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 a unlikely star for the losing team. But the 1971 Christmas Day playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs was decided by a bald, 5-foot-7, 170-pound, Cyprus-born kicker/tiemaker who became best known for the one of the biggest Super Bowl bloopers of all time.
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Final score: Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24 in two overtimes. Elapsed playing time: 82 minutes and 40 seconds. Garo Yepremian, a football-style left-footed kicker, scored the game-winning basket to put the Dolphins into the AFC Championship Game and end the Chiefs’ season.
“Christmas 1971. Santa Claus came to Kansas City,” said a deep-voiced narrator during an NFL Films retrospective on the game years later. “But for the Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins, their AFC playoff game felt more like Labor Day.”
Labor Day, Indeed.
“That match was a struggle, and you had to be so focused on the fact of the struggle, and keep renewing your enthusiasm and your determination just to hold on and not let go. [the Chiefs] take it,” Dolphins guard Larry Csonka recalled. The players appeared to be “on the verge of exhaustion” after the game, a reporter wrote.
Except for the little kicker who won everything.
Who was Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian?
Led by Don Shula, future Hall of Famer Bob Griese and a running game with future Hall of Famer 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 because Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud was chosen over him to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl, was one of the most colorful characters on the team. The first NFL game he saw was the first he played, for the Detroit Lions, when he was 22. He didn’t even know how to put on shoulder pads. After a kick-off, the former footballer ran towards the wrong sideline.
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In his spare time, Yepremian, the son of Armenian parents, made colorful ties – “wild and woolly, with bright, abstract patterns that remind you of the kind of visions people must have on acid trips” . 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, future Hall of Fame QB Len Dawson and a miserly 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 showdown on Christmas Day. Days before the game, Missouri lawmakers announced plans to introduce legislation banning NFL games during the holy holiday.
Future Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud misses kicks
In the final game at the rickety Municipal Stadium, 50,374 fans watched an epic performance from Ed Podolak, the Chiefs’ top 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 received the ball,” Podolak recalled, “there was a huge hole.”
Thanks to two touchdowns from Podolak, the Chiefs led 24-17 at the end of the fourth quarter. Next, the Dolphins tied the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Griese to Marv Fleming.
On the ensuing kickoff, Podolak sent the ball deep into Miami territory, setting up a potentially game-winning field goal from Stenerud with 35 seconds left. But the future Hall of Famer missed the 31-yard right attempt, and the game went to 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 afterward. “One bad break and you’re out of the game.”
Neither team scored in the first overtime. With seven minutes and 20 seconds left in the second overtime, Yepremian threw a 37-yard field goal to end it, sparking a raucous celebration by the Dolphins. “After hitting the ball,” Yepremian told reporters, “I look up to the sky and thank God for giving me the chance to hit it.” (Yepremian’s kicking shoe from the game is part of the artifact collection of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.)
The significance of playing in the longest game in NFL history barely registered with Shula nonsense. “…I don’t care,” he said. “I’m only interested in the score.”
“Fantastic, amazing,” Stram said at the game.
In the Chiefs locker room, Podolak cried. Teammate Curley Culp, a star defensive lineman, smashed helmets against a wall and Norwegian-born Stenerud despaired. “I have the worst feeling anyone could ever 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 Dolphins’ seedy locker room, a crowd has 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 what we hear 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 felt sorry for him.”
Then he stopped and smiled. “Nevertheless,” he said, “I was glad he missed.”
Yepremian has his own flub in Super Bowl VII
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 depression, a moment preserved forever. Youtube and cemented on “The Most Embarrassing Games in NFL History” lists.
In a 14-7 win over Washington, sealing the Dolphins 17-0 season, Yepremian’s 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked late in the fourth quarter. He picked up the ball and tried to throw it – a high comedy act for a 5-foot-7 kicker among the NFL Giants. But the “pass” was ripped out of the air by Mike Bass, who ran for 49 yards for Washington’s only score. The play was ruled 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 by his gaffe that he left the team’s post-game party early and took an ice bath in his hotel room.
“Honestly, I thought my life was over,” he said Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote years later about the play.
But Yepremian, who died in 2015, finally shed light on the piece.
“Every airport you go to, people are pointing at you and saying, ‘Here’s the guy who screwed up at the Super Bowl,'” he said. If it was anyone else, he’d go crazy, but luckily I’m a carefree guy.