Extending the holiday work load of Kansas City mailmen, who already had had their fill of those who cared enough to send the very best—but not enough to send it early—Jan Stenerud began to receive more than a thousand letters from people he didn't know shortly after Christmas last year. Most of them tendered the kind of warm sympathy that would be rewritten later to another besieged Missourian named Tom Eagleton, but a few rudely suggested that in Stenerud's Norwegian ancestry there surely lurked an immediate elkhound relative, if not other canines more mangy than pedigreed. Unstayed by rain, snow or dark of night, the condolences and crank notes were mutual response to a Yuletide that, along the wide Missouri, was no season to be jolly—the celebration being doused when Stenerud missed the field goal that cost the Kansas City Chiefs a playoff win over Miami in the longest pro football game ever.
As 41 million people witnessed on television, the Dolphins beat the Chiefs 27-24 in a sustained, six-quarter spectacular that held up Christmas dinners from Bar Harbor to Pismo Beach, at considerable threat to Curt Gowdy's tonsils. Resolution finally came after 82 minutes and 40 seconds when Garo Yepremian kicked a 37-yard field goal to end the second sudden-death overtime period, sending Miami toward its first conference title and leaving his AFC rival, Stenerud, somewhere with Jacob Marley. It was a crushing defeat for the Chiefs, who never trailed until that final, agonizing second, though somehow failing to extrapolate victory from their grunting, sweaty dominance on the field.
The blame for the loss fell squarely on the shoulders, or rather the foot, of Stenerud, who had sent a 31-yard "gimme" field goal inches to the right of the goalposts with but 31 seconds left in regulation time. Stenerud was an even more convenient villain since he was charged, if somewhat unfairly, with two other misses. On one, early in the game, he failed at 29 yards, but that play was really a fake field goal that was discombobulated into a desperation kick by a bad center snap. Then, in the first overtime, he had a 42-yard attempt blocked by Nick Buoniconti.
It was all the more ironic that the goat in Kansas City's historic loss should be Stenerud, who is a blond five-year NFL veteran, a refugee from Oslo and the Montana State ski team. Trusting and honest, Stenerud is a selfless team player whose kicking on happier days has accounted for more victories than even Coach Hank Stram can remember. Two weeks before Miami came to town, Stenerud enabled the Chiefs to clinch their first Western Division title in five years when he booted a 10-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining for a 16-14 win over the arch-rival Oakland Raiders. A month after Miami, Stenerud kicked four field goals to lead the AFC to a 26-13 victory in the Pro Bowl, where he was named the game's outstanding offensive player. Three Stenerud field goals accounted for a 9-0 lead on Minnesota the year Kansas City won the Super Bowl, and similar deeds in many lesser games sprinkle his past.
But unlike other players whose gaffes are buried in the ruck of fallen bodies or immediately forgotten when the next play succeeds, the kicker's performance is a spotlighted solo shot with no place to hide from failure. So it was with Stenerud, who probably made his own existence more unbearable by refusing to alibi, even though his teammates knew better.
"This game isn't one man," Quarterback Len Dawson said last week as the Chiefs prepared for a Miami rematch that would open the NFL season in their spanking-new stadium, Arrowhead. "Jan took the brunt of it because he happened to be the guy in there doing the kicking, but my opportunity was there before he arrived on the scene. You bring a kicker into a game because you've just scored a touchdown—or because you need a field goal when you can't score a touchdown. He's had to live with that game more than the rest of us. I know how hard he took it."
"Right afterward," Stenerud admitted, "it was really tough because there is no question that I had a lot to do with losing the game. It was hard to take, but time, I guess, heals everything. The only thing I can do is try to block out the memory of what happened, but I probably will think about it all this week, and during the game, too."
Stenerud's hope of contracting amnesia was helped none by Kansas City's countless number of zealot fans, each of whom, in the 266 days that passed between Christmas Day and Sunday's opener, seems to have bumped into the kicker, reminded him of his foul feat of foot and eagerly waited for a prediction of how the Chiefs would take sweet revenge on the Dolphins in the biggest athletic carnage in the history of the world.
But few of the Chiefs were thinking like their fans. "Even if we had won that game and won the Super Bowl," said Halfback Ed Podolak, "it would have no bearing on this season. It's all history now. We can't afford to get hyped up about this game with 13 to play afterward. What happens if you get all emotionally involved and overpeaked and then lose?"
For this reason, Hank Stram was saying all week—or month—that he had no thought that Miami would be a make-or-break test for Stenerud, or that his kicker would fold under the pressure of seeking revenge. "I think the only pressure comes from within," Stram said. "Not from the outside, unless you permit it. We're geared to NOW. The only thing that concerns us is what happens at three o'clock on Sunday afternoon. If you win your first game, you could still wind up one-and-13, and if you lose, you could still be 13-and-one."