The longest game in NFL history featured 13 future Hall of Fame players, two future Hall of Fame head coaches, starting quarterbacks who would finish their careers with a combined three Super Bowl titles and an 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 5-foot-7, 170-pound, balding, Cyprus-born kicker/tiemaker who became best known for one of the greatest Super Bowl bloopers of all time.
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Final score: Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24 in two overtimes. Elapsed game time: 82 minutes and 40 seconds. Garo Yepremian, a left-footed, soccer-style kicker, booted the winning field goal to put the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game and end the Chiefs' season.
“Christmas 1971. Santa Claus came to Kansas City,” a deep-voiced narrator said during an NFL Films retrospective on the game years later. “But for the Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins, their AFC playoff game seemed more like Labor Day.”
Labor Day, indeed.
“That game was a struggle, and you had to concentrate so much on the fact of the struggle, and to keep renewing your enthusiasm and determination just to hang on and not let [the Chiefs] take it," Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka recalled. Players appeared to be on the "edge of exhaustion" following the game, a reporter wrote.
Except for the little kicker who won it all.
Who Was Dolphins Kicker Garo Yepremian?
Led by Don Shula, future Hall of Fame quarterback 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, peeved because Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud was chosen over him to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl, was one of the team's most colorful characters. The first NFL game he saw was the first one he played in, for the Detroit Lions, when he was 22. He didn't even how to put on shoulder pads. After a kickoff, the former soccer player ran to the wrong sideline.
In his spare time, Yepremian, the son of Armenian-born parents, made colorful neckties—"wild and woolly ones, with bright, abstract patterns that remind you of the kind of visions people must have on acid trips," the New York Times reported in 1972. "[S]ome people who see the fabric think it looks pretty ridiculous," Yepremian said. "But they wind up loving the neckties.”
The Chiefs, led by head coach Hank Stram, future Hall of Fame QB 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, lawmakers in Missouri announced their intention to introduce legislation that would ban NFL games on the sacred holiday.
Future Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud Misses Kicks
In the final game in rickety Municipal Stadium, 50,374 fans witnessed an epic performance by Ed Podolak, the Chiefs' leading rusher during the regular season but hardly a star. He finished with 350 all-purpose yards, still an NFL record for a playoff game.
"We still haven't figured a way to stop Podolak," Shula said years later.
"Every time I got the ball," Podolak recalled, "there was a huge hole."
Thanks to two Podolak touchdowns, the Chiefs led 24-17 late in the fourth quarter. Then the Dolphins tied the score on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Griese to Marv Fleming.
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On the ensuing kickoff, Podolak returned the ball deep into Miami territory, setting up a potential winning field goal by Stenerud with 35 seconds left. But the future Hall of Famer missed the 31-yard attempt to the right, and the game went to overtime. Earlier, Stenerud missed a 29-yard attempt, and in the first overtime, his 42-yard attempt was blocked.
"That sudden death is horrifying," 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 kicked a 37-yard field goal to end it, triggering a raucous celebration by the Dolphins. "After I kicked the ball," Yepremian told reporters, "I look up at the sky and thank God for giving me the chance to kick it." (Yepremian's kicking shoe from the game is in the collection of artifacts at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.)
The significance of playing in the longest game in NFL history barely registered with the no-nonsense Shula. "...I could care less," he said. "I'm only interested in the score."
"Fantastic, unbelievable," Stram called the game.
Inside the Chiefs' locker room, Podolak wept. Teammate Curley Culp, a star defensive lineman, smashed helmets into a wall, and the Norwegian-born Stenerud despaired. "I have the worst feeling anyone could have," he told the Kansas City Star. "I have no idea what I'm going to do now. I feel like hiding. ... 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 sound 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 everybody," he said. "It happens to the best. And for that, I felt sorry for him."
Then he paused and smiled. "Still," 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. In the next year's Super Bowl, Yepremian had his own low moment, one preserved forever on YouTube and cemented on "Most Embarrassing Plays 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—an act of high comedy for a 5-foot-7 kicker among NFL giants. But the "pass" was snatched in mid-air by Mike Bass, who ran 49 yards for Washington's only score. The play was ruled a fumble.
"We lose this game, I'll 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.
"I honestly thought my life was over," he told Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote years later about the play.
But Yepremian, who died in 2015, eventually made light of the play.
"Every airport you go to, people point to you and say, ‘Here’s the guy who screwed up in the Super Bowl,’” he said. “After a while it bothers you. If it was anybody else, he would go crazy, but fortunately I’m a happy-go-lucky guy.”