Ed Podolak can't recall where he took his family to eat on Christmas evening 1971, only that they didn't share a traditional meal at his home that night, as had been the plan. The local Mexican joint down the street he frequented? Maybe, maybe not. Somewhere around 6:30 p.m. things went dark for the Chiefs' multipurpose back, and stayed dark for some time.
That afternoon, Podolak and his Kansas City teammates hosted Don Shula's Miami Dolphins in the first-ever playoff game in Municipal Stadium. The Chiefs understood the Dolphins were a disciplined bunch — a team whose star was ascending — but Kansas City was confident of its chances.
"I think all of us were of the mindset that this team was better than the one we had when we won Super Bowl IV," Podolak says.
The start of the game seemed to support that, as the Chiefs gained a 10-0 lead after their first two possessions. But then things went crazy: Back-and-forth scoring, a game-saving tackle, missed opportunities and a blocked kick. Nothing was orthodox about the longest NFL game ever played, not even the weather — unusually warm for Christmas Day in Kansas City (47 degrees). The game's most celebrated performance (Podolak) came in a losing effort, and two of the NFL's great defenses of the era allowed the outcome to be decided by a pair of men whose last names few fans could pronounce, let alone spell.
For much of the 1971 season, the Dolphins were the supreme team of the AFC. After beginning the year with one tie, one win and a loss, Shula's club won eight in a row — evidence of the franchise's growing confidence. In 1969, the club had posted a record of 3-10-1. The following year — Shula's first in South Florida — Miami improved to 10-4 and earned a trip to the playoffs, where it was defeated by Oakland, 21-14. It was a lesson the Dolphins reminded themselves of in 1971.
"Until you lose a playoff game you don't recognize the suddenness of the season being over," says Dick Anderson, one of Miami's two outstanding safeties. "That was the motivating factor for us — remembering what had happened in Oakland."
The Dolphins' three-headed RB monster of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris plowed through opponents in 1971, but in the divisional playoff game the Chiefs' front line didn't budge much for the backfield. Instead, Miami used WR Paul Warfield to irritate Kansas City.
"In my mind, the greatest receiver to play the game," Anderson says. "You think about the (era in which) he played, he was a marvelous player … it'd be interesting to see how many passes he could have caught if defenders couldn't hit him." Against the Chiefs, Warfield made seven catches for 140 yards. A Csonka touchdown and Garo Yepremian's 14-yard field goal tied the score 10-10 at the half.
The 1971 Chiefs' offense was very similar to Miami's. Built around its powerful backfield, the team could turn to its passing game whenever it needed to. All-Pro Otis Taylor led all NFL receivers with 1,110 yards that season; Anderson and Miami's make-no-mistake defense allowed him just 12 yards (on three catches) for Christmas.
"It's what we did — take away the other team's best player. A couple years later we played Cincinnati in the playoffs and didn't allow Isaac Curtis to catch a pass [Editor's note: Curtis caught one ball for nine yards]. So we took away Otis Taylor … only Ed Podolak ate our lunch."
Podolak was an unsuspecting star. At the University of Iowa, Podolak played quarterback until the second half of his senior season when tailback Dennis Green (who'd go on to coach the Vikings and the Cardinals) suffered an ankle injury. Iowa's coaching staff convinced Podolak to make the move to tailback and a few games later he set a Big Ten single-game rushing record with 286 yards against Northwestern. Podolak was recruited to play quarterback by the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but ultimately had a change of heart and ended up in Kansas City, where Hank Stram used him every which way he could. He returned kickoffs, punts, carried the ball and caught passes out of the backfield. Against Miami, Podolak did all of it well.
If the game hadn't lasted 82 minutes and 40 seconds, all most would remember about it was Podolak's performance. He caught a seven-yard touchdown in the first quarter and rushed for a three-yard score in the fourth to give the Chiefs a 24-17 advantage. Podolak's 350 all purpose yards (85 rushing, 110 receiving, and 155 yards on returns) remains a postseason record. He finished his career in 1977 as the Chiefs' all-time leading rusher, but the divisional playoff made Podolak a celebrity for life.
After Podolak's second touchdown, Miami tied the score, 24-24, on a five-yard pass from Bob Griese to Marv Fleming. Podolak fielded the ensuing kickoff at the goal line with less than two minutes on the clock. The third-year player found an opening and was on his way to a third score when the 5-foot-8 Yepremian intervened. The kicker made Podolak adjust his lane, which allowed a chasing Curtis Johnson to catch up and run Podolak out of bounds at Miami's 22-yard line. Three plays later, with 35 seconds left on the clock, Stram sent in Jan Stenerud. Earlier, Stenerud had missed a kick from 29 yards away. He pushed the potential game-winner to the right.
In overtime, Kansas City gave Stenerud another chance, but this one was blocked from 42 yards. Back and forth, back and forth. At one point, Anderson thought he would be the hero.
"I broke on an out cut that (Chiefs QB Len) Dawson threw. I'm sitting there looking at six in the fifth quarter and (Bill) Stanfill jumps up and bats it down."
When the first overtime period ended, a second began. Halfway into it, finally, Miami got a break. On 2nd-and-5, Griese handed the ball to Csonka, who took it 29 yards to the Kansas City 36. Soon after, Shula sent in Yepremian, whose 37-yard kick sailed through the uprights.
"I knew we would win because last night I was very good at cards," Yepremian told Sports Illustrated's John Underwood after the game. "I say, 'When I win at cards, we win.' "
Upon returning to Miami late that evening, Dolphins players exited the plane single file to find a rowdy crowd of 10,000-plus fans. "I'll never forget that," Anderson says. "They trashed the airport. But it was the most amazing welcome."
The game sent the two franchises in opposite directions. The Dolphins went on to beat Baltimore the following week before losing to Dallas in Super Bowl VI (the first of three consecutive visits to the title game). Miami posted a 43-6 record over the next three seasons, including the playoffs — arguably the greatest three-year run of any team during the Super Bowl era.
Kansas City won eight games the following season and just seven in 1973. The franchise didn't reach the postseason again until 1986.
"I think what happened to us was synthetic turf," Podolak says. "We moved into Arrowhead (Stadium) the next year and were never the same. Our team was not developed for synthetic turf; we were supposed to play on grass."
If anything, the loss bonded Podolak with many of the players on the winning sideline. He sold Nick Buoniconti a home near Aspen, Colo., and calls Anderson one of his very good friends. Nearing the 40th anniversary of his performance — often considered one of the finest playoff efforts in NFL history — he is still recovering from having been struck by an automobile in Scottsdale, Ariz., in February. After 15 surgeries he's now looking forward to visiting his resort in Costa Rica and plans to do a little fishing in nearby Nicaragua.
The pain of the playoff loss to Miami has lessened a little over time, perhaps allowing Podolak the opportunity to appreciate his own contributions in that game.
"It was difficult for a long time, and you don't want to talk about individual performances," Podolak says. "But you get to be 64 and look back and say, 'What the heck? All in all, it was a pretty good day.' "
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac