The death of former Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian, jogged a memory that that has stayed with me for more than four decades. He provided perhaps the wildest moment in my nearly 50 years of Redskins watching.
The date was January 14, 1973. The Redskins were playing the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. I was 14-years old and Skins mattered more to me than anything in the world at the time. They were as they are now, the most important team in town, and literally the only team in town. The Senators had left for Texas more than a year earlier, the Bullets were 10 months away from arriving from Baltimore and it would be more than a year until the Caps were approved as an NHL expansion team. Every D.C. area resident was geeked for this game, including President Nixon, who offered Coach George Allen a special play he’d designed.
For the first 57 minutes and 53 seconds, things did not go well for the Redskins. Quarterback Billy Kilmer was intercepted three times and missed hitting a wide -open Jerry Smith in the end zone when his pass hit the crossbar. In those days, the goal posts were in the front of the end zone, not the back.
With 2:07 left to play and the Dolphins leading 14-0, Yepremian lined up to put the exclamation point on Miami’s 17-0 season. If his 42-yard field goal attempt was good, the Dolphins looked good enough to close out a 17-0 victory. That’s when perfection hit a bump in the road.
The kick was blocked by Bill Brundige. The ball rolled on the ground and was picked up by Yepremian, who likely had been coached to fall on it, but somehow decided it was good idea to throw it. His….umh pass went straight up in the air and was picked off by Redskins cornerback Mike Bass, who returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. What an unbelievable mistake!
I was watching the game with my family at the Crawford’s Super Bowl party up the street on their giant 25-inch screen (hey it’s all we had in those days). I’ll never forget my father, who’s not really an emotional guy, reacting to the play. He jumped out of his chair and his lit cigarette (yeah it was okay to smoke in somebody else’s house in those days) smashed into the ceiling, sending ashes everywhere.
After the ashes were cleaned up, we realized the Redskins still had a chance, down only a touchdown with two minutes left. The excitement was back. Allen even elected not to onside kick and leave it up to his defense to get the ball back. A better quarterback than Kilmer was that day might have made magic happen. But with just over a minute left and 70 yards away from a score, the Redskins failed to move the ball and Miami completed the only undefeated season in NFL history with a 14-7 win.
Even though the Dolphins historic season was the story, it seemed all anybody who wasn’t a fan of either of the teams wanted to talk about was Yepremian’s blunder. Johnny Carson got plenty of mileage joking about it on the Tonight Show.
Thing is, Yepremian was no joke as a player. A year earlier he’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated after ending the longest game in NFL history with a 37-yard field goal in double overtime to beat Kansas City in the playoffs. He was made the Pro Bowl twice and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1970’s.
The most amazing part, however, is how he got to be an NFL kicker in the first place. Born in Cyprus, he was urged to come to the United States at the age of 22 by his older brother Krikor, who’d been a scholarship soccer player at Indiana University. Once here, they started watching NFL games on television and it occurred to Garo that being a kicker was something he could do, even though he’d never played in a football game. He hardly looked like a football player at 5’8”, 142 pounds and already bald, but was determined.
With Krikor acting as his agent, Yepremian got a tryout with the Detroit Lions, who offered him a job in 1966. The season was already underway and Yepremian wound up playing in the first game he even attended. Late in the game with the Lions getting clobbered, Yepremian was called on to kick the extra point, which was good. He ran off the field in wild celebration, only to encounter Detroit’s star defensive tackle Alex Karras, who didn’t make it to Canton, but later provided a hall of fame movie moment as Mongo in “Blazing Saddles” when he punched out a horse.
Karras, who wasn’t fond of kicking specialists anyway because he didn’t think they were real football players, asked Yepremian what he was so happy about, considering the team was getting crushed.
“Because,” as Karras liked to tell it, “I just keeked a touchdown.”
Yepremian later learned the language and football rules a bit better and then left football after two years to join the army. In 1970, he resurfaced with the Dolphins, where he kicked for nine years and spent an additional three years in the league kicking for New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
In the many years that followed his Super Bowl gaffe, Yepremian never lost his sense of humor about it. He joked on twitter this past January as the Patriots “deflategate” story broke, “Forty-two years later I realize I should have deflated the ball to get a better grip on it.”
And despite the play making just about every NFL Films “Football Follies” specials, it didn’t cost the Dolphins the game and actually set up Yepremian pretty well for the rest of his life. The last time the Super Bowl was played in Miami, he was making the rounds along with several of his former teammates from that ’72 season. Of course I asked him about the play and he told me this:
“That season I made $20 thousand playing for the Dolphins. After the Super Bowl I more than doubled that talking about the play on the banquet circuit. And that launched my post-football career as a motivational speaker.”
After one of the funniest plays in the history of the game, Garo Yepremian got the last laugh.