Christmas Day classic between Don Shula’s Dolphins and Chiefs remembered 40 years later

December 24, 2011

Jan Stenerud answered his cellphone, listened patiently to the person on the other end of the line, then blurted out a response before apologetically and abruptly hanging up. The topic that disturbed him? A very special Christmas Day game 40 years ago, a two-overtime contest between Stenerud’s Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins.

It remains the longest game in NFL history. Twelve players who competed that day made it to the NFL’s Hall of Fame. Sport historians consider it a competitive classic; old-time fans remember it as one of the best football games ever played.

Stenerud, one of only three place kickers in the Hall of Fame, doesn’t see it that way. Even all these years later, his performance on that day, in that historic contest, still brings him misery. Stenerud had a chance to win the game with a 31-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation. He missed, pushing the ball wide right. Garo Yepremian made the decisive 37-yard kick for the Dolphins in the game’s 83rd minute — about halfway through the second overtime — for a 27-24 win. The Dolphins went on to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ season ended.

“I spent 19, 20 years in the NFL,” Stenerud, agitated, said on the phone. “I’m in the Hall of Fame. I had one horrendous day, and that was the day, and I don’t want to talk about it. . . . After 40 years, I will take that game to my grave. I lost that game, and that’s how I feel about it.”

Twenty years ago, Yepremian bumped into Stenerud for the first time since that 1971 playoff meeting at a golf tournament. He couldn’t believe what Stenerud said to him.


Dolphins Coach Don Shula celebrates beating the Chiefs in a double-overtime thriller, the longest game in NFL history. (NFL Photos/Associated Press)

“He told me for the last 20 years, I was haunting him at Christmas,” Yepremian said. “I told him: ‘Forget about it. Let’s enjoy life.’ ”

Stenerud, who also had an attempt blocked in the first overtime and missed another earlier, isn’t the only one who can’t shake memories of the game, the last one played at Kansas City’s old Municipal Stadium. Bob Griese, Miami’s legendary quarterback, said he still gets asked about the contest, which essentially sent Miami into its winning era while ending Kansas City’s reign.

The Dolphins lost to the Dallas Cowboys in that year’s Super Bowl but went on to two straight NFL titles, including their 1972 perfect season. The Chiefs had won the Super Bowl after the 1969 season; many considered the ’71 team even better.

“The Kansas City Chiefs were the big powerhouse in the AFC back then,” Griese said. “The Dolphins were the new upstarts. We didn’t know how good we were. . . . I never allowed myself to believe we were going to win that game.”

Running back Ed Podolak carried the Chiefs, accruing what remains a playoff record for all-purpose yards with 350. He rushed for 85 on 17 carries, returned three kicks for 153 yards and two punts for two yards. He caught eight passes for 110 yards. The Chiefs led, 24-17, in the fourth quarter, but the Dolphins scored on a five-yard pass from Griese to Marv Fleming to tie the score with 1 minute 25 seconds remaining.

On the ensuing kickoff, Podolak returned the ball 78 yards to the Miami 22, setting up what seemed to be almost a chip shot for Stenerud.

After Stenerud’s miss, the game dragged on. Stenerud’s 42-yard attempt in overtime was blocked, and Yepremian missed a 52-yarder. After Miami’s Nick Buoniconti, who made 20 tackles in the game, took him down in the second overtime, Podolak could not help but exclaim in exasperation.

“I think we ran into each other like 25 times that day,” Podolak said. “In the sixth quarter, he was laying on top of me and I looked up at him and said, ‘Do you think this thing will ever be over?’ ”

It took a play Griese had forgotten to call in the game’s first five quarters to put Miami in position for the winning score. Griese was perusing the clipboard on the sideline early in the sixth quarter when he realized he had forgotten to call one of the team’s bread-and-butter plays, a weak-side rush with Larry Csonka called “roll right, trap left.”

The first time Griese called it, Csonka carried the ball 29 yards to the Kansas City 37.

Yepremian remembers the game taking place on a beat-up field that had so many grassless spots game officials painted patches of it green. Yet he doesn’t recall even noticing the field conditions when — after saying a prayer on the sideline — he went out to attempt the kick.

“I was eager to take it,” he said. “At the end of the game, you know everybody’s poured their heart and soul out. There’s nothing left in the tank.”

The kick sailed through. The stadium got silent. The Dolphins celebrated wildly.

“I dropped my head and walked to the locker room,” Podolak said. “I was tremendously disappointed.”

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