- Ed Podolak, a former running back for the Chiefs, played the game of his life in what still stands as the NFL's longest game on Christmas Day in 1971—racking up 350 all-purpose yards in a crushing playoff loss to the Dolphins. He opens up about his memories from that game, what it's like hearing the conversation about CTE, his relationship with Jimmy Buffett and more.
Every year around this time, Ed Podolak is sure to get a call from a sportswriter or two, wanting to do an interview. “I’ve always been a little popular around Christmas,” he says.
That’s because 46 years ago, on Christmas Day in 1971, the former Kansas City running back played the game of his life in the divisional round of the playoffs—in what turned out to be the longest game in NFL history.
Podolak and the Chiefs battled the Dolphins in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium through two overtimes and 82 minutes and 40 seconds of game play, before the Dolphins pulled away with a 27–24 win. Podolak compiled 350 all-purpose yards that day—85 rushing, 110 receiving, and 155 returning—which still stands as a playoff record to this day.
The MMQB caught up with Podolak this year to talk about that epic game, how Nick Buoniconti—his foe that day—and others have been impacted by CTE and his unlikely friendship with Jimmy Buffett.
Tim Rohan: What’s that like, reporters calling you every Christmas to talk about that game?
Ed Podolak: Well, it’s bittersweet. I’m kind of excited that the record has lasted this long, but it also brings back the pain of the loss. That was a team that we felt was as good or better than our Super Bowl team of . So that always raises its ugly head also.
If you look at the teams that were remaining after that, I think we had beaten all of them during the regular season. I can’t remember exactly how it unfolded, but we had beaten a couple of them. That was a big letdown, that’s for sure.
Rohan: Do you still hear from fans about the game?
Podolak: Well, I do. In fact, quite frequently I run into people who remember the game. Because it was the first NFL game held on Christmas day. A lot of people around the country were watching that game and they remember that game, because of the way it carried on. It interrupted a lot of people’s Christmas dinners.
Rohan: Do you have a favorite moment from that game?
Podolak: It would probably be the kickoff with a few seconds left at the end of the game, in the fourth quarter [when the score was tied]. I was able to break it down and get into field goal range. When I saw the hole open, I just felt: if I didn’t score, I was going to get close enough for field goal range, and it should be over. That was the highest moment of the game for me.
Rohan: I’ve read that you’re friends with Jan Stenerud, the kicker. Do you ever talk to him about that game? How has he handled it? [Editor’s note: Stenerud, a Hall of Fame kicker, missed two field goals and had a third field goal blocked in the game.]
Podolak: No, there’s no reason to talk to him about it. He did a lot of great things for our team. I’m sure that Christmastime is probably tough on him, because it brings back some of those memories. But he was a great teammate and won a lot of games for us, and he’s a terrific guy to boot.
Rohan: That was the longest game in NFL history. It went on for 82 minutes and 40 seconds. How were you feeling after a game like that, after all those yards you had? How did your body feel?
Podolak: Well, I’m still tired [laughs]. I think Nick Buoniconti tackled me 20 times in that game or something. We ran into each other a number of times that afternoon. I know late in the game, he was laying on top of me in the second overtime, and I looked up at him and said, “Do you think this thing will ever be over?”
He claims that he pushed my head down in the mud, but I don’t remember that part. But Nick’s been a great friend for many, many years. We enjoy re-living that afternoon when we get together.
Rohan: Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated did a story on Buoniconti. He’s had some physical and mental troubles recently. He’s been diagnosed with dementia and some people think he may have CTE. Did you hear about all of that?
Podolak: Well, I read your article and I reached out to some of our mutual friends, and they confirmed that.
Nick used to visit me in Aspen regularly. He bought a home out there through me, when I was a realtor out there. We attended a lot of the same events over the years together. Then of course he did that “Where are they now” show with Lenny Dawson for a lot of years, and they did a story on me when I was in Colorado.
It’s discouraging to hear that he’s having those issues. Unfortunately, there are a lot of our brothers in the NFL who are facing that.
Rohan: How does it make you feel to see guys you played with and played against going through stuff like that?
Podolak: It’s very difficult, because we had a lot of players who were on my team who are facing the same issues. We have a number of players from our Super Bowl team who are deceased. Every time you go back to the reunion, you see more and more of them suffering some mental issues. There are a lot of walkers that show up at reunion games.
The game took its toll. It had its rewards, though. And I’m not sure any of us would do it any differently. It was a great time for football. Rosters were pretty fixed, because there wasn’t free agency, so a lot of my teammates, we were teammates for six or seven years, and got to be really close to one another.
Rohan: You played in a different era. What’s it been like watching from afar, as concussions and CTE are more frequently discussed?
Podolak: You know, I’m not an expert on all of that. What I know is, during my time, the helmet changed from the suspension helmet, which was worn for a couple of decades, to these new [air-bladder] helmets.
I actually had two concussions in college that I was hospitalized with. At that time, Riddell had an experimental helmet. [Larry] Csonka had one, and they gave me one, and so I started wearing it my senior year of college. I actually took it with me to Kansas City, because they didn’t eve have the new helmet yet.
So I think those players that played 10, 12 years—especially linebackers, safeties, running backs—with that old suspension helmet ... they’re the ones we’re seeing with more issues today. My heart certainly goes out to them.
I know this concussion settlement thing has got all kinds of issues involved. I think they’ve only paid three claims in a year, or something, based on the last e-mail I got. That’s discouraging. I think the NFL should do a better job of taking care of these people who gave them so much, so long ago, for so little [money].
Rohan: You think that new helmet saved you from further damage?
Podolak: I do. I think I went through nine years of the NFL, and had only one serious concussion. Being a running back, I think [that helmet] made a big difference in how I made it out.
Rohan: How are you feeling now physically? Mentally?
Podolak: I feel great. I just turned 70. I try to work out everyday. I just opened a new resort in Costa Rica. We opened over Thanksgiving. I’ll be heading back down there for the winter. Love Costa Rica. I have no complaints about physical or mental health.
Rohan: What kind of Costa Rican resort does Ed Podolak run?
Podolak: Well, it’s a spectacular sight on Flamingo Beach. It’s 36 luxury residences that I sell to my friends and their friends. Then when they’re not in residence, we rent them out. Beautiful white sand beach. My friend Jimmy Buffet has bought one of the hotels near us, which he’s turning into a Margaritaville. It’s my ultimate getaway spot.
Rohan: Jimmy Buffett’s a friend of yours?
Podolak: Longtime friend. We met back in the ‘80s, back when I was playing on Monday night and he was playing in small halls. We crossed somewhere. He’s one of the greatest acts out there and continues to be a great act.
Rohan: Can you share any good Jimmy Buffett stories?
Podolak: Well, I can share just one. In 1982, he wrote a song for me. It’s on the album One Particular Harbour, and the name of the song is “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About.” It says, “For Ed Podolak, by Jimmy Buffett.” When I went to stay at his mom and dad’s house in about the mid-80s, his mother said, “I know the song that Jimmy wrote for you, Ed, and I want you to know, you’re welcome in my house, because [that song] is about him, not about you.”
Rohan: Is there some truth to that? Did you and Jimmy cause some trouble together?
Podolak: Well, it was the ’80s. [laughs] There were no cellphones with cameras back then.