Somehow it would—must, surely, on Christmas Day—come to this. That the longest game in the history of American professional football would be decided by the smallest player on the field. That he would not be American-born at all, but a Cypriot, with an accent. That he would be a painter of neckties for profit, and uninhibited in his high good humor. A teller of outrageous jokes on himself, agreeable and gregarious. And cuddly. The people of Kansas City would see him there in the shadow of his Miami teammates and wonder, what is a Garo Yepremian? Did the Dolphins get him for Christmas? And the answer would be that the Dolphins got him two years ago from Detroit, where he was hiding out in his basement painting ties, ashamed to show his balding head after being cut by the Lions. The Lions considered him a clown. And at 6:24 p.m. CST on Christmas Day the Dolphins gave him to the Kansas City Chiefs. Right between the uprights.
The record will show that 82 minutes and 40 seconds after it began, the American Conference playoff between Miami and Kansas City was decided in Miami's favor, 27-24, on a perfect 37-yard field goal off the left instep of little Garo's size-seven soccer boot (see cover). When it happened, Miami Quarterback Bob Griese laughed out loud. He was standing on the sidelines, not watching the ball but the holder, Karl Noonan, and when Noonan raised his hands in triumph, Griese laughed, giddy in the final release of tension and fatigue. The game had gone five quarters-plus to sudden death (or sudden victory, as Pollyanna Curt Gowdy insisted on calling it on the TV), from a slug-colored unseasonably warm Missouri afternoon through nightfall. It had been played both crisply and sloppily, with consummate-skill and heartbreaking error. It had been dull and heavy, and then exquisitely exciting. And it went down ultimately to a lightning bolt and a laugh.
At the top, what it would seem to have proved beyond the elevation of the Dolphins to the AFC's best bet for the Super Bowl is that Miami's foreign-born placekicker was better than Kansas City's foreign-born placekicker, Jan Stenerud of Norway. Stenerud missed his chance to win it, Yepremian did not. As a result. Yepremian was at the center of a vortex of hilarity in the Dolphin dressing room, while Stenerud sat alone in his cubicle at the end of the world and said his failure was "unbearable." Yepremian said he felt bad for Jan, "but I feel good for me" because he had been disconsolate when Stenerud made the Pro Bowl and he, Garo Yepremian, the No. 1 scorer in all of pro football, did not.
What the record will not show, however, and what few of the 50,374 in Municipal Stadium appreciated, was another extraordinary contribution Yepremian made to Kansas City's downfall. Some background is in order. Yepremian is 5'8". He weighs 170 pounds. Mostly from the kneecap down. When 260-pound blockers come his way, Garo has been known to sprint resolutely in the opposite direction. "I must protect them from my magnificent body," he says, but it is his life he is anxious to protect. It is unheard of for him to make a tackle. The Miami coach, Don Shula, does not really require it. Against Kansas City, Garo remained under no obligation. But with a minute and a half to play in the fourth quarter, he took a swipe at Ed Podolak that made it possible for Curtis Johnson to save the Dolphins. Miami, rallying for the third time, had made the score 24-24 on Griese's five-yard pass to Marv Fleming, and Yepremian kicked off. Podolak, who had an exceptional day (349 yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks), took the ball on his goal line, broke through the first wave of Miami tacklers and was suddenly at midfield and in the clear. Clear in a relative sense. Yepremian was still hanging around. He did not make contact with Podolak, but he did make the attempt and was, briefly, in the way. Having to veer off, even slightly, cost Podolak a vital step or two. From behind and the opposite side, Cornerback Johnson angled in hard, running Podolak out of bounds at the Miami 22. Four plays later, with 35 seconds to go in regulation time, Stenerud pushed his 32-yard field goal attempt to the right—"the worst thing that ever happened to me." Stenerud also missed a 29-yarder in the second quarter and had a 42-yard attempt blocked in the first overtime period.
But to get back to Bob Griese. Although he completed 20 passes for 263 yards (seven for 140 to the incomparable Paul Warfield), and attacked in a skilled, surgical manner the bewildering scaffolds of zone and man-to-man coverage and irregular line splits Kansas City threw at him, what moves grown men like Larry Csonka and Shula to rhapsodize about Griese is a near-hidden thing. It is obscured partly because Griese himself does not reveal much of Griese—he is notorious for lingering in the shower till postgame interrogation has petered out—and partly because, in his cool self-confident way, he does not seem to require ego trips every game day to enjoy being a quarterback. The fact is that he would rather not throw 45 passes a game, as he did in 1969 the last time Miami played—and lost to—Kansas City. His best games this year, as he led the conference in passing, were those in which he threw fewer than 20 times. "He enjoys working within the system, being able to take advantage of an offense," says Shula. "He gets a kick out of calling the right play."
But what made Griese extra special this day was what had come before it, and what he had overcome. For four weeks he has been bothered by a very sore left shoulder, damaged against the Bears. For public consumption, he minimized the damage, and still does. Unable to lead properly when he threw and unable to follow through with his customary snap, his passing suffered. He threw behind receivers, he threw interceptions. Miami lost to New England and Baltimore. Even in a winning effort against Green Bay in the last regular-season game, Griese was not altogether right. The week of that game a friend unthinkingly clapped his shoulder and Griese recoiled in pain. But no one outside the Dolphin circle knew how much the injury was affecting him.
Griese's first pass against the Chiefs was underthrown. He had an indifferent first quarter. But then it began to come. Down 10-0, he found Warfield, in his inimitable fashion, out there bewildering the Chiefs' Emmitt Thomas. By the third quarter Griese was as sharp as ever. On the drive to tie the score at 17-17 he hit on four straight passes. To tie it again at 24-24 he hit on six out of seven to four different receivers.
For the most part, Kansas City successfully shut off Miami's big-back ground attack. The front four read well and clogged things up, and the linebacking was brutal. "It's one thing to run against a grizzly bear," said Csonka of Middle Linebacker Willie Lanier, "but when he's a smart grizzly bear...." So Griese threw more than he had intended, and his protection held up well. Three times he was hit hard, twice after passes, once on a scrambling run, and though he was slow getting up, it did not take him long to recover. He said the pain "jabbed him a little," but went away quickly. Griese not only threw a greater variety of passes than Lenny Dawson, the veteran Chief quarterback, he was also more effective because he was getting the ball to his favorite receiver, Warfield, whereas Dawson, inhibited by a swarming, deep-containing Miami zone, could not get to his favorite, Otis Taylor. Taylor caught only three passes for 12 yards.
But in the end the call that Griese used to beat Kansas City was not a pass at all, but a run. A "Csonka special," he said later. "Zonk likes it, and we hadn't used it, and it seemed like the right time." Miami had possession on its 35 in the second overtime. Jim Kiick had just run for five yards. The call was "roll right, trap left." A misdirection play, against the flow. Kiick and Griese flow to the right, Csonka takes a step up, then comes back against the grain. Doug Crusan cleared out the defensive end, and Csonka followed Tackle Norm Evans and Guard Larry Little into the hole. "I got hold of Larry's pants," said Csonka. "He's faster than I am, and I had to hold on to keep up."
Csonka was to the Kansas City 36 before Safety Jim Kearney dragged him down. Griese now worked the ball carefully down to the 30 and into the middle of the field, and Shula ushered in Yepremian and Noonan. "You gave me beautiful position," Garo told Griese afterward. "Perfect. I knew if it was less than 50 yards I would make it." And, of course, he did.
"I knew we would win because last night I was very good at cards," Yepremian said. "I say, 'When I win at cards, we win.' " No team should be considered complete without a Garo Yepremian.
"And now," said the littlest Dolphin of them all, "I am hoping Baltimore will win, so we can play them again and show them some sunshine."
The next day, in the dreary mud and rain of Cleveland, Yepremian's sunshine dream came true, for the Colts simply smothered the Browns 20-3.
Reviewing the Dolphins' astonishing progress before their game, Shula had said, "This team, hard as it has worked, deserves to go farther than the Chiefs." Now, to go farther, the Dolphins do not have to go far—in fact, around the corner to the Orange Bowl to meet an opponent they know like a neighbor, one they love to hate.
The Colts won convincingly, John Unitas consuming time and sapping confidence with his probing passes (13 for 21 and 143 yards) and loosing Running Backs Don Nottingham, who was in for injured Norm Bulaich, and Tom Matte to punish Cleveland with body blows.
The Baltimore defense—those friendly undertakers Bubba Smith, Mike Curtis, Ted Hendricks, et al.—intercepted three passes, blocked two field goals, dropped Quarterback Bill Nelsen four times and generally made a dark day in Cleveland that much darker for the Browns. By this time the Dolphins were home in Miami, watching on TV, and Unitas gave them a refresher course on what he is all about. On the second Colt possession, following the first of Bubba's blocked field goals, Unitas took his team 93 yards in 17 plays. The drive ate up eight minutes before Nottingham, who gained 92 yards in 23 carries overall, plowed across from the one.
After the first of two Rick Volk interceptions, Nottingham darted seven yards for the second Baltimore touchdown, and two Jim O'Brien field goals wound up the scoring for the Colts.
Curtis had said before the game, "We're just pure team. When it's all over, and if we played well, you're not able to pick out any one man and say he's responsible."
Yepremian aside for the moment, the same could be said for the Dolphins, and on Sunday two pure teams ought to produce pure mayhem. In the past two years they've played four times, and each has won twice. Heck, the game won't be just for the AFC title, it's for the championship of the block.