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Another Day in Paradise

Karl Noonan has led an extraordinary life filled with setbacks and victories By Mike Savicki   A sign hangs above one of the televisions in Karl Noonan’s home. It simply reads Another Day in Paradise.   The sign could serve as a reminder of Noonan’s stellar accomplishments on the gridiron. He was a seven-year pro with the Miami Dolphins, who had a Pro Bowl year in 1968, fought the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and won the Vince Lombardi Trophy a year later under Coach Don Shula as a member of the NFL’s only perfect team. Retiring in 1973 after going 17-0 surely earns him the the right to hang the sign in his home.   There’s more to Karl Noonan than football history and the sign holds a deeper meaning. Undrafted as an All-American wide receiver out of the University of Iowa, yet full of confidence and determination, Noonan negotiated his own contract with the expansion of the Miami Dolphins when the 1966 draft ended and his name was not called. He made the team when an incredible series of events fell into place.   “I had the Dolphins put a clause in my contract that said they couldn’t cut me until after the last game of the preseason season ended,” explains Karl Noonan, 67. “I knew that by going to a new team like the Dolphins, my chance to show what I could do would get better and better as the pre-season moved along. So they put in the clause and told me that if I were no good, then all he had to do was feed me for a few weeks, then they could cut me.”   As the preseason progressed, Noonan’s playing time increased as other receivers were cut, traded or injured.   “When the final preseason game began,” he adds, “I knew I was either the fifth or sixth receiver on the list, and I knew they were going to keep only four. The top draft choice was injured and couldn’t play, and on the first series, the guy who was in front of me went down with an ankle sprain, so they had to put me in the game. I ended up catching eight passes, two for touchdowns, and made the team.”   The rest, they say, is history. Long before the days of free agency changed the game and made it more enticing for some players to move from team to team chasing more lucrative contracts, Noonan says staying with one team was common.   “There was no such thing as free agency when I played, so if you were good enough and the coaches liked you, then you stayed around,” Noonan offers. “I always had a belief in my abilities as an athlete. I worked hard, I studied and I knew my assignments. There were definitely guys in training camp who had more ability than me, and I always kept that in my mind. But Shula had no time for them, and if they blew an assignment or repeated a mistake, they’d be gone. It shows how thin the line really is in pro football and how, when I played, we grew up as a team.”   Cancer doesn’t play favorites. It doesn’t care if you are one of only forty-three players in the world who owns a Super Bowl ring with 17 diamonds in it to signify the perfect season. And it doesn’t care if you now spend your life selflessly giving back to charity. As tough as cancer can be, sarcoma can be brutal.   Three years ago, at age 64, Karl Noonan was first diagnosed with a fatty type of cancer more commonly found in the arms and legs of children between the ages of eight and 16 than the tough body of a retired NFL football player. Treatment required radiation then surgery. While Noonan was fortunate that doctors removed it, he says that for those whom treatment fails, amputation is common.   But the cancer returned in 2010, and doctors removed seven ribs to extract a soccer ball sized tumor from his back. After his body rejected a mesh insert to assist with healing, Noonan fought a staph infection that almost cost him his life.   “When I had it the first time, I said I’d get through it, and when I had it the second time, I said it again,” he explains. “That has been the pattern of my life. I was never the biggest, the strongest or the fastest, but I knew no one could work harder than me; so I worked, prayed and had faith. I healed.”   Karl Noonan is now cancer free.   Sitting at his favorite sports bar, Karl Noonan shares stories from his days in the game. He body tightens when talks about being the coldest he has ever been while playing in a game against division rival, New England. He laughs when he recalls the feeling of childish amazement he shared with roommate, Bob Griese, after the friends and teammates checked in to a downtown Manhattan hotel with numerous beds and bathrooms available for their exclusive use. And he talks about how former Pittsburgh Steelers great, six-time All-Pro linebacker, Mel Blount, once pointed to the Super Bowl ring and told him what his team did may likely never be repeated.   When he talks about his wife, Grace, Noonan slows. “The first time I battled cancer, she was there with me at every doctor visit and hospital stay, and the second time, she was even stronger,” he states. “She is my sweet Georgia girl. She is my rock and pillar.”   It is safe to say Karl Noonan has earned the right to hang a certain sign in the Denver home in which he has lived since 2000. He has led an extraordinary life with both setbacks and victories. The words on the sign have become his life motto. At the end of the day, Karl Noonan says he is blessed.   “I have always been a part of a team through sports, and I apply that to my life, too,” he concludes. “You can’t go through life on your own. When you work as a team, it’s a heck of a lot more fun. To me, that’s what paradise is really about.”  
This article was originally published in the August 2011 edition of Currents Magazine.