To honor the 40th anniversary of the ’72 Miami Dolphins’ famous undefeated season, let’s talk about that team’s most famous (or infamous) moment: Garo’s Gaffe.
Garabed “Garo” Yepremian was the quintessential European kicker. Armenian by ethnicity, Cypriot by birth, and almost elfin in stature, the soccer-style kicker came to America with his brother, noticed the sport of gridiron football, and thought, “Hey, I can kick that thing.” With his brother as an agent, the hopeful went about visiting NFL teams with a traveling salesman’s sense of determination.
The scheme worked. The Lions picked him up, and along with the Dolphins he later played for the Saints, Bucs, and a Continental Football League squad. He was hated by many of his opponents for being seemingly antithetical to the sport: foreign and lacking any of the brutality, athleticism, or bulk found in his teammates. I’ll argue that in some ways, this disregard led him to becoming perhaps one of the toughest kickers in history, as teams routinely went headhunting for the 5’7″ Yepremian. (He also served in the Army during a year-long hiatus.)
He was the league’s most-accurate kicker for several seasons, amassed over a thousand points, made two Pro Bowls, once kicked a record six field goals in a single game, and was named to the NFL’s All ’70’s team. Not a bad career for a guy who once explained his enthusiasm over a made XP by saying “I kicked a touchdown.” (He told this to Alex Karras, which, if you’re read my earlier piece on the Lion DT, you know was asking for the decades of jokes the comment led to.)
Yet he’s best known for a near-disaster.
The year was 1973, the scene Super Bowl VII, the stage LA Memorial Coliseum. The undefeated Dolphins were two minutes away from blanking the Washington Redskins. Yepremian was setting up for a 42-yard field goal that would ice the victory for Miami, while a simple miss would have given them at least a half-field of cushion and a favorable kickoff return situation. Then everything went wrong.
Now you might say things actually went wrong before the ball was snapped. Garo’s kicks had been a little low all game. Miami Coach Don Shula had put him on the field only because the idea of his soon-to-be 17-0 squad winning the Super Bowl by a 17-0 score had a nice ring to it. Up by two touchdowns that late in the game (and in the ball control-minded 70’s) nearly guaranteed a win. A conservative punt might’ve been a better choice. That said, though, punting later proved to be a risky option itself.
Getting back to the action, the ball was snapped and Garo launched into it. Instead of clearing the line, though, the kick went straight into the back of blocker Bob Heinz’s head and bounced backwards to the Dolphins’ right side of the field. Washington DL Bill Brundige erupted past a whiffed block and blew through the middle line in pursuit of the ball. Yepremian, meanwhile, followed his tumbling folly to the fifty-yard line, where instead of falling on it, he made history.
“On the blocked kick, I was lucky,” he recalled. “The ball just came into my hands. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve thrown a pass before in practice. I’ll throw it downfield.’”
Yepremian never got a good grip on the ball—in the 5’7” kicker’s hands it could as well been a watermelon. His arm moved downfield, yet the ball popped free and fluttered around his earhole, not moving forward in the slightest. Fortunately for Yepremian, he was by default the closest player to the ball, and still capable of grabbing and falling on it.
But he didn’t.
Yepremian swatted the ball. On film, it almost looks like a volleyball bump or someone recoiling from a snapping snake. He says he was trying to bat it out of bounds, though he was twenty yards from the sidelines and ended up batting the ball forwards, anyways. As it happens, he batted the errant kick/pass/flail right into the hands of Washington CB Mike Bass, a former teammate of Yepremian’s from their days in Detroit. Bass caught the ball in stride and took it down the sideline (because he had plenty of room) and straight to the end zone for his squad’s first score of the game.
There were two minutes left and suddenly the ‘Skins were back in it. George Allen’s subsequent deep-kickoff gambit nearly paid dividends with a blocked punt, though unlike Yepremian, this special teams attempt escaped without a turnover (or errant passes) and Miami wrapped the game shortly after.
Yepremian was worried sick over the play, to the point he was almost physically incapacitated well into the evening. He credited an encouraging post-game letter from Don Shula for turning around his psyche and allowing him to continue with his successful career. In true Yepremian fashion, the letter turned out to be written by the coach’s wife. Neither Shula nor Yepremian knew until Garo thanked a confused Shula for it years later.
I don’t want to turn this into a punching bag story—Yepremian was an excellent kicker who overcame hardship and doubts, and he now runs a charity for brain tumor research. Even his greatest humiliation was a sting only in itself, as Miami still won the game, and it took both a questionable decision to kick along with poor blocking to even put Yepremian in such a situation. That said, it’s funny as all get out, and the good-natured kicker turned his error into a late show circuit where he amused the likes of Johnny Carson. All’s well that ends well, right?