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3/12/2005

Csonka feels right at Nome at Iditarod

By Steve Wilstein , Associated Press

In a polar opposite climate to his old stomping grounds in Miami, Hall of Fame running back Larry Csonka stood bundled up on a frozen lake marveling at the hubbub surrounding the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

"It's like Mardis Gras and Groundhog Day combined,' said Csonka, who lives in Alaska most of the year now, does hunting and fishing shows for Outdoor Life Network and was visiting his first Iditarod checkpoint, about 150 miles from the start of the 1,100-mile race to Nome.

"It's a great celebration up here. There's a lot of teamwork involved. The mushers help each other out, but what really impresses me is that when they come in here they check the time, then seven veterinarians descend on the teams. They check hearts, tongues, temperatures, everything about the dogs. I've seen at least four dogs pulled out of the race today.'

Csonka said he understands the concerns of animal rights advocates who oppose the race because it's a grueling event.

"But they also have to realize these dogs are bred and trained for this and they live for it,' Csonka said. "They want to do what they're doing. And the mushers are glad the vets check the dogs so carefully. They want the dogs to be healthy over the long haul and they don't want to shorten one's life because it's not up to snuff for a couple of days.'

While Csonka spoke, defending champion Mitch Seavey worked nonstop for an hour taking care of his dogs: checking them over with the vets, hauling bundles of straw to spread around them, carrying buckets of water for them, feeding them, making sure they were completely taken care of and settled down before he had a bite to eat himself.

Then, too, the mushers work out every detail of the race during months of preparation and are able to cope with almost anything that happens on the trail.

"A great portion of this race is mental and having a good game plan,' Csonka said. "It's like an NFL football game. You don't just go in there thinking, 'We're good.' You've got to have alternatives. Whatever hits you in the face, you've got to deal with and take it on the run.'

The mushers are much smaller than NFL players, but every bit as rugged and committed. Three-time champion Jeff King came into this checkpoint shortly after flipping over on his back when his sled brake hooked on a tree stump in the trail.

"That sounds like something that happens to an NFL running back,' Csonka said. "Jeff said, 'I'm fitted for what I do and you were fitted for what you did.''

Csonka, 58, still wears his Super Bowl ring from the Miami Dolphins' undefeated season in 1972 and still vividly remembers sweltering in the heat of summer camps back then. Alaskan weather and the variety of outdoor sports in the state, which he chronicles in 26 shows a year, suit him much more.

"I came to Alaska for the first time in 1969 or '70,' he said. "Every few years I would come back for a while. Then 15 or 20 years ago I started coming back more regularly. Now I've moved up here and we're here eight or nine months a year and really like it. We have a place in Anchorage we call base camp.

"When I was playing and practicing in that heat in July and August in Miami with shoulder pads on, it just vaporized me. (Head coach Don) Shula would always come over and look at me and say, 'Where are you? I know you're not here. You're just on automatic pilot.' I was up here in my mind, fishing in a stream.'

Robert Sorlie, the 2003 champion from Hurdal, Norway, was the first musher into Nikolai on Tuesday, an Interior Alaska town of 120 people on the south fork of the Kuskokwim River, on Day 3 of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Sorlie, 47, has been mushing for 35 years and is running his third Iditarod.

Following him into Nikolai 770 miles from Nome were veteran mushers Ramy Brooks of Healy and DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow. Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers and 2004 Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey of Seward had left the Rohn checkpoint and were in the fourth and fifth positions en route to Nikolai.

The route from Nikolai to the McGrath checkpoint is 48 miles.