Garo Yepremian kicking

By Doug Swift

“You want the greatest immigrant story? For my money, it’s the little Armenian guy in my locker room. If you love America, you gotta love Garo Yepremian.”

—- Don Shula, Head Coach, Miami Dolphins

Garo Yepremian

He looked good. His bald bean glowed, his little hands were folded neatly over his chest, a snappy tie was attached to his neck. Making snappy ties was among the many Yepremian family businesses, and leave it to Garo to give the tie business one last plug. Garo was at peace with the angels, but right away I could see something was missing. Why wasn’t he wearing his Super Bowl VII and VIII rings? Could he have sold them? Garo was always looking for ways to make a buck.

Garo showing off the family tie business

Garo was my best pal among the Dolphin family. We met at the first Dolphin training camp under the new head coach, Don Shula. As a rookie prospect, I’d already been in camp for two weeks of practices when the Players’ Association strike against the NFL collapsed and the veterans reported. Garo came in with the veterans. I knew nothing of Garo Yepremian and it seemed nobody else did either. We thought maybe Garo was a neighbor of one of the coaching staff and had been invited to join in the first day activities for a lark. When the veterans reported, the rookies, as was expected, were all moved to the bottom tier of the depth chart while the coaches started working with the veterans. Garo, as a place kicker, had little to do so he too hung around on the periphery of the practice sessions. That hanging around gave us a chance to become acquainted.

Garo was entertaining. He spoke a hybrid language of accented English, Armenian, Greek and French. He did a credible imitation of Ray Charles. After his brief stint with the Detroit Lions in’66 and’67, Garo enlisted in the National Guard to improve his chances for citizenship. During his training with the Guard, Garo picked up an interesting speech mannerism from his drill instructor. Before bellowing any orders to his recruits, the D.I. would announce, “I want to thank you!” then order fifty pushups; or, “I want to thank you – what’s the population of Michigan? Wrong! Give me fifty more pushups!” Subsequently, Garo made use of the expression before and after many of his comments. For example, he might say- “I want to thank you! – Miami is a very hot place to hold a training camp;” or when a linebacker from Ole Miss named Jimmy ‘Cadillac’ Keyes asked in a southern drawl,” Say, Gayro, you’re Armenian, right? “Garo answered, “No, I’m from Transylvania – I want to thank you!”

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There are a lot of stories about Garo. An early one tells of his debut with the Detroit Lions. Harry Gilmer, the coach of the Lions who chanced to hire Garo as the place-kicker, first had to steer Garo on to the field for the opening kick-off. “We lost the coin-toss!” Gilmer exclaimed, “Yepremian, get out there!!” Whereupon, Garo went onto the field and proceeded to scan in the midfield turf for a ‘lost coin’. When the referee asked Garo, “Why the hold-up?” Garo replied, “lost coin?” The referee sighed, “No-no…no lost coin,” and did a pantomime of a kick and a football lofting in an arc toward the other team, “Just kick the ball!” Farfetched? Maybe not.

I had some sympathy for Garo. When it was announced that Garo was becoming a Lion, Alex Karras reluctantly allowed that it was okay for Garo to be on the team as long as he didn’t have to shower next to him. So much for a warm welcome from his new teammates. Garo had been signed on a Thursday afternoon just before the Lions third game of the season and after kicking that ball around without pads for a couple of days at practice, he was issued his first football uniform ever just before the game on Sunday. Garo must have been struggling just to get into his uniform with no teammates willing to help him. I can remember my introduction to organized football when I was ten and trying to figure out the equipment: shoulder pads, hip pads, thigh and knee pads that had to be shoved into floppy pants that made my arms and legs seem disconnected from my head. However, once suited-up, all I had to do was take the field in front of an idle crowd of parents and neighborhood well-wishers. Garo, took the field accompanied by his skeptical teammates in front of a lusty, big league crowd of 60,000. As he said, “I was a stranger in a strange land – I want to thank you!”

Wanting a clear view of the ball and being just a kicker, Garo decided there was no need for him to wear a facemask. That was a big mistake. At 5’7” and 165 lbs., Garo had no idea that once he walked onto the field he was fair game for anyone who wanted to take a shot at him. Ray Nitschke, the notorious linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, was the first to oblige. Nitschke nearly took Garo’s head off, and he was just one of many players who felt foreigners had no place on a professional football field and went out of their way to let Garo know it. After watching Garo on TV, even President Lyndon Johnson chimed in. He told the press, “I don’t like the fact that a little foreigner who’d never made a block or a tackle in his life could decide the outcome of a game hard fought by American boys in the trenches.”

Realizing he’d become a marked man, Garo made some adjustments. After the Nitschke hit, he had a single-bar mounted onto his helmet, and HarryGilmer, not wanting to lose his new kicker, told him that after every kick he should run as fast as he could to the sidelines. Unfortunately, this strategy on several occasions put Garo on the wrong side of the field in the midst of a gleefully jeering opponent’s bench. Despite being a constant target, during that year Garo became one of the League’s most reliable kickers and set two NFL records. The first was in the Lions last game of the season when he hit six consecutive field goals against the Minnisota Vikings, but that wasn’t the record Garo was most proud of. The one he really liked was that he was the last player in the NFL ever to play a game without a facemask.

Garo Yepremian in later years with President Barack Obama

When Garo died in the spring of 2015, I was the only Dolphin at his funeral. It was my honor to be there, and a greater honor to have been his friend of 40 years and a part of his extended family. Still, from a statistical point of view, Garo deserved a bigger, more portentous send-off. He was after all, one of the greatest Dolphins ever. Not only was he the leading scorer for the Dolphins in 1971, but that year he also was the leading scorer for the entire NFL. One of those scores occurred on a cold, muddy Christmas day in Kansas City when Garo hit a 37-yard field goal in double overtime to end what still counts as the longest game in the history of the NFL. Plus, it was that kick that sent the Dolphins to the AFC Championship game, and subsequently to its first Super Bowl. Then in ‘72, Garo once again the leading scorer for the Dolphins and there is no question that without his right foot, ‘The Perfect Season’ never would have happened.

Since Garo and I definitely didn’t reach the appearance-threshold of what a professional football player should be, many of our teammates good-naturedly had cast us as a pair of oddballs. I represented a longhaired hippy from a Division III college somewhere up north and Garo was the diminutive foreigner who didn’t know much about football. Unlike traditional American place kickers such as Pat Summerall, Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza, George Blanda, Don Chandler, Paul Hornung, even Tom Dempsy with a bad foot was occasionally stuck in the defensive line, Garo had never played a down of football before he signed with the Lions. He’d never served in the trenches. He’d never been part of the fight. In fact, the team never had to wash his uniform. Why bother, there was never a speck of dirt on it.

Garo Yepremian in action

As I pondered Garo at rest, I couldn’t help think if that were me posed in the casket, I also wouldn’t be looking up at any of my old teammates, but for the viewing I would hope to have my rings on. So where were Garo’s? When I asked Maritza, his wife, what happened to them, I learned that the resourceful Yepremian had done a brilliant thing. He had repurposed both rings into a necklace for Maritza that she could wear as an amulet during her battle with breast cancer, a fight that she eventually won. We cherish the rings; they have mojo. To earn them we had done what we were supposed to do, and we’d done it as well as anybody who has ever played the game. We might have been a pair of oddballs, but we were Dolphins, World Champion Dolphins.


Doug Swift and his championship rings

From 1970-75, Doug Swift was the starting strong side linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. During that time, the Dolphins went to three Super Bowls, won two rings, and in ’72 produced the only undefeated season in the history of the NFL, a record that remains intact until this day. This article is excerpted from a book that Doug is writing about those teams and the growth of the NFL.

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