It’s always hard for officials to be away from home on a special holiday. So it was for referee John McDonough and his officiating crew, scheduled to work the Christmas Day divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the visiting Miami Dolphins.
McDonough, who officiated Super Bowl IV, and was a AFL and NFL referee from 1960 to 1973, lead a veteran crew that included umpire Frank Sinkovitz, head linesman Leo Miles, line judge Bill Swanson, field judge Bob Baur and back judge Adrian Burk.
The NFL had never scheduled a postseason game on Christmas. A few years before the 1970 merger, an annual playoff system was devised, replacing the one-game playoffs that were played as needed. Prior to that, championship games were simply moved to Monday to avoid the holiday in previous years. But now, there was a 4-game divisional playoff weekend and they had to play on Saturday, Dec. 25.
In his book, Don’t Hit Him, He’s Dead, McDonough recounted how strange and lonely it was that he and his crew went about their pregame meetings and routine on Christmas Eve.
The NFL front office, knowing the crew was sacrificing family time to call the game, told McDonough to take his crew out to the most expensive place in Kansas City for a Christmas Eve dinner. McDonough recalled that almost every restaurant was closed or booked solid on December 24. He finally called around a found a place to take his crew for dinner. The total bill came to less than $70 — pretty cheap even for 1971 standards.
Christmas Day dawned sunny and 63 °. The 1971 divisional playoffs were the only postseason games played by the NFL on Christmas Day. This was the last game the Chiefs played in Municipal Stadium.
Once the game started, McDonough’s crew forgot about what day it was and started working a tight, competitive game. The game is famous for Ed Podolak’s 350 all-purpose yards which is still a playoff record.
The game came down to the final few minutes and Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud had the chance to put the Chiefs up by three points on a 31-yard field goal. But, the automatic Stenerud missed, and field judge Bob Baur emphatically waved the kick no good.
The Dolphins got the ball back, but were forced to punt the ball away. Podolak signaled for a fair catch, but another player caught the ball on the Chiefs 40-yard line with no time left on the clock. By rule, the officials properly blew the play dead, but since Podolak signaled for the fair catch and the other receiver, who did not signal, actually caught the ball, there was no fair catch.
Over on the sideline, Chiefs coach Hank Stram was trying to decide whether or not to try a 60-yard fair-catch kick. If the ball split the uprights, it was three points for the Chiefs. Remember, in 1971 the goal posts were stationed on the goal line.
In his book, McDonough remembers being beckoned to the sideline by Stram to ask about fair catch free kick rules. He was prepared to break the news to Stram that by rule, the Chiefs could not try a fair-catch kick because there was no fair catch, only a dead ball. But it was a moot point as Stram didn’t want Dolphins star Mercury Morris to return the kick, should the 60-yard scoring attempt fail.
So, McDonough flipped the coin and the Dolphins and Chiefs started the sudden death frame. They played an entire fifth quarter with no score. So, the teams swapped goals and started the sixth quarter. Finally, with 7:20 left in the sixth quarter, Garo Yepremian kicked the winning field goal.
That game is still the longest NFL game ever played. A total of 82 minutes and 40 seconds elapsed before the Dolphins emerged the winner.
The NFL never scheduled another postseason game on Christmas Day. In 1977, the AFC played both games on Christmas Eve Saturday and the NFC on Monday. Another double-overtime game happened that year — the “Ghost to the Post” of NFL lore between the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Colts — and NBC wound up switching to the second game in progress. In 1983, the schedule had moved so that the wild card playoffs fell on Christmas weekend (one game per conference at that time), and they were split Saturday/Monday. 1988 necessitated another Saturday/Monday split; soon after the NFL schedule aligned so that regular-season weekends would fall on Christmas weekend. Although the NFL scheduled some Christmas Day games, they were assured that there wouldn’t be a seemingly endless overtime session.
This game serves as a reminder that whenever a playoff games goes to overtime, it has the potential to become the longest game ever played. It also serves as a reminder that no matter the day, officials need to be in a good mindset because any game they call could be an instant classic and still be talked about 48 years later.