Yesterday's Magazette

3 – All I Wanted For Christmas

All I Wanted For Christmas

By Russ Reiners

As Christmas approaches and my wife and I decide how we will celebrate it with our daughter of nine, my thoughts naturally return to when I was a child growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. All of us have special memories of that time in our life.

Like it happened yesterday, I still see my parents setting up our dining room table with a bowl of hot Campbell’s tomato soup, a plate of Saltine crackers, a spoon and napkin off to the side, and a large glass of milk and warm cookies. Santa was sure to love this. How could he not leave all sorts of beautiful gifts under our twinkling Christmas tree? My younger brother Barry and I shared a bedroom, and on that magical night before Christmas we stared out a frost-covered window in hopes of seeing a jolly old man with a team of reindeer streaking across a star-filled sky

Mid-afternoon on Christmas of 1971 found me on the floor in front of our black and white Zenith TV. I was ten-years-old and proudly wearing my red, white, and yellow Chiefs sweatshirt. I don’t recall whether I still believed in Santa Claus, nor do I remember what gifts I received. I do, however, remember that my favorite football team was the Kansas City Chiefs, led by my two favorite players, quarterback Len Dawson and defensive tackle Buck Buchanan, or as my older brother Steve called him, “Big, big, blistering, Buck Buuu-chanan.” He loved that name and dragging it out like that. They were playing the visiting Miami Dolphins 300 miles due south in Kansas City at old Memorial Stadium. It was the first round of the AFC Divisional playoffs. A Chiefs’ win would put them one game closer to the Super Bowl. What better present could a kid ask for?

Certain things about this game scream out at me as I reflect. Take the weather. I wanted normal Midwest winter weather to greet the warm-blooded team from Miami, which meant lots of snow and sleet and ice. I wanted to see crystallized breath and icicles hanging from face masks. Chiefs’ weather. What I got, however, was an unusual warm front that rolled across the Plains and by game time the thermometer hovered at a comfortable 59 degrees, weather more typical of Miami at that time of year than KC. Not a good omen at all.

Then there was Miami quarterback Bob Griese. He had a bad shoulder. That’s what we were told. As a ten-year-old Chiefs’ fan that didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I was glad about it. That could only be a positive for my side. He would stink and the Chiefs would win by about 50 points. Unfortunately, he had a terrific game. My Chiefs had leads of 10-0, 17-10, and 24-17, and bad-shouldered Bob led Miami back to even the score each time, the last time on a drive at the end of the fourth quarter, when he connected on six of seven pass attempts, four to different receivers, the last one to tight end Marv Fleming in the end zone. It tied the game at 24-24 with only 1:26 to play in regulation. I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed the Chiefs would stop him on that drive. I never liked Griese again after this game.

Miami kicked off and Chiefs’ running Ed Podolak caught the ball on the goal line and started up field. You will be hard pressed to find a better performance by a single player in a high stakes game like this than the one Ed Podolak delivered that afternoon in KC. In my humble opinion it was the greatest performance ever in an NFL playoff game. By the time he took the kickoff he had already scored two touchdowns for the Chiefs, and before the game was over he would rack up 350 all purpose yards. A third year pro from the University of Iowa, his parents were in the stadium to witness it, as did 41 million television viewers.

He found a hole in the middle of the field and veered left for the sideline. I still see him running down that sideline. I knew he was going to score. I also knew that when he did the Dolphins wouldn’t have enough time to come back. The game would be over. I still don’t know where Miami safety Curtis Johnson came from, but come he did. He streaked across the field and pushed Podolak out at the 22. About a minute remained in the game. The stadium in KC and the living room at the Reiners household was going crazy. Victory was at hand.

KC ran a couple of plays to position the ball and eat up the clock. Only :35 remained when the Chiefs’ soccer-style field goal kicker from Norway trotted onto the field. Jan Stenerud was the best kicker in football. Two years before he had kicked the Chiefs into an early 9-0 lead against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, including a then Super Bowl record 48 yarder. It paved the way to a dominating 23-7 upset. The next season he led the league in scoring. Two weeks before he beat the hated Oakland Raiders in the final moments that won the AFC Western Division. He was Mr. Automatic. You could almost refer to Him as the God of Kickers. He never missed.

The ball was snapped and he missed. He missed it. He missed a FG from 31 yards.

The stadium was like a morgue, much like my living room. I couldn’t believe it. Jan Stenerud missed. I had picked the wrong time to pray earlier but I didn’t know he needed my help.

On to overtime. The first team to score in an NFL playoff game wins. In football lingo it’s called Sudden Death, and trust me, when Jan Stenerud missed, I felt like I was dying.

The Chiefs got the ball and quickly moved into FG range. Stenerud trotted back onto the field to try again from 42 yards. This time the game is over, I thought. Stenerud has never missed two in a row. The ball was snapped and he swung his right leg. He didn’t miss it. This time it was blocked. An all but certain 42 yard FG blocked by Miami linebacker Nick Buoniconti. I never liked Buoniconti again after this game. Two opportunities to win the game ended in failure. Looking back I recognize this for what it was: a clear cut case of child abuse.

The game dragged into a sixth quarter. All over America Christmas dinners were getting cold. Seriously they were. The NFL wouldn’t play another game on Christmas Day for 18 years. However, I couldn’t have cared less. If the Chiefs didn’t win I wouldn’t be hungry anyway.

From their 35, Griese handed the ball to their bull moose fullback Larry Csonka. While most of his teammates were going right, Csonka, celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday, went left in a perfectly executed misdirection play, and he didn’t stop until tackled at the KC 35. I never liked him again after this game.

Miami ran a couple of plays, moving the ball to the 30. Now it was Miami’s kicker who trotted onto the field to attempt to win the game. His name was Garo Yepremian, a left footed soccer-style kicker from Cyprus. Two years before the Detroit Lions cut him and Miami signed him. When he wasn’t kicking footballs and breaking kids’ hearts, he made men’s ties in the basement of his house. He was balding, stood 5’7, and weighed 165 pounds dripping wet. He was the smallest player on the field. The ball was snapped and Yepremian kicked it down the middle, driving a dagger into my heart. It was the only time during the game Miami had led. I really, really did not ever like this guy again. It took 82 minutes and 40 seconds to decide the game. It is still the longest game in NFL history.

After the game Ed Podolak openly wept in front of his locker. He wasn’t the only one. Ten-year-olds all across the Midwest did. But…we recovered.

After their playing days were over a dozen players from the Chiefs and Dolphins, including KC Coach Hank Stram and Miami’s Don Shula, earned enshrinement to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Every Christmas since then I have thought about that game. I think of what might have been. Three weeks later the Dolphins lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl, a team that the Chiefs beat during the regular season. And the Chiefs––it was the end of an era. Not until 1986 would another Chiefs’ team make the playoffs.

Russ Reiners, born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, lives in Yonkers, New York, with his wife, daughter, and insane cat. He works at MasterCard Worldwide in Rye, New York.

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9 Comments »

  1. Russ, I am just wondering if you still want me to paint my house black/silver.

    Cousin Kelli

    Comment by Kelli Solsma — November 1, 2008 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

  2. Now I understand why you defect to rooting for the Raiders! Have a great (read: Giants) Christmas, Russ!

    PS The cat isn’t the only insane one there… and it ain’t any of the females! 🙂

    Comment by Ed Maselli — November 2, 2008 @ 11:53 am | Reply

  3. Russ–you will proud to know that even though the Chiefs are one of the worst teams in the legue now, my oldest son is an avid Chiefs fan.

    Must be something in the blood. Great story and we all enjoyed reading it. Happy Holiays!!

    Comment by Doug Fitterer — November 2, 2008 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

  4. Russ:

    You’re a great storyteller. Keep on writing.

    Comment by Aunt Madonna — November 3, 2008 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  5. All those new toys and games to play with on Christmas Day, and you spent 82 minutes and 40 seconds (what’s that in football time – a week?) watching a friggin’ football game! Good Lord – what did you do for an encore? Oh yeah – that’s right – you married Fran! Whoooooooooo!!!!!!

    Comment by Dennis J. Campo — November 3, 2008 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

  6. Russ – That was an amazing recollection of the game. I can see why you were traumatized having to endure that at such a young age, just as I am traumatized having to read about it 37 years later. It makes me want to kind of go kill myself – or become a Raiders fan too.

    Seriously, very well written. I’m impressed. You missed your calling. You should try sports writing for a career.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us.

    Comment by Mike Stanley — November 3, 2008 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  7. Rusty “Red & Yellow Britches”, Great article and of course I remember it well (the only other other Chief fan in our neighborhood), “Good times”. You changed to the Raiders and I the Bills and at 2-10 or 12 for the next several seasons I never had to worry about being dejected like that again, until the 90’s anyway.
    -Great work, hi to all out there from all here and take care!!

    Comment by Ron Beals — November 4, 2008 @ 11:07 pm | Reply

  8. Russ, the world is so happy to read your article and enjoy your great humor…………but honestly, we all really want to know about that wonderful wife of yours!! I hear she is brilliant and beautiful, when are you going to write about her?

    Comment by Kerrie — November 6, 2008 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  9. Great story Russ. How you can remember the fine details of the past is a great gift……Seems like every team you’ve been a fan of hasn’t been the same since (KC, now Raiders). Did you start rooting for the Seahawks this year?

    Comment by Chuck — November 7, 2008 @ 11:05 am | Reply


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