Third in a series on iconic NFL games.
The longest game in NFL history featured 13 future Hall of Fame players, two future Hall of Fame head coaches, starting quarterbacks who would end their careers with three combined Super Bowl titles and an unlikely star for the losing team. But the 1971 Christmas Day playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs was decided by a bald, bald, Cyprus-born, 5-foot-7, 170-pound kicker / tiemaker who became known best for one of the greatest Super Bowl blooper of all time.
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Final score: Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24 in two overtime. Elapsed game time: 82 minutes and 40 seconds. Garo Yepremian, a left-handed football-style kicker, netted the winning basket to put the Dolphins in the AFC championship game and end the Chiefs’ season.
“Christmas 1971. Santa Claus Came to Kansas City,” said a deep-spoken narrator during an NFL Films retrospective on the game years later. “But for the Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, their AFC playoff game was more like Labor Day.”
Labor Day, Indeed.
“This match was a struggle, and you had to focus so much on the fact of the struggle, and keep renewing your enthusiasm and determination just to hang in there and not let go. [the Chiefs] take it, ”recalls Dolphins back Larry Csonka. The players appeared to be “on the verge of exhaustion” after the game, wrote a reporter.
Except for the little kicker who won everything.
Who was dolphin kicker Garo Yepremian?
Led by Don Shula, future Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese and a running game with future Hall of Fame Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris, the Dolphins were a rising power. Miami finished the regular season with a 10-3-1 record.
Yepremian, angered that Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud was chosen in his place to represent the AFC at the Pro Bowl, was one of the team’s most compelling characters. The first NFL game he saw was the first he played, for the Detroit Lions, at the age of 22. He didn’t even know how to put on shoulder pads. After a kick-off, the former footballer took the wrong touch.
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In his spare time, Yepremian, the son of Armenian-born parents, would make colorful ties – “wild, woolly ties, with abstract, shiny patterns that are reminiscent of the kind of visions people must have on acid trips. “, the New York Times reported in 1972. “[S]Some people who see the fabric think it looks pretty ridiculous, “Yepremian said.” But they end up liking ties. “
The Chiefs, led by head coach Hank Stram, renowned future quarterback Len Dawson and a stingy defense, also finished the regular season with a 10-3-1 record. Against the Dolphins, Kansas City was a three-point favorite.
Not everyone was thrilled with this Christmas Day showdown. Days before the game, Missouri lawmakers announced plans to introduce legislation that would ban NFL games at the holy day.
Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud misses the kicks
In the rickety municipal stadium, 50,374 fans witnessed an epic performance by Ed Podolak, the Chiefs’ main rusher during the regular season, but barely a star. He finished with 350 all-purpose yards, still an NFL record for a playoff game.
“We still haven’t found a way to stop Podolak,” Shula said years later.
“Every time I got the ball,” Podolak remembers, “there was a huge hole.”
With two touchdowns from Podolak, the Chiefs were leading 24-17 at the end of the fourth quarter. Then the Dolphins tied the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Griese to Marv Fleming.
In the ensuing kick-off, Podolak returned the ball deep into Miami territory, setting up a potential winning field goal for Stenerud with 35 seconds left. But the future Hall of Famer missed the attempt from 31 yards to the right, and the game went into overtime. Earlier, Stenerud missed a 29-yard attempt and in the first overtime his 42-yard attempt was blocked.
“This sudden death is horrible,” Dawson told reporters afterwards. “A bad break and you’re out of the game.”
Neither team scored in the first extra time. With seven minutes and 20 seconds left in second overtime, Yepremian kicked a 37-yard field goal to end it, triggering a boisterous celebration by the Dolphins. “After kicking the ball,” Yepremian told reporters, “I roll my eyes and thank God for giving me the chance to hit him.”
The importance of playing in the longest game in NFL history barely registered with the pragmatic Shula. “… I don’t care,” he said. “I’m only interested in the score.”
“Fantastic, incredible,” Stram said.
In the Chiefs locker room, Podolak cried. His teammate Curley Culp, a star defensive lineman, smashed helmets against a wall and Norway’s Stenerud despaired. “I have the worst feeling you can have,” he told the Kansas City Star. “I have no idea what I’m going to do now. I want to hide.… It’s unbearable. Totally unbearable.”
Outside the dingy Dolphins locker room, a crowd formed. Then a man carrying a black bag approached. “Please make way for the doctor,” he said, according to the Star. As the crowd parted, someone said, “From the noise of things in there, they don’t need a doctor. They need a bartender.
Yepremian was asked if he could understand Stenerud’s pain. “It happens to everyone,” he said. “It happens to the best. And for that, I took pity on him.”
Then he stopped and smiled. Still, he said, I was glad he missed it.
Yepremian has his own Super Bowl VII mess
The following week, the Dolphins defeated the Baltimore Colts in the AFC Championship game, but lost Super Bowl VI two weeks later to the Dallas Cowboys, 24-3. During the Super Bowl the following year, Yepremian had his own moment of weakness, a moment preserved forever on YouTube and cemented on the lists of “most embarrassing plays in NFL history.”
In a 14-7 win over Washington, sealing the Dolphins’ season 17-0, Yepremian’s 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked. He picked up the ball and tried to throw it – an act of high comedy for a 5-foot-7 kicker among the NFL giants. But the “pass” was snatched in the air by Mike Bass, who ran 49 yards for Washington’s only score. The game was judged as a fumble.
“We’re losing this game, I’m going to kill you,” Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti told Yepremian on the sidelines, according to the Miami Herald.
Yepremian was so stressed out by his blunder that he left the team’s post-game party early and took an ice bath in his hotel room.
“I honestly thought my life was over,” he said Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote years later on the play.
But Yepremian, who died in 2015, finally shed light on the play.
“Every airport you go to, people point their fingers at you and say, ‘This is the guy who fucked up the Super Bowl,'” he said. “After a while you mind. If it was anyone else they would go crazy, but luckily I’m a carefree guy.