Everywhere I’ve been the last two days they’re playing B.B. King’s music. I’m mourning his death too, but there’s another great American I’m mourning right now: one of the NFL’s greatest kickers and my personal childhood hero, Garo Yepremian.
Growing up in the 70’s I idolized the one and only Armenian sports star in America. I spent hours after school kicking a football off a tee in the street in front of our house, trying to clear the phone lines. While most of you wanted to be like Mike, I wanted to be like Garo.
A 2-time Pro Bowler and a Pro Bowl MVP, Garo led the 1972 Miami Dolphins in scoring during their perfect 17-0 season. He played in three Super Bowls and was nominated to the Hall of Fame after a 15-year career in the NFL. With all this success, though, he is still remembered most for the great sports blooper he committed in the ’73 Super Bowl.
Garo attempted a field goal at the end of the game that would have put the Dolphins up 17-0 to cap their perfect 17-0 season. The kick was blocked; he scooped up the ball and attempted the most awkward forward pass in NFL history. The ball actually went backwards, Garo batted it up in the air, the defense recovered it for a touchdown, and Miami had to settle for a 14-7 victory. Coach Don Shula never got over it, but Garo suffered his ignominy with grace and class.
This great kicker, who set the NFL record for most FGs made in a game (6) and still holds the record for most FGs in a quarter (4), only got a chance at the NFL through the tremendous cunning and guile of his older brother Krikor. Having emigrated from Cyprus to play soccer at Indiana University, Krikor saw that soccer-style kickers were beginning to emerge in pro football. He convinced Garo he could make it big in America kicking field goals, so at age 22, Garo left home in Cyprus to join his brother in America.
Krikor went out hustling tryouts and told Garo he’d got one lined up with the Detroit Lions. But Krikor was a bit of an operator, and hadn’t told Garo the real story. On the appointed day, Krikor led his brother to a field just over the fence from the Lions practice facility. He got Garo set up taking his practice kicks while he “went to check in with the coach”. When Garo asked why they weren’t over the fence with the team, Krikor explained that the coach didn’t want the current kicker to get jealous, so he asked them to “try out” next door.
There was no tryout. Krikor’s plan was for Garo to boom the ball back and forth and hope that someone on the Lions coaching staff would take notice and actually give them a tryout. As insane as that plan was, amazingly, it worked. Detroit signed Garo to his first NFL contract six games into the 1966 season.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. Garo barely spoke a word of English, weighed only 142 pounds, and had never actually seen an American football game before. Yet there he was, in the Lions locker room, watching these giant Americans tape themselves up before the game. So, while everyone was ignoring the runty-looking foreigner, Garo grabbed a roll of tape and did what he saw everyone else doing.
When the coach found him right before the game, he yelled at the trainers to get the tape off him and get him on the field to kick off. In all the 15 years of NFL linebackers trying to knock his head off, Garo never felt as much pain as he did before his very first game – when the trainers ripped all the tape off of his hairy Armenian body.
I got to hear Garo tell this story at a sports banquet years ago. I wanted his autograph but didn’t have a football, so I asked if he would sign a softball from the tournament we’d played that day. He took the ball, signed it, then held it up to former NFL official Armen Terzian and said, “Now this is a ball I could throw.” It is to this day one of my most prized possessions…
Rest in Peace, Garo.