A Tale Of Two Kickers
Garo Yepremian was born in Cypress to American parents. He immigrated to the United States with his brother. His brother earned a soccer scholarship from Indiana University. Garo was not eligible for an NCAA soccer scholarship because he had played professional soccer in London previously. After watching an NFL football game Garo decided that he was going to be a professional football kicker. He got a tryout with the Detroit Lions in 1966 and was signed to do their kicking. Garo was a little guy at 5’7″ and his coach told him that after he kicked a kickoff to head straight for the bench. His coach knew that one thing their opponents would love to do is dismantle their little kicker. Garo kicked the ball and headed for the bench. Unfortunately he found himself on the wrong team’s bench in the midst of the enemies.
At first Garo wasn’t comfortable with a helmet. When he played his first game he wore one without the face mask until Ray Nitshke a rough and tough linebacker of the Green Bay Packers tackled him and crunched his face into the ground. After that little episode Garo wore a helmet with a single bar. He was the last player in NFL history to play without a face mask.
In that first year with the Lions Garo wasn’t very familiar with the rules of football. When his team was hopelessly behind one week they scored a touchdown with only a few seconds left in the game. Garo was called in to kick the extra point. After kicking the meaningless point through the uprights he ran around with his arms spread in celebration. One of his teammates asked him what he was doing? “I just kicked a touchdown!”, he explained.
Garo had a career game in his season with the Lions. Playing against the Minnesota Vikings he kicked six field goals. It was a record for kickers in one game and it stood for many years.
After the 1966 season Garo quit football and joined the United States Army. When he got back to the Detroit area in 1968 the Detroit Lions decided not to offer him a contract. He signed a contract to be the kicker for the Detroit Arrows in the Continental Football League. After a horrible year with the Arrows (they won only one game), Garo found himself out of football again. In the off season and the next year when he was out of football Garo sold Neckties. He still had a desire to kick in the NFL again.
In 1970 Garo got the chance. He signed a contract with the Miami Dolphins. The next couple of years he let the league in scoring. Garo was a kicker that was very accurate although he wasn’t a long distance kicker. Today you see kickers who have no problem with distance from over 50 yards. That was not Garo’s Strength. However if the kick was inside 35 yards Garo very rarely missed.
Garo is remembered maybe even more than his kicking feats by one play that was on the world stage. It was a field goal attempt with his team (the Dolphins) winning 14-0 against the Redskins. It was in the Super Bowl so every eye was upon him. His kick was blocked and Garo picked it up. He was running across the field and was about to get tackled. He tried to throw a pass but it slipped out of his hand. He batted the ball right into the hands of a Washington Redskin player who ran for a touchdown. “I honestly felt as if my life was over,” said Yepremian. “I never, ever had been disappointed like that in my life. Goodness, I felt as if it was the end. Norm Evans, the spiritual leader of the Dolphins, said, ‘don’t worry, God is with you.’ That was the best thing that ever happened to me, to have that encouragement from a friend. If the other team scored, and it would have went to overtime, that would’ve haunted me for the rest of my life.”Although it was very embarrassing and is shown whenever football bloopers are displayed it seems, the play did not cost the Dolphins their ultimate victory. They won the Super Bowl that year by a score of 14-7.
When the media laughed at his gaffe Garo was very hurt. He left the victory party early and went to his hotel room and took an ice bath. He went home and stayed behind closed doors for weeks until he received a letter from his coach Don Shula. The letter mentioned how important he was to the Dolphins and all of the games his kicks had saved. “It was the most important letter I ever received” , Garo said remembering. When he was with Shula signing autographs at a show he mentioned the letter to Shula. “What letter?”, Shula asked. It seems that Shula’s wife had written the letter and signed Don’s name to it. Obviously she felt like he needed someone to pick him up and that letter certainly did! Garo moved on from his famous gaffe and kicked in the NFL for 9 more years.
Jan Senerud was a ski jumper. He was born in Finland and received a scholarship from Montana State to ski jump. One day after he had run up and down the bleachers of the football field to stay in shape Jan and a friend were kicking a football around on the field. Jan had played some soccer and he had a very strong right leg. He was making field goals from great distances when the school’s basketball coached happened to pass by and observe. Before he knew it the football coach wanted to see him kick. After kicking for the football coach he was encouraged to come out for the football team. In fact he wanted Jan to suit up for the teams final game. He wasn’t eligible to play but the coach wanted him to wear the football uniform and learn the football rules and see how the game was played.
Following the ski season Stenerud joined the football team for spring practice. That Fall he set an NCAA record at the time by kicking a 59 yard field goal. Stenerud humbly admitted years later that a strong tail wind and high altitude helped his kick. On the kickoff after his record breaking field goal he kicked the ball out of the end zone and over the bleachers behind it.
After College Stenerud was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs. At the time he was one of the first field goal specialists. Back then the field goal kicker almost always played another position also. In fact they would normally get the best kicker from the players they already had. Stenerud helped the Chiefs win the Super Bowl following the 1969 season with his amazing field goals. He was very accurate and his strong leg was able to kick from distances that nobody had seen before. The first 9 points of the Super Bowl against the Minnesota Vikings were scored by Stenerud’s three field goals!
It was Christmas day 1971. The big game was on later in the afternoon. It was Garo’s Miami Dolphins against Jan’s Kansas City Chiefs. The winner would advance in the playoffs and hopefully get to the Super Bowl. The loser would be done for the season. Many a Christmas dinner was cold that day because the game kept going on and on. The Chiefs should have won. Every time they took the lead however, the Dolphins came right back. One play that stands out is when the Chiefs outsmarted themselves. They had a 10-0 lead and were lined up for Jan to kick a 29 yard field goal. However, Hank Stram the Chiefs coach had another idea. He wanted to do a fake and have Stenerud run for the first down. The snap was supposed to go straight to the kicker but when the center was about to snap the ball he saw that Jan was looking down like he normally did. So he snapped the ball to the holder like any other field goal. Completely out of sorts Len Dawson the Quarterback and also the holder took the snap and put it down for Jan to kick it. Jan never made an excuse as to why he kicked the ball wide to the right but the confusion all around was a big momentum changer.
The game was tied with just a few seconds left. The Chiefs made a big pass play and lined up for Jan to kick a 31 yard field goal. Jan was so amazing that season that the Dolphins just knew this was the end. Amazingly Jan missed the field goal wide to the right again. The game went into overtime and it went on an on. Finally after 82 minutes and 40 seconds (more than 5 and a half quarters) Garo made a 37 yard field goal to win it. Garo and the Dolphins were ecstatic while Jan and the Chiefs were devastated. Looking back Garo mentioned how fitting it was that the tie salesman had broken the tie! Although his teammates tried to make him feel better Jan could not be consoled. He felt like that he alone had let all of his teammates down and all of the fans of the Chiefs. He considered quitting the game he was so broken.
Even today after all of these years later Jan has no desire to talk about that game. It was a time of personal tragedy for him. Yet when Christmas comes around every year the memories of that game are brought up. It’s funny that Garo’s gaffe in the next years Super Bowl is talked about in a fun way because it didn’t cost the Dolphins the game. Jan’s miss in the longest game ever (at that time) is remembered (especially by Jan) like somebody had died.
Instead of quitting Jan persevered after the tragic loss. His career totaled 19 years. After 8 more years in Kansas City he signed with the Green Bay Packers and kicked 4 years for them before ending his career with 2 years in a Minnesota Viking uniform. Jan was not like Garo in personality. Garo showed his emotion when he kicked a game winner. Garo was apt to extend his arms like he was flying. Jan was cool as though he was just doing his job in the office. Jan explained it best though. “Just because I don’t do cartwheels when I make a game winning field goal doesn’t mean I’m not extremely pleased.”
His cool demeanor served Jan well and helped him to carry on after he plunged to the ground that Christmas day. It’s a good lesson to all of us too! Whatever comes our way do not be distracted and keep going forward Treat our disappointments as learning experiences and ask God to make something good come out of them. When his career was over Jan was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the time he was the only kicker (who only kicked) voted into the Hall. His final football numbers were 19 years, 6 pro bowls, 6 all league selections, 7 times scoring 100 or more points (in a 14 game season), and 1,699 career points. The things that can’t be measured though are his persevering attitude, his pain in disappointments, and his contentment in his victories!