This Christmas marks the 50th anniversary of the NFL’s longest-ever game. And the 75th anniversary of Larry Csonka, whose 29-yard run in the sixth period (yes, sixth) put the Miami Dolphins in position to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in that playoff game’s 83rd minute.
“At the end of that game, half of us were glad we won it, half of us were sad they lost, but all of us were glad it was finally friggin’ over,” says Csonka, whose 25th birthday was literally one for the record books.
Christmas fell on a Saturday in 1971, and the NFL, which had merged with the AFL the previous season, scheduled its first two playoff games of the postseason for Dec. 25, but couldn’t have known how many Christmas dinners would be delayed due to that decision.
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Thirteen future Hall of Famers were in uniform that day in Kansas City’s old Municipal Stadium.. Ironically, one of them blew a chance to end the game in regulation — Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud missed a 32-yard field goal in the final minute.
And it was a non-Hall of Famer who, in a losing cause, had the game of his life — Chiefs running back Ed Podolak had 110 receiving yards, 85 rushing, and 154 on kick returns.
It was nearly midway through the second overtime period when the Dolphins introduced a new play that would come to epitomize their early-’70s dominance, while also ushering in the conclusion of a long day that had become evening.
It was called a “roll-right trap,” and it had just been added to the playbook to counter the speed of three particular Chiefs: Nose tackle Curley Culp, middle linebacker Willie Lanier and outside linebacker Bobby Bell — all Hall of Famers.
What initially looked like a pitch to Jim Kiick around the right side quickly became a handoff to Csonka in the other direction, where he followed pulling-guard Larry Little through a gaping hole on the left side of the line.
Csonka’s rumble went 29 yards, from the Miami 35 to the Kansas City 36.
“They were so fast reacting and so conscious of our running game,” Csonka says. “We had nothing going against the grain. When we started one way, we stayed with that. No counter-action, because we didn’t have Mercury Morris involved and incorporated into the offense yet … he was a year or so later.”
The Dolphins nearly left “roll-right trap” in the quiver too long. If Stenerud had converted the game-winning field goal, the Dolphins would’ve flown home without ever deploying a play that became part of their bread-and-butter through three straight Super Bowl seasons, including two championships and that perfect 1972 season.
Quarterback Bob Griese, back when many QBs called their own plays without input from coaches, was known as a master tactician, but he’d somehow gone five-plus periods without calling for the new play.
“This was before you had four or five people talking in your ear like today’s quarterbacks” Csonka says. “There was nobody in Bob’s helmet but Bob. A light went off in his head during that second overtime. When he called that play in the huddle, my offensive linemen looked at me and I gave ‘em a grin because I knew.
“I take a sidestep to the right, delay, and come back underneath Bob for the handoff. It’s all predicated upon the speed of Curley Culp and Willie Lanier, fooling those two and getting them to bite on that action. Because we didn’t have any counter-action plays, they bit and they bit big. I had a hole that was six yards wide.”
A few plays later, Garo Yepremian’s 37-yard field goal gave the Dolphins a 27-24 win. Miami would beat the Colts the following week for the AFC championship before losing to the Cowboys, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI.
While Csonka recalls many specifics of that Christmas day in Kansas City, it’s the overall feeling of exhaustion that first comes to mind when opening up the memory bank. The fullback had run the ball 24 times for 86 yards, most of them hard-earned, and thrown around his 237 pounds while blocking for others.
“Back in the locker room, I put on my pants, turned around to talk to the reporters around my locker, and mid-sentence my pants fell to the floor,” he says. “I lost 14 pounds in that game.”
For most of the 50 Christmas days since that one in Kansas City, Csonka has enjoyed the comfort and warmth of Florida. For the past 20-plus years, he’s split his time between Oak Hill, in southeast Volusia County, and Alaska — roughly six months in each place.
To be closer to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, this past year he bought a home in western North Carolina, and now plans to alternate between there and Oak Hill, while cutting his Alaska visits to six weeks during the height of summer fishing season.
Csonka grew up “on a patch of land between two dairy farms” in rural Ohio. He says he was five years old before he realized the tree in his living room and all the food and family on Dec. 25 wasn’t in honor of his birthday.
While some Christmas babies may regret sharing their special day with the world, Csonka says there’s one major advantage: Friends and family rarely forget your birthday. And in his case, neither do fans.
“I get a lot of notes and messages from fans and other people, and I like it. It’s fun,” he says. “To get cards on my birthday and people telling me how they watched all the games at that time … they’re good memories.”
Many of the recollections focus on that particular 25th birthday Csonka spent in Kansas City.
“A lot of people share their stories about cold Christmas dinners that day,” he says. “There were a lot of upset mothers and grandmothers.”
— Reach Ken Willis at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Miami Dolphins’ Larry Csonka recalls NFL’s longest game, on Christmas