When I was seven, I was Garo Yepremian. At least in my make-believe mind when I played football in my side yard.
In the early 1970s, Florida only had one professional sports team: the Miami Dolphins. Every kid I knew was a Dolphins fan. At Christmas I got all things aqua and orange from the Sears catalog: varsity jacket, pennant, stocking cap (even though you could only wear it a few times a year), pajamas, bed sheets and the ultimate — a replica Dolphins jersey.
It was beautiful: bright snow-white (the Dolphins always wore white to stay cool in the steamy Orange Bowl), with a giant aqua "No. 1" on both the front and back.
In those days, I did not know all the players. When I was told No. 1 was Garo Yepremian, the kicker, I was disappointed. The kicker? Kickers are not important. And what the heck kind of name is Garo?
But I had his jersey and for a 7-year-old, that meant he was my favorite player.
I sat with my dad on Sunday afternoons and watched the Dolphins on NBC. Clad in my No. 1 jersey, which I'd slept in, I was anxious to see my compatriot in action. I learned that not only was he a great kicker, but he was left-footed. And he kicked soccer-style (still somewhat of a novelty at the time). My guy was so cool!
In my side yard, I created a makeshift football field. The end zone was where the woods begun. My goal posts were two thin Australian pines. I wanted to be like Garo, so I practiced field goals with my plastic football. Left-footed. Soccer style. For hours and days.
My first attempts were weak dribbles. But I soon got into the rhythm of kicking left-footed and my kicks progressed from low line drives to high arcing shots that spilt the Australian pines to give the Dolphins the win in overtime.
At Super Bowl VII in 1973, the Dolphins were marching toward the climax of their famous undefeated season. All that stood between them and perfection were 60 minutes in the Los Angeles Coliseum against the Washington Redskins.
The entire state was buzzing about the 'Phins. You felt it everywhere. The game was shaping up to be the greatest event in Florida since the moon landing.
My dad’s friends from the post office crammed into our tiny living room to smoke, drink ice-cold cans of Busch and empty bowl after bowl of Planter’s peanuts.
I plopped in front on the TV in my No. 1 and watched with eager anticipation. I did not understand all aspects of the game, or even when I should cheer. I only wanted to see Garo.
He kicked two early extra points, but then the game got boring. Nothing happened. The Dolphins led 14-0 late and everyone waited for the clock to hit double zero so the celebration could begin.
But with about two minutes left, they sent in Garo to try a field goal. This was it! My hero summoned into battle. I sat on my heels and fixated on No. 1. The tension, the anxiety. Here is the snap. The hold. The kick. Then ….
At the time I had no clue what happened. It was too fast. All I heard was laughter — from the announcer Curt Gowdy and the cluster of postal workers. Big laughs. Beer-out-your-nose, peanut-choking, finger-pointing-at-the-TV, giant belly laughs.
They showed the replay over and over. And in painful slow motion.
Garo’s kick was blocked. He picked up the ball and tried to throw it — "throw" being a generous description. It slipped out of his hand (was it made of plastic, too?) and he batted it straight up like a volleyball player. No, like a girl volleyball player. The Redskins’ Mike Bass caught it mid-air and sprinted passed Garo for their lone touchdown.
I didn’t understand. How did my hero let this happen?
The Dolphins held on to win 14-7, but in the final seconds the cameras focused on Garo on the sideline, helmet off, his bald head gleaming in the California sun. The announcers talked ad nauseam about “Garo’s gaffe” and how it cost the Dolphins the first-ever Super Bowl shutout and almost ruined their perfect season.
The biggest sports moment in Florida, and my hero destroyed it. It was my first lesson in how sport figures, despite all your loyalty, will let you down in the end.
During the post-game party, I slinked outside with my plastic football. Dejected. Humiliated. How could I ever wear my jersey again? Especially at University Park Elementary. The taunting I was sure to endure would be engraved into my soul forever.
I had no choice. I had to let Garo go. For my sake and his.
I teed the ball for one final field goal as No. 1: a re-creation of Garo’s gaffe. This time, everything would be right.
I imagined the anxious Redskin defensive line waiting to rush. I heard Curt Gowdy in my head. Close to 80,000 fans cheered. Millions watched around the world. The holder barked out the signals. Here's the snap. The hold. The kick … it's GOOD!