Wednesday, April 24, 2024

MOMENTS, MEMORIES and MADNESS with STEVE CAMERON: The NFL's longest game made for a lot of late Christmas dinners

| December 25, 2020 1:00 AM

It has been called “The Burned Turkey Game.”

On Christmas Day in 1971, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins fought out an AFC playoff duel.

The NFL was moving into new territory, scheduling games on Christmas for the first time — a change that a large chunk of America thought was a terrible idea.

Folks who objected to games on such a sacred holiday were promptly handed some talking points.

The Chiefs and Dolphins played into a second overtime, taking a 3 p.m. football game well into Christmas evening, and presumably ruining a lot of family dinners.

At least Miami’s eventual 27-24 victory, achieved when Garo Yepremian booted a 37-yard field goal at the 7:40 mark of the second OT, was an exciting event that contained plenty of everything.

I’m sure of it, because I was not only covering the game for the Topeka Capital-Journal, I also spent most of the fourth quarter and both overtimes on the field.

REPORTERS were routinely allowed on the sidelines sometime during the final quarter in those days, presumably allowing us to avoid crowds as we found our way to team locker rooms after each game.

A huge bonus at Kansas City’s old Municipal Stadium was that both teams’ benches were on the same side of the field.

Media members were supposed to stay together and remain reasonably far back from the actual field of play, but that rule was rarely enforced, so we more or less had the run of the entire area.

Naturally, I took advantage by crowding close to the sideline — listening to conversations and even catching calls and exchanges among players during the action.

It was captivating to hear how each team (and its coaches) reacted as the game ebbed and flowed.

EACH SIDE had multiple chances to win, but couldn’t pull it off until that final field goal killed the Chiefs’ chances to win a second Super Bowl in three years.

Kansas City had beaten Minnesota 23-7 in Super Bowl IV, the very last battle before the NFL and AFL officially merged following the 1969 season.

On the other hand…

The most notable failure in that ’71 playoff marathon wound up affecting me personally.

Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud, one of 13 players in that Christmas Day showdown eventually elected to the Hall of Fame (along with both coaches and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt), had a routine chance to win the game in regulation.

Miami had tied things at 24-all with 1:25 remaining, but the Chiefs’ Ed Podolak – who set an NFL playoff record that still stands with 350 all-purpose yards in that game – returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Miami 22-yard line.

The Chiefs bled the clock, setting up the incredibly reliable Stenerud for a 32-yard chip shot.

But Jan pushed the kick slighty wide right, which was almost inconceivable.

“It was a great snap and Lenny (Dawson) got the ball down perfectly as he always did,” Stenerud said later. “Somehow, I didn’t quite follow through.

“I’ll think about that kick for the rest of my life.”

HERE’S WHY the miss reached me…

I was casual friends with Stenerud during his time with the Chiefs, but we became better pals afterward — playing together in celebrity golf tournaments and things like that.

As with most placekickers, by the way, Jan became a terrific golfer — explaining that the body turn through kicks and golf shots are almost identical.

Stenerud used to greet me by saying, “I guess it was the pressure.”

It became a standard joke, because no one at the clubs where Jan played — Kansas City, Green Bay and Minnesota — can remember him missing another important kick.


Back on that fateful Christmas, Jan had a 42-yarder blocked in the first overtime (something else that almost never happened to the Chiefs), and Yepremian tried a 52-yard effort that was short.

THE STRESS on both benches was immense.

It seemed like the game might end on every play, and I suspect the players realized that — although this was the first round of the playoffs — these were the two best teams in the AFC, so the winner would wind up in the Super Bowl.

“I’ll always believe that 1971 team was even better than our team that won the thing in ’69,” Dawson said.

“And it turned out that Miami was on the verge of something special, too.

Dawson’s reference to the Dolphins was spot on, since it was just a year later that Miami became the only team in the Super Bowl era to go undefeated through an entire season.

Yepremian, for his part, was just glad the Chiefs game was over.

“I was scared on that (winning) kick,” he said. “After Jan missed, I thought maybe nobody could win.

“I was so glad to see the ball go through.”

So were millions of Americans, I’m sure.

By then, it was long past time for Christmas dinner.

There were a lot of burned turkeys.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published each Tuesday.


Associated Press Garo Yepremian of the Miami Dolphins, here kicking a field goal against the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1973 playoffs, made the game-winning kick in double overtime of a playoff game at Kansas City on Christmas Day, 1971.


Associated Press Miami running back Jim Kiick ducks under the tackle by Kansas City’s Emmitt Thomas (18) to score in the Christmas Day playoff game in 1971 at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.


Associated Press Jan Stenerud kicked three field goals for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, but missed a 32-yarder that would have beaten the Miami Dolphins in that memorable double-overtime Christmas Day playoff game in 1971.