Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Legendary Miami Dolphin Garo Yepremian faces biggest battle

We mostly forget about our distant sports stars, don’t we? They were such a big a part of our past, they entertained us, we cheered them sometimes for years, but then when it’s time they don’t so much retire as disappear. They are replaced. Faded by degrees. Gone.

So much has happened to Garabed Sarko Yepremian when no one was watching.

So much of it has been awful.

None of it has broken his spirit or will.

The latest round of chemotherapy has just ended.

“It’s a gorgeous day,” Garo says.

This is a story about dealing with what life hands you.

Plenty of good folks do the same, everywhere, every day. This one just happens to be one of the most unusual, memorable, iconic figures in Miami Dolphins franchise history. Make that in all of South Florida’s sports history.

It seems like a couple of lifetimes ago, but Garo remembers when he was best known for an attempted pass that went ridiculously awry in a Super Bowl. He played the lovable goat on America’s biggest sport stage. Johnny Carson even made fun of him in a monologue.

It was Jan. 14, 1973. A Dolphins field-goal attempt is botched, the football winds up in the kicker’s small hands, and large men are chasing him. Panicked, he tries to throw the ball but it slips and he watches as Washington’s Mike Bass returns his fumble 49 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Suddenly Miami’s lead isn’t so safe and thePerfect Season is thrown into doubt.

That the Dolphins won allowed Garo’s faux pas to be reconfigured as the stuff of good-natured ribbing and comic legend, but until the Dolphins won it was shame and infamy that cloaked him.

“I honestly felt as if my life was over,” he recalls now, more than 40 years later. He chuckles softly. “Imagine. That was the worst thing!”

That would no longer qualify as the worst thing in his life.

We spoke twice this week, Garo and I. He sounded tired the second time, his voice a whisper. He had a reason. He had just been through his second of three chemotherapy treatments, chemicals seeping intravenously through a port in his chest.

“It doesn’t bother you during,” he says. “But it takes a lot out of you.”

Garo turned 70 on June 2. There is a photograph that shows him lifting a forkful of birthday cake. There is a wide scar on his forehead, above his left eyebrow, that the Band-Aid doesn’t cover. It is a still-fresh surgical scar. Unseen in the photo is a tube running from a shunt in the back of his head, to remove fluids and relieve swelling.

Garo had a brain tumor.

It was the result of adrenal cancer.

Surgery and radiation took care of the tumor, they hope.

The chemo is attacking the cancer, they hope.

All of this just occurred, as spring burned into summer. It is all happening right now.

Yepremian is reaching out to make public what is intensely private because he wants Dolfans who might remember him to know. His Miami years were the best. It wasn’t only the nine seasons here that included the club’s halcyon, championship days, and included his Christmas Day kick that ended “The Longest Game” and put Miami in the AFC Championship Game for the first time.

He also met his future wife here. Maritza, a University of Miami graduate, had gone to a fast-food restaurant in North Miami in late 1970 because Garo, Mercury Morris and Larry Little were there giving out autographs for free.

“The chain is closed now,” Garo said. “It was a Chicken Unlimited.”

Their 43rd anniversary was the other day, her at his side at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, an hour or so from where they have lived the past 13 years.

It’s funny, how life is. Garo, barely 5-8, was the epitome of the kicker teammates made fun of for having it easy, for never getting his uniform dirty. And for his funny accent, too, remember? Born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean to Armenian parents, Garo’s accent was thick and his knowledge of American football thin. Premature baldness made him seem gnome-like. He was the perfect comic relief.

He played in the first NFL game he ever saw.

As a rookie in Detroit, he kicked an extra point and was celebrating when teammate Alex Karras scolded him, asking why he was so happy when the Lions were losing so badly.

“Because I just keeked a touchdown!” he said. Well, maybe he did or it could be apocryphal; in either case it is part of the lore. (Carson had fun with that one, too).

A couple of lifetimes later, though, it is the little player we had fun laughing at, the one who couldn’t even throw a pass, who has something to teach us about strength.

“Today is a wonderful day,” he says, even chemotherapy-weak. “It could be raining or cloudy or snowing out. It’s still a gorgeous day.”

Nausea and lack of appetite have been byproducts of the chemo. He has lost 20 pounds.

“A heck of a diet,” he volunteers.

Religious faith has helped Yepremian deal with much.

He has had six rotator cuff shoulder surgeries and multiple back surgeries. Eight years ago he had prostate cancer, resulting in an operation that left 28 staples on his stomach.

“I thought that was my biggest challenge,” he says. “But this is much more.”

So was this: Maritza — “She’s been my rock” — had a persistent fight with breast cancer.

She waited 11 months ago in a hotel lobby in Washington, the day the 1972 Perfect Season Dolphins were being honored (finally) at the White House.

She wore a necklace with two charms in the likeness of the Dolphins’ two Super Bowl rings. Garo had the charms specially made for her, a gift on the day of her double mastectomy.

“I count my blessings every day,” Garo says. “Two sons, two grandsons, two granddaughters, my wife. All of the wonderful things that have happened, we cherish them.”

He has become a prolific artist along the way, Garo has. He paints with acrylic oils in a basement studio in his home.

The tragedy that shaped Yepremian’s life would happen in 1998. His youngest son’s girlfriend, Debby Lu, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Intrinsic brainstem glioma, they called it. Doctors gave her less than a year to live, so the two teens did what kids that age do. They married. To fight it together.

Garo’s new daughter-in-law beat the dire predictions but succumbed in 2004. She had a degree in psychology. She played the piccolo.

Inspired by her fight, he founded the Garo Yepremian Foundation in 2001. The nonprofit’s purpose was, and is, to raise funds for brain tumor research.

You might never hear “cruel irony” referred to again without considering that the man who devoted himself to fighting brain tumors was himself afflicted by one.

This is another reason why Garo wants his private story made public.

Because he isn’t special just because he has championship rings or flared into a Johnny Carson monologue, once.

“It doesn’t discriminate. It happens to anybody,” Garo said of brain tumors. “I couldn’t place anything like this in my family background. But I never thought, ‘Why me!’ I said let’s go for it. Let’s tackle this. Two days after being diagnosed I had surgery.”

On May 6, not quite two months ago, Garo and Maritza headed out for dinner but were early for their reservation so they stopped at a T.J. Maxx department store. He grabbed a shopping cart.

“My knees started shaking.”

Soon after it happened again.

They drove to a hospital, “and within a half hour they detected that I had a tumor in the brain and also a mass in my stomach.” He had adrenal cancer that doctors said had spread and caused the tumors.

There had been few indications before the shaking knees. One was that the gregarious Garo had seemed more subdued.

“I was not as animated when I talked,” he said. “You know, I’m a motormouth!”

Stunned silence greeted the doctor’s words.

“We were speechless,” says Maritza.

“Brain tumor” is by itself one of the scariest phrases possible. But imagine hearing that if you, for more than a decade, had been giving your name and time to brain tumor research.

“Probably once a day I let myself feel bad and cry,” Maritza says. “Other than that, I can’t. He notices when I’m sad.”

That admission aside, the couple trusts their faith, and also the hopefulness of doctors.

“They’re giving us indications that I will beat this,” Garo says. “Sometimes you have your doubts. But the doctors give me a good prognosis. And I’m fighting.”

The old kicker couldn’t resist a final touch of football jargon likening his real-life battle to his old Dolphins days, and his tired voice lit with a small sparkle.

“I’ve got to make the three points,” he said.