Green: A former Lion gave the Super Bowl its funniest moment

Detroit News

The Super Bowl is not quite Hamlet, but close. It is supposed to be pure theater. Drama. Unscripted.. On a shiny, vast, bright green stage. With thespians in the major roles.

It is not comedy.


Stuff happens!

Once upon a time, the Super Bowl featured comedy in the final act.

And the cast for this comedy had been assembled via tryouts — without fanfare — right in Michigan. Much of it in the grassy mud of Tiger Stadium, autumn home of the Detroit Lions.

Straight Man: Don Shula, former apprentice coach with the Lions, 1960-62, before becoming head coach in Baltimore, then Miami.

Foil: George Villain, or foil, born in Grosse Pointe Woods; trained at Alma, Michigan Normal (now Eastern Michigan), and Michigan (Ann Arbor) before becoming head coach of the Washington Redskins (now Commanders).

A Protagonist: Mike Bass, from Ypsilanti, player with Michigan, rookie with Lions, defensive back for Redskins.

Off Stage: George Wilson, former boss of Shula in Detroit, first coach of Miami franchise, instrumental in the creating of the team, selector of most of the actors, er, athletes,

Comedian: Garo Yepremian, left-footed placekicker originally with Lions, cut adrift, now with Dolphins.

One Snoopy Sports Journalist: Rookie pro football writer, The Detroit News.

Together, they would be part of the cast of Super Bowl VII, a showstopper 50 years ago.

Who’d have thunk?

Language barrier

“You got to see this,” blurted Pat Studstill as the journalist sloshed through the mushy grass of the Lions’ practice/game field one mid-week afternoon in 1966.

A short placekicker was trying out by whirling, jumping forward and booting with his left foot a football toward goalposts in front of the left-field wall. Gathered, in a semi-circle, gawking were some coaching cast members, and athletes in costumes, er, practice uniforms.

One shouted some incomprehensible words at the kicker in a language the journalist took to be Greek, as the interrogator was Alex Karras.

The would-be kicker responded in words that sounded like the same language.

This casting event finished, all parties trekked to the Lions’ locker room followed by the journalist who back then enjoyed access. That day, he was the only journalist at the Lions’ practice.

In one corner of the locker room, Russ Thomas, the Lions’ general manager, was in deep conversation with a gentleman who had accompanied the kicker. He had identified himself as Krikor, the kicker’s brother and agent. He supplied some biographical information.

Kicker was from Cyprus in the Mediterranean, and his family had emigrated to England, where the kicker had played some local football (soccer).

In a far corner, the kicker was drying off and thinking what’s going on.

The journalist approached the kicker.

“Could I ask you some questions?” the journalist asked upon identifying himself.

“I don’t speak English,” said the kicker.

The journalist understood.

Across the way, Krikor negotiated a salary and contract with Thomas.

“Now, I speak English,” said the kicker to the journalist.

We both laughed.

And Garo Yepremian properly introduced himself and supplied biographical details.

“No,” he knew nothing about American football.

“No,” he had never seen an American football game.


‘I’ll never be a quarterback’

Three days later Yepremian attended his first America football game. The first action he saw in his first game was his own left foot kicking off the ball —  the opening kickoff.

Then Gary turned around, bent down to retrieve the kicking tee, his butt aimed at the onrushing Colts on the return.

Later, Yepremian kicked an extra point.

“I keek a tawchdown,” Karras reported to me.

Five weeks later Yepremian kicked six field goals to lead the Lions in a 32-31 victory over the Vikings.

That’s when Norm Van Brocklin, Minnesota’s coach, addressed the media postgame with his comment:

“We ought to tighten the immigration laws.”

The kicking game was not the Lions’ most serious problem in the 1966 and 1967. Pro football was in major change.

The NFL and American Football League had agreed to merge after a half dozen years of separate bidding for draft choices.

The Lions decided Yepremian was not their kicking preference. They let him go. After one season.

He resurfaced with the Dolphins in 1970. That same year, the Dolphins fired George Wilson and replaced him with Shula.

The Dolphins were ready built — Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Mercury Morris, Bob Griese, Nick Buoniconti, Manny Fernandez, Jake Scott, the incomparable Paul Warfield. They were guys Wilson had brought in or soon would arrive.

To Shula’s benefit.

The now mighty Dolphins were ready by 1971. They made it to Super Bowl VI. They had been pushed through the playoffs by Yepremian’s 37-yard field goal over the Kansas City Chiefs in the second overtime period in sudden death.

The Dolphins lost that Super Bowl in 1972 to the Dallas Cowboys, 24-3.

They would not lose another game for two more seasons.

Shula’s Dolphins went 14-0 through the regular schedule. They were 16-0 going into Super Bowl VII a half century ago.

They were proud and jaunty in California for another Super Bowl in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Not so Allen’s Washington team.

“He’s a cheat and a con man,” Joe Schmidt, the Lions’ coach, told me one day. It was the general feeling of the other coaches in the NFL.

Among the Washington players was Bass, the Ypsilanti kid who had been cut by the Lions and picked up by Washington as special-teams fodder.

In the countdown before the Super Bowl, Allen griped to we the media that we were among the league enforced  distractions. He bristled about the commitments forced upon him by the league as part of the event.

Garo, now my old friend, griped about his treatment in Detroit.

“The coaches didn’t treat me like I was on the team,” he said. “All they had me do was turn off he lights when they showed the game movies. They didn’t treat me like I was on the team.”

The main thrust was: Could the Dolphins become the first NFL team to complete an undefeated season — through the regular schedule, the playoffs and a Super Bowl?

Allen was suspicious. He accused the Dolphins of spying on the Redskins’ practices. He hired a sun coach to gauge the angles of the sun’s rays at various afternoon times.

“No,” Don Shula told me when I posed the spying accusation. “George Allen is taking them for us. We’re thinking of moving our last practices to Tijuana (Mexico).

“I say that now so George can start scouting the area for our new practice field.”

Ultimately, the teams engaged in a football game with the rare storyline of one team striving for a perfect season.

It was largely a defensive game.

Griese and the No-Name Defense led by Jake Scott held a 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Dolphins were up front by the two TDs in the first half. They held that lead into the fourth quarter. They tried a 42-yard field goal and ignored the option to pooch punt, Shula had turned fancy.

“We’re going for a 17-0 season,” he said. “It’d be a nice final score, 17-0.”

Yepremian’s left-footed kick was low and blocked by Bill Brundige. It bounced to the right. Yepremian chased after it. He neatly tried to pass the ball. Right-handed (watch on You Tube). The football popped up as it slipped and skittered out of Garo’s hand.

Right to Mike Bass. Mike ran the ball 49 yards to a Washington touchdown.

Suddenly, the undefeated Dolphins were forced to protect a 14-7 lead.

And strangely, Allen declined an onside kickoff attempt.

“We’re 17-0 and still getting rapped,” Shula complained in the aftermath.

“Garo thought he was a quarterback,” said Csonka. “He thought he was 6-6 like Roman Gabriel. With hair down to his shoulders.

“I’ll never be a quarterback,” confessed 5-7 Garo Yepremian, with a bald head. “But I felt I could get and throw it downfield for a touchdown. I wanted to throw it to Larry Csonka.”

The Super Bowl VII Dolphins completed the only perfect season in the game’s 56-year history.

“Grrr,” said Shula the year the Bears started unbeaten for several weeks.

A few years ago, the Patriots went into the Super Bowl seeking to complete 19-0 season. Tom Brady and bunch lost to the New York Giants.

That night, according to a variety of reports, several of the perfect Dolphins from 50 years ago held a champagne celebration on the streets of Miami.

Jerry Green is a former Detroit News sports reporter.

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