Don Banks: Remembering the Christmas gift that was The Longest Game Ever - Sports Illustrated

Remembering the Christmas gift that was The Longest Game Ever

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Forty years ago this Sunday, on Christmas Day 1971, the Miami Dolphins, my Miami Dolphins back then, played and won the longest pro football game ever, a double overtime playoff classic in Kansas City. It lasted nearly 83 mesmerizing minutes of game action, a six-quarter see-saw extravaganza that stretched from mid-afternoon into the dark December evening, with enough drama, plot twists and momentum shifts to fill a novel.

It's easily my most vivid NFL memory of childhood, and thoughts of that thrilling 27-24 Miami victory in the AFC Divisional playoff in Kansas City -- won on Garo Yepremian's 37-yard field goal roughly midway through the second overtime -- came flooding back this week when I learned the NFL Network on Sunday night will show a newly produced one-hour NFL Films retrospective of that epic matchup, called "The Longest Game Ever.'' Forty years to the day, that game, still the most thrilling NFL playoff game ever for my money, will again take center stage on the biggest holiday of the year, right before the Bears and Packers kick it off on Sunday Night Football at Green Bay's Lambeau Field.

I've covered the NFL in some form or fashion for 22 seasons now, but of course we all start out as fans, with favorite teams and favorite players, and all of my NFL heroes back then were Miami Dolphins. I was a fourth-grader that winter, growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and in those pre-Buccaneers days, the entire Sunshine State belonged to the Dolphins, lock, stock and Flipper's fish tank.

Being the youngest of four, and the only committed and diehard Dolphins fan in our family, I was allowed special dispensation to keep our 19-inch black and white television on and turned down low during that Christmas dinner, because my dad knew what the game meant to me and he was an NFL fan himself, albeit a follower of Johnny Unitas and the Colts.

But it still wasn't easy to watch as the Dolphins and Chiefs played on and on that day, because my chair at the dining room table faced directly away from the TV, so I had to turn almost completely around to track each play across the room, then turn back to re-focus on my plate and at least feign some level of interest in family interaction. I could tell my mom wasn't crazy about this arrangement, but she knew by now what place sports and the Dolphins occupied in my life, and she went along with it as best she could, usually resisting the urge to point out my "misplaced priorities.''

But looking back, I was absolutely right to eat while looking back. What a game it was. It had heroes and goats, record-setting performances that still stand to this day and all the mystique and romance that we attach to great postseason games that go into sudden death. Whatever the legendary 1958 NFL title game is for football fans of that era, the '71 Dolphins-Chiefs double overtime thriller was for me and perhaps my generation. Thirteen years after "The Greatest Game Ever'' came "The Longest Game Ever,'' and I didn't miss a play of it. Christmas dinner or no Christmas dinner.

The NFL Network was nice enough to send me a short preview of the show this week, and it's enough to make me want to change my Christmas dining plans once again, in order to catch every minute of this richly-detailed walk back in time. There's never-before-seen NFL Films footage from the game, including in-game audio from both sidelines, the original Dolphins and Chiefs radio broadcasts, and the actual Curt Gowdy-called NBC television broadcast of Miami's final, game-winning field goal drive in the second overtime, which according to the NFL Network is the "only existing television footage that has not been seen since 1971.''

There's a clip of Chiefs head coach Hank Stram debating whether he should have kicker Jan Stenerud try a desperate 65-yard field goal on the last play of regulation, before overtime arrives -- he decided against it -- and another of Dolphins running backs Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris (two of the coolest football names ever, I might add) discussing how tough it was to run against Kansas City's defense that day.

Interspersed throughout the hour are new interviews with many of the key players from the game, including Miami quarterback Bob Griese, receiver Paul Warfield, head coach Don Shula and kicker Yepremian, as well as Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson, kicker Stenerud, linebacker Jim Lynch, and running back Ed Podolak, who had a career day in that game, and still marvels at how it changed his life forevermore.

No fewer than 12 players from that game wound up in the Hall of Fame, as did both head coaches (Shula and Kansas City's Stram), and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt. It's a fitting showcase for all of them, and as a time capsule look at the NFL in the early '70s, it's nearly unmatched.

"This show is like unearthing a treasure that was buried for 40 years,'' NFL Films president Steve Sabol said. "I am so glad that we can re-tell the story of this classic game to an entire new generation that has never had the chance to see it. Never mind sending this game film to the Hall of Fame; the Smithsonian would be a better choice.''

There are so many priceless NFL retro touches that I noticed just from the preview clip I saw. Like the white stripes that were on the NFL ball that season, or the goal posts still being on the goal line rather than at the back of the end zone. The sideline shots are a gold mine, too. There was the little, bald Yepremian, with side burns that could have passed for tiny throw rugs of shag carpeting from the den. Or Stram, with that silly, happy yell he did whenever he loved a successful play just run by his Chiefs.

And so many things that time and memory had obscured now jump out at me with a new chance to re-live that game. Like the fact that game was the last one ever played at Kansas City's ancient Municipal Stadium, with the Chiefs headed for brand-new Arrowhead Stadium in 1972. Or that it was the first playoff win in Miami franchise history, and marked the end of an era for the Chiefs. That great Kansas City team, which had won the Super Bowl just two years earlier, had its last hurrah that day against the Dolphins. The Chiefs wouldn't win another AFC West title for 22 years, and wouldn't even make the playoffs again until 1986.

As for the game itself, I won't do justice to it in such a limited format. But it was spell-binding. Both the AFC West champion Chiefs and AFC East champion Dolphins went 10-3-1 that year and came into their playoff opener with momentum. Kansas City raced to a 10-0 first-quarter lead, but Miami scored 10 in the second quarter to tie at halftime. The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, but the Chiefs looked to be in command when they marched 91 yards to score on a 3-yard Podolak run more than midway through the fourth.

But that's when things started getting special, and that's about when my mother's Christmas dinner started coming into conflict with my favorite football team. The Dolphins, who would go on to play in and lose their first Super Bowl that season, answered with a clutch 71-yard drive and a 5-yard Griese touchdown pass to tight end Marv Fleming with just 1:25 remaining in regulation.

Tied at 24-24, the Chiefs and Dolphins looked headed for overtime. And then they didn't. That because the indefatigable Podolak took the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Miami 22, barely getting pushed out of bounds by Dolphins cornerback Curtis Johnson. It looked over for Miami. Kansas City had Stenerud, the greatest kicker of his era, and they were in relative chip-shot range. But it was not to be. Stenerud is still the only pure kicker elected to the Hall of Fame, but this was to be the worst day of his 19-year NFL career.

The Chiefs got the ball to the Miami 15 with about 35 seconds remaining, and sent in Stenerud, the soft-spoken Norweigan who was one of the game's first soccer-style kickers. But he missed his 31-yard attempt wide right, and the teams played on into the night.

Forty years later, Stenerud still looks distraught as you watch him describe his miss of that kick in the NFL Films special. You can see the torment in his eyes and hear it in his voice. Four decades have not dulled the pain noticeably. And there's a fascinating clip in the show from Dawson, talking about a despondent Stenerud calling him at home the night of the game, apologetic for his failure.

In a game of that sort, the drama starts to build on itself, with each new twist and turn deepening the tension and furthering each team's desperation to end it. But neither Kansas City or Miami could end it. In the first overtime, the snake-bit Stenerud had a 42-yard field goal attempt blocked just 3:04 into the extra period, and Yepremian came up short on a 52-yard try with 2:46 left in the quarter.

As the second overtime began, the players knew they were in a war of attrition, and they were going to, as Dolphins running back Larry Csonka said, "play until somebody won, or died.'' Csonka claims to have lost 18 pounds during the grueling game, to the point where his football pants were getting loose around his waist. Miami middle linebacker Nick Buonticonti made an herculean 20 tackles in the game, many of them against Podolak, the Chiefs' Energizer bunny who seemingly refused to grow weary from his work load.

Podolak against Miami was a one-man wrecking crew, and I'll never forget how many times Curt Gowdy's call on NBC seemed to be describing another Podolak highlight. In just that one memorable game, Podolak carried 17 times for 85 yards, caught eight passes for 110 yards, returned three kickoffs for 153 yards, and returned two punts for two yards. His combined all-purpose yardage of 350 still stands as an NFL playoff record 40 years on.

Finally in the second overtime, Miami started a drive at its own 30 and quickly got something going. The key play was a 29-yard rumble by Csonka on a draw play that Miami hadn't run all day. In range for Yepremian at the Kansas City 37, the Dolphins called for the field goal, even though the colorful and diminutive tiemaker from Cyprus was only 13 of 25 on field goals beyond 30 yards during the regular season.

But Yepremian made this one, splitting the uprights, and this epic game was at last over, on the 44th exhausting play of overtime. The game time of 82:40 beat the next longest game handily, which had been the 77:55 1962 AFL title game, won by the Dallas Texans 20-17 over the Houston Oilers in double overtime. The coach and quarterback for those Dallas Texans? Stram and Dawson, nine years earlier, before the Texans moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs.

I kept a scrapbook back then of the Dolphins' exploits, as many kids probably did, and on Wednesday I went and dug out the old and yellowing front-page newspaper article from the St. Petersburg Times of that Christmas Day marathon. The headline reads: "Suddenly: Garo, Miami!" I still have that and my 40-year-old-copy of that week's Sports Illustrated, with Yepremian kicking the game-winning on the cover. They're both in decent shape, and thanks to a little help from NFL Films, so are my memories of the best football game I ever saw.

They don't have playoff games on Christmas Day any more in the 16-game regular season of today's NFL. But I'm glad I didn't miss that one. Christmas dinner was great, as always. But the Dolphins and Chiefs were even better.