Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Longest Day

Christmas is one of those holidays — like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July — that inspires memories, both great and awful, that seem to follow you as long as you live.

When you get right down to it, Christmas is just another day on the calendar. It's great for some, not so great for others.

But whatever happens on that day seems to take on more significance, simply because it is Christmas Day. Whatever happens on this day definitely does not stay on this day. It lives on in memory, and its details become, if anything, sharper with age.

Depending upon who you are, I guess, Christmas 1971 was just such a day.

It was, as I recall, the first of three consecutive Christmases my family spent at South Padre Island, Texas.

Ordinarily, we spent Christmas with my grandparents in Dallas, but, by Christmas 1971, my parents were in the mood to hit the road. They had purchased a popup camper (much like the one you can see at the right) a few years earlier, and we had taken it on family trips in the spring and summer.

(Actually, that picture is a pretty fair representation of the camper we had, except that the bottom part wasn't white, it was green. Frankly, I never thought it was a very attractive shade of green, either, but my mother really liked it. She dubbed the camper the "Big, Bright Green Pleasure Machine" after a Simon & Garfunkel tune.)

In December 1971, we took it about as far south as you can go in Texas and set up our campsite at a campground not far from the beach. It was, as I remember, a couple of days before Christmas when we arrived.

The weather was gorgeous for late December, which wasn't unusual in Port Isabel, Texas. That certainly hasn't changed. Even after it cooled off here in north Texas late this week, it stayed in the 70s in Port Isabel. Temperatures there might dip into the mid–60s today, but I'm sure that still sounds pretty good to many Americans right now.

It was probably like that 39 years ago. I don't remember if I even knew what the temperature was that Christmas. All I remember is that it was warm and sunny.

Just another Bethlehem–like day slightly north of the border.

The campground actually had a putt–putt golf course that campers could play for free. All you had to do was go by the office and get a putter and a ball. It didn't take me long to make a friend and spend hours playing miniature golf with him in the warm south Texas sun.

Anyway, when Christmas arrived, we did our family Christmas in that camper. It was kind of cramped in there for much Christmas festivity for a family of four with a dog so when the gifts had been exchanged and all the rituals had been observed, I exited the camper and hooked up with my new friend to play some miniature golf.

I don't know how long we played. We never kept score, we just putted until we both got our balls in the hole, then we proceeded to the next hole, and we could do that for hours. (It really is amazing how much energy you have when you're a child — and how oblivious you are to extremes in temperature.)

Anyway, at some point, we returned to the campground office, perhaps to turn in our putters and balls for the day.

And I recall that most of the men from the campground — workers and campers alike — had gathered there to watch the AFC playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs.

I'm sure no one realized it at the time, but a new order was emerging in professional football.

People seldom seem to recognize such transitions for what they are at the time. It is only with the benefit of hindsight — and a certain amount of distance — that most can see things clearly.

Up to that time, the dominant teams in the AFC were probably the Chiefs, Raiders and Jets, all charter members of the old American Football League. The Colts (still in Baltimore at that time) had just won the first Super Bowl to be played following the NFL–AFL merger, and they had done so as members of the AFC, but the Colts were NFL refugees. They had no history against the AFL — other than their upset loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III in January 1969.

By 1971, the Chiefs had been to as many Super Bowls as the Packers and the Colts — and they had won as many, too. The Dolphins, meanwhile, had never been to one before. In fact, they were making only their second–ever playoff appearance that Christmas Day — but they were doing so with the Colts' former coach, Don Shula, and he knew something about getting to the Super Bowl, as he demonstrated that year.

I don't remember what the point spread was, but I'm sure the Chiefs must have been heavy favorites.

And they got off to a fast start. Jan Stenerud nailed a field goal and Ed Podolak scored a touchdown, and Kansas City had a 10–0 lead when the first quarter ended. But Miami rallied with a Larry Csonka touchdown and a Garo Yepremian field goal in the second period, and the score was tied, 10–10, at intermission.

My friend and I, being normal boys who couldn't understand why anyone would stay indoors when it was warm and sunny outside, didn't spend much time in the office until after the sun went down that day. We popped in for a drink of water — and a score update — from time to time, and we heard that the teams traded touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters, and the game went to overtime with the score tied, 24–24.

By that time, if my memory serves me, the sun had gone down, and we remained in the office with our fathers, who were engrossed in the game — so engrossed, in fact, that many of the men remained in the office even after their children came to tell them that dinner was ready back at their campsites.

I recall that my own father was among those who resisted the calls from their wives.

It really seemed the Chiefs were going to put an end to things early in overtime, but the Dolphins blocked what would have been the game–winning field goal, and the defenses, who must have been wearing down, dominated things through the first overtime period ...

... and into the second.

All anyone had to do to win was to score — any kind of score would do, even a safety, and, finally, someone did score. After more than 82 minutes, Yepremian kicked a field goal with 7:40 showing on the clock in the second overtime period, and the Dolphins advanced to the AFC Championship game.

It remains the longest professional football game ever played.

No one knew it at the time, but that was the last time anyone would see Kansas City in the playoffs for more than a decade, and it would be two decades before the Chiefs would win in the postseason. Miami, on the other hand, was about to go to the first of three consecutive Super Bowls. In all, the Dolphins have been in five Super Bowls since that Christmas Day 39 years ago. The Chiefs haven't been to any.

No one knew that on this day 39 years ago, but everyone did know it was the last time the Chiefs would play in Municipal Stadium. The Chiefs were scheduled to begin playing in Arrowhead Stadium the next year so when their 1971 season ended, so, too, did Municipal's existence.

In addition to serving as the home to the Chiefs' two Super Bowl teams, Municipal hosted Kansas City's baseball teams — the American League's Athletics (before they moved to California) and the Royals in their early years, the Negro Leagues' Monarchs, the minor leagues' Blues — for half a century.

The times they were indeed a–changin'. But no one seemed to know it.

Not yet.

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