four exhibitions and five regular-season games.
One of the major reasons was the lack of a quarterback. Bob Griese didn’t join the Dolphins until the following year.
Father turns to son
In 1966, Wilson had four mediocre passers from which to choose, and he gave much of the early playing time to his son, George Jr., who was never more than a backup at Xavier.
“I have to go by what I see in the games and practice,” said Wilson, who traded a 13th-round draft pick to Buffalo to bring his son to Miami. “Once we get on the field, it’s coach and player, not father and son.”
Wilson Jr. wound up throwing five touchdown passes with 10 interceptions and 11 sacks that year, soon giving way to veterans John Stofa and Dick Wood as the Dolphins scrambled to put together a 3-11 inaugural season.
“It got better, but it wasn’t very organized at first,” said Billy Neighbors, 71, a College Football Hall of Fame guard who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama and then four seasons with the Boston Patriots before coming to Miami in 1966.
“I assume it was a typical first-year operation. People didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”
Wilson lasted four years as Dolphins coach, which just happened to be the only four years that the team trained at Saint Andrew’s. He was fired with a 15-39-2 Miami record and replaced in 1970 by Don Shula, who moved the Dolphins‘ summer camp to what was then known as Biscayne College in North Miami.
By the time Shula arrived, one of the more colorful original Dolphins, pro wrestler Wahoo McDaniel, was gone.
McDaniel reportedly enjoyed handling the snakes he found near the Saint Andrew’s dorms and using them to spook teammates.
“It’s amazing that team survived,” Neighbors said.
Same goes for Saint Andrew’s, now celebrating its 50th year in southern Palm Beach County.