A holiday game. The chance to advance. All eyes on the Miami Dolphins. Except this game was in 1971, a classic against the Chiefs in Kansas City. As the 2016 Miami Dolphins prepare for their Christmas Eve game in Buffalo with playoff implications, here is a look back at what turned into the longest game in NFL history. The following column was first published in the Miami Herald on Dec. 22, 1989, in advance of another Chiefs-Dolphins meeting.
There are football games epic for their historical importance. There are football games epic just for what happens on the field. Depressingly seldom do the twain meet, but they did Christmas Day 1971, in Kansas City, Missouri, when the Dolphins and Chiefs collided in the playoffs.
And collided and collided and collided and ...
You're nodding in recognition already. If you're old enough to have watched, it's frozen in memory. Your mother, wife or both were ticked off at the holiday being ruined by some dumb football game, but you couldn't pull yourself away from the screen.
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The Longest Game Ever Played. Subtitled: Christmas Dinner Delayed.
After 82 minutes 40 seconds — more than 5 1/2 quarters — Garo Yepremian gave the Dolphins a 27-24 victory with a 37- yard field goal. It went on and on and on, and so many crazy, terrible and wonderful things happened leading up to the winning kick that the game would have stood by itself as a classic. But it had significance above and beyond. It proved to be a watershed event for both franchises, the end of an era for the Chiefs and the start of one for the Dolphins.
With the teams meeting in the regular-season finale in 1989 at Joe Robbie Stadium, the day before Christmas, it seems like an opportune time to look back at their fateful meeting.
You might learn things about that game you never knew. Like the Chiefs' fake field-goal attempt that was so convincing it faked out the center ... and cost his team a sure touchdown and victory in regulation. Like the play Dolphin quarterback Bob Griese forgot about in the heat of battle but remembered just in time to use .... and set up Yepremian for his decisive boot.
Like Garo hiding from 20,000 madly celebrating Dolfans in police headquarters beneath Miami International Airport upon the team's return, sipping champagne with the cops until 4 a.m. when it was finally safe to leave. Like Don Shula finding his car battery dead and being forced to hitchhike home from the airport with son David.
But first things first. Let's put the game in perspective. The Dolphins, 10-3-1 and AFC East champions for the first time, were making their second playoff appearance, having lost as a wild-card entry to the Oakland Raiders the year before. They were young, feisty and on the rise in their second season under young, feisty Shula. But few gave them a chance against the Chiefs, 10-3-1 AFC West champs. Super Bowl winners just two years earlier, the Chiefs were a team loaded with veteran stars. A power for years, they were 6-0 against the Dolphins in the head-to-head series and favored to make it 7-0. Coach Hank Stram still says that '71 edition was the best Chiefs team of them all.
Finally, as if they didn't have incentive enough, there was a sentimental importance to winning for the Chiefs. It was their last game in Municipal Stadium. The next year, they would play in spanking new Arrowhead Stadium. They very much wanted to go out on a winning note.
They should have won, taking the lead three times only to see the Dolphins come back three times. They would have won if perhaps the greatest kicker in NFL history, Jan Stenerud, didn't miss a chip-shot field-goal attempt from 32 yards with 35 seconds left in regulation. He also missed a 29-yarder (with an asterisk) and saw a 42-yarder blocked — in all, perhaps the worst day of his great 13-year career. Almost 18 years later, the memory still rankles Stenerud, now an architect in Kansas City. “I have no interest in talking about that game,’’ he said icily. "After all these years, it still comes up ... it's past history. I have no comment.”
The Chiefs could have, should have, but didn't win. With grit and luck, the Dolphins did. It proved epochal. The Dolphins went on to make the first of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances, while the Chiefs, who seemed to get old overnight, would not return to the playoffs until 1986. Coincidentally, Miami was the Chiefs' first opponent in Arrowhead in '72. Miami won, 20-10, the start of the only perfect season in NFL history.
But the turning point for both teams was Christmas Day '71.
It was an unseasonably warm 63 degrees in Kansas City as the teams prepared for the 4 p.m. kickoff. Before the game, Yepremian, in his second season with the Dolphins, found Stenerud and congratulated him for having just been selected the AFC's Pro Bowl kicker. But inside, Yepremian seethed. He had led the NFL in scoring in '71 and felt he deserved the honor.
“Jan had a great career, and if they ever put a kicker in the Hall of Fame, he should be the one,’’ Yepremian said. “But that year, I felt I should have gotten a shot at it. He had been picked so many times.’’
At first, it didn't seem the kickers were going to play a deciding role. Kansas City scored on its first two possessions to take a 10-0 lead and had fourth down on the Miami 22 in the second quarter, with Stenerud seemingly set to make it 13-0.
The Chiefs had noted how the Dolphins liked to put on a kamikaze rush to block kicks, so Stram decided to call a fake. The ball would be snapped directly to Stenerud, a legitimately fine athlete with 4.6-second speed in the 40, and he would sprint around end behind two pulling guards.
“I told Jan, ‘You've got to be a good actor and look like you're going to kick,’ ” Stram recalled. “Anyway, we're on the right hash mark. Everyone on the sideline is psyched. We know we're going to score a touchdown. Bobby Bell, our center, looks through his legs and sees Jan looking down at his spot like he normally would, which is exactly what we told him to do. But it's so convincing, Bell thinks Jan missed the call. He's afraid to snap the ball to him, so he snaps it to the holder, Lenny Dawson.
“Lenny is surprised. Jan is surprised. Lenny puts it down and Jan takes a swipe at it and just misses to the right of the post. Meanwhile, both our guards are all alone on the right. I mean, there wasn't a soul out there with them. It would have been a certain score.”
Dawson said he was dumbfounded when the ball came to him. “I asked Bell why he snapped it to me, and he said, ‘Because it didn't look like Jan was ready to catch it,’ ” Dawson said. "I said, ‘Did you expect him to put out his arms?’ ”
If the Chiefs had taken a 17-0 lead, they might have won going away. Ah, those “ifs” and “mights.” They didn't, and the Dolphins tied the score, 10-10, by halftime.
It proved the pattern of the game. The Chiefs went ahead, 17-10, midway through the third quarter; the Dolphins tied it, 17-17, with a minute to play in the period. The Chiefs took the lead for the third time, 24-17, midway through the fourth quarter; the Dolphins tied it, 24-24, with a gutsy drive in the closing minutes highlighted by a third-and-13 Griese completion to Paul Warfield for 17 yards to the Kansas City 44. There was only 1:36 left when Griese found Marv Fleming in the end zone from five yards out.
But the Dolphin celebration died in their throats. Ed Podolak, incandescent that day with 350 all-purpose yards, took Yepremian's ensuing kickoff at the goal line, started up the middle and cut sharply left through a mass of bodies and found himself in the clear, with only Yepremian standing between him and the goal line.
“I had a choice — run over the Kangaroo or run around him,” said Podolak, who, with a measure of contempt, calls all kickers Kangaroo. “I cut hard left to avoid him and started down the left sideline, but the time it took gave Curtis Johnson the angle to catch me. I tried to get him to commit to where I could cut back behind him, but he played it very smart and kept forcing me toward the sideline. I've looked at the film 50 times to see if there was anything I could have done different, but there wasn't.”
The Kangaroo remembers the panic of being alone with Podolak. “I thought, ‘You've got to do something or the whole season's down the drain,’ ’’ Yepremian said.
He didn't do much, just got in the way long enough to enable Johnson to push Podolak out of bounds at the Miami 22. Not that it seemed to matter. Stenerud could hit from that distance blindfolded. No one on either side doubted that the game was over.
The Chiefs ran three plays. Thirty-five seconds remained when Stenerud came in to kick. No one on either side thought he’d miss. “It was over,’’ Griese said.
“My only thought was to make sure it didn't get blocked,’’ Stram said.
Shula felt helpless. “It's out of your hands,” he said.
The snap was good. The placement was good. The kick was long enough, high enough, but wide right.
Talk about huge psychological swings, they don't come any bigger.
“I was ready to take it to the shower after Jan missed,’’ Podolak said. “I had already put in a full day's work. That really was knuckles in the face to me.”
It was a seductive whisper in Dolphin ears. “It was like the football gods telling you, ‘We're going to help you,’ ’’ Griese said. “It was like, ‘Geez, another chance.’ ’’
The Chiefs won the toss and promptly threatened again when lineman Buck Buchanan lateraled Yepremian's short kick to Podolak, who returned to his 46. They moved to the Miami 35, setting up a 42-yard field-goal try by Stenerud. This time, the Dolphin kamikaze rush proved a game saver. Nick Buoniconti broke through and blocked the kick.
Geez, another chance.
The Dolphins got their first shot at victory later in the first OT period, but Yepremian just missed a 52-yarder to the left. “Whenever I missed, I'd say to myself, ‘No way I'm going to miss another.’ You only get a certain number of chances, so you've got to fight back. I hit that one well. I hoped I'd get another chance.”
The first OT ended. Back and forth it went. Tension and drama built as the game passed a time barrier never before crossed. The longest pro football game, an AFL marathon in 1962 between the Houston Oilers and Dallas Texans (later the Kansas City Chiefs), had lasted 77 minutes 54 seconds. The winning coach of the Texans that day was Hank Stram.
During one Dolphin defensive stand in the first OT, Griese, the brainy QB, went over his charts on the sideline, searching for something, anything, that might pop for a long gain.
Bingo! He noticed a Larry Csonka run, “a misdirection play before they were popular,’’ Griese said. It called for Csonka to take a handoff and start right before going the other way behind Larry Little and Norm Evans.
“But we knew the Chiefs would be looking for it, so I deliberately didn't call it in the first half,’’ Griese said. “Then I got so wrapped up in the game, I completely forgot about it. I had my clipboard in my hand during the first overtime, looking at all our plays, when I saw it. I thought, ‘Damn, I haven't used this play.’ I kept it in my mind to run at the right time.”
The right time came early in the second OT when the Dolphins faced a second and five from their 35.
Dawson called it “a sucker play.” It sure suckered the Chiefs. Csonka rumbled 29 yards to the K.C. 36.
Three runs later, the ball was on the 30. In came Yepremian.
“Truthfully, I felt a lot more confident with Stenerud than I did Garo,’’ Griese said. “Garo had just come in off the bus from Detroit, while Jan was already established as a great kicker.’’
“I couldn't help but think of what had happened to Stenerud and pray it wouldn't happen to me,’’ Yepremian said. “As I ran out onto the field, I kept saying to myself, ‘I can make it. I can make it.’ The ball felt very good off my foot. I started for the sideline, then stopped. I thought, “It's so quiet. Maybe I missed.’ “
No, it was quiet because he didn't miss.
“You never heard such silence, if that's not a contradiction,’’ Dawson said. “Such pressure, such tension. Everyone was completely drained.’’
“The guys who hadn't played much went crazy in the locker room,’’ Griese said. “The guys who had played were glowing but too tired to show it.’’
The normally garrulous Stram was shocked into silence. “It felt like someone had put a vacuum cleaner over my mouth and sucked everything out,’’ he said. “I had nothing left emotionally. But I couldn't sleep that whole night replaying the game in my mind. Finally, I remembered something Andy Gustafson told me when I became head coach of the Dallas Texans. He said, ‘If you stay in this crazy business long enough, sooner or later everything will happen to you. You will win games you shouldn't and lose games you shouldn't. And some things just aren't meant to be.’
“That was my final thought. ‘Hell, it just wasn't meant to be.’ ’’
Dolphinmania engulfed Miami. A huge crowd headed for the airport to greet the team. Among the would-be greeters was Yepremian's wife.
“She saw all the traffic and police and asked an officer if there had been an accident,’’ Garo said. “He said, ‘No, lady. Haven't you heard? The Dolphins won.’ ’’
She identified herself and got a police escort in. But the Yepremians couldn't get out until the wee hours when the cops faked the crowd by announcing Garo already had gone home. While waiting, the Yepremians sipped the bubbly with their protectors.
“When we got home, they had decorated our house and the whole street with signs like ‘We're No. 1’ and ‘Thanks, Garo!’ They had painted the street. The next day, we had a block party,’’ Yepremian said.
Meanwhile, the coach also was having problems getting out of the airport. Not even Shula's glare and chin would restore life to his battery, so he and son David, then 12, hit the road with their thumbs out. Here's how Shula told it in his biography, “The Winning Edge”:
“The first car that approached stopped. The woman who was sitting on the passenger side in the front seat recognized me. I asked her if she was going toward Miami Lakes. She said no, but she would take me anyplace I wanted to go. So David and I got into the car. There was another couple in the back seat, and we all headed to my home with the horns of over 100 cars blaring away. I invited them into the house for a Christmas drink. Naturally, we began talking football and replayed the game against the Kansas City Chiefs over and over.’’
All these years later, the game's still being replayed. It's one of the few football games to earn a title, one that instantly identifies it.