Still super after 36 years
February 1, 2006
After all these years, Ed Podolak still dreams about touchdown runs in his sleep. He sees himself breaking a tackle on a kickoff return and darting up the sideline. He can see the shadows of pursuing linebackers and hear the pounding of the crowd in his helmet as he squeezes through an opening at the line of scrimmage, then into the open field.”Especially during Super Bowl week, or when training camp begins” says Podolak, a Basalt resident since 1981. “It feels like you’re ready to go. Here I am 58 years old and I still think I can play.”It was 36 years ago, on a soggy field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, when Podolak played in one of the most significant Super Bowls in pro football history.He was a wide-eyed rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs then, only 22 and without any sense that the game would be the first and last time he would play for a pro football championship.The Chiefs’ opponents in Super Bowl IV were the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League – a squad anchored by three future Hall of Famers on a stingy defensive line nicknamed the “Purple People Eaters.”The Chiefs from the upstart American Football League, led by Hall-of Fame quarterback Len Dawson and Hall-of-Fame coach Hank Stram, were playing in their second Super Bowl in four years, but were considered 13-point underdogs.A year earlier, when Joe Namath and the AFL’s New York Jets had upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts of the NFL in Super Bowl III, the AFL had garnered some of the respect it had sought from the NFL.
But a year later many still considered the Jets’ win – which Namath famously guaranteed – to be an anomaly. The prevailing wisdom assumed that the Chiefs would be crushed by the Vikings, and with the two leagues set to merge into one after the game in New Orleans, there were skeptics who questioned the NFL’s decision to merge with the supposedly inferior AFL.Contrary to predictions, Kansas City dissected the Vikings’ defense with ease, while holding Minnesota’s strong rushing game to a mere 67 yards.The 23-7 win, Podolak says, helped ensure the future success of the new league and its crowning event, the Super Bowl.”It really gave the new league a springboard,” Podolak says. “There had been four Super Bowls and the NFL had won two and the AFL had won two. It wasn’t a fluke.”
Today, Podolak plans to watch the big game in the expansive TV lounge at the private Roaring Fork Club in Basalt. It’s a place where he spends a lot of time, whether working out or sitting at his regular barstool, reading a paper or watching TV. Being an old AFC guy, Podolak is picking the Steelers to win. He considered going to his second home in Costa Rica, but opted to stay in the valley to watch with friends at the club.In 1971, in his third season with the Chiefs, Podolak bought a second home in Aspen – “back when it was the wild frontier,” he says.In 1981, he moved his family to the home where he still lives in Basalt. His modest bi-level home has a swing made from a chairlift out in the backyard. His neighbor’s horses graze in the pasture that borders his property.Podolak grew up in tiny Atlantic, Iowa, where he quickly grew into a local football star, and where he met his wife, Vicki. After he retired from the NFL in 1978, the couple decided to move to the Roaring Fork Valley full-time to raise their two daughters, Emily and Laura.”We wanted to live in a small town,” Podolak says. “Your family always comes first. The people around here have always known me as just Ed. If I had stayed in Kansas City, that would have been a different deal.”Since moving to the valley, Podolak has worked in the real estate business where he has ‘done pretty well,’ ” he says. His company is currently developing Town Center in Carbondale.”We’re kind of revitalizing the whole downtown of Carbondale,” Podolak says, smiling. “We just opened the new performing arts theater on New Year’s Eve in Carbondale. It’s going to offer a lot of the same things that the Wheeler offers in Aspen.”Podolak, who played quarterback and halfback at the University of Iowa, has also worked as the “color man” for the Iowa Hawkeyes’ football radio broadcasts for the past 24 seasons.During the fall, he catches a plane on Friday to cover games back in the Midwest, then usually returns by Sunday. He also makes it to about three Chiefs games a season, although his loyalties are now split between the Chiefs and the Broncos.The only time he roots against Denver is when the two teams meet.This year he caught the Chiefs-Broncos game in Denver, a 30-10 Broncos win.”I enjoy the Broncos organization. Coach [Mike] Shanahan has been up here with me at the Roaring Fork Club and played golf and so has John Elway, who is a friend of mine.”Podolak has an assortment of famous friends he sees at celebrity events throughout the year, but he’d rather talk about his two daughters. Both are Basalt High School graduates, and photos of each sit prominently above his desk at home. Podolak’s youngest, Laura, 25, played basketball at Iowa and now works as a radio producer in Sacramento. His oldest, Emily, 28, is finishing a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Photos of Podolak playing golf with Jack Nicklaus, and shots of him during his playing days lean against the wall – yet to be hung. The Jimmy Buffet record with a song dedicated to him collects dust on the top shelf of his desk. There are also stacks of game balls tucked away in storage.When pressed, however, about the frills of being a star in the NFL, Podolak divulges one of his favorite memory from his playing days.”I remember walking into a golf tournament when I was 23 years old, and there’s Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Joe Namath sitting at the bar,” he says. “They say, ‘Hey Podolak, come here and have a drink.’ You know you’ve made it when that happens.
“I’m really proud what I’ve done in real estate,” he adds. “But it’s a second career. Football will always be the first career.”A once-in-a-lifetime opportunityPodolak wears his Super Bowl Ring proudly, but he also notes that he didn’t play very much in the game.He had missed the first nine games of the 1969 season after tearing a hamstring in the preseason, and then was a backup running back who played only on special teams during the Chiefs’ playoff run. His finest years as a pro athlete lay ahead.During the 1971 season, the Chiefs had what Podolak still believes was the best team in the league. But in an AFC divisional playoff game on Christmas Day, the Miami Dolphins upset the Chiefs in the second overtime with a 37-yard field goal.The game, which lasted 82 minutes and featured 11 future Hall of Famers, still ranks today as one of the most exciting ever played in NFL history. It was also Podolak’s finest moment.He set an NFL playoff record for all-purpose yards in a single game with 350, including 17 rushes for 85 yards, eight receptions for 110 yards and three kickoff returns for 153 yards. He also ran back two punts for two yards.”That’s still the record for combined yardage in a playoff game,” Podolak says proudly. “It’s still there after all these years.”The pain from that loss, however, outweighed the personal glory, Podolak says. The Dolphins went on to lose to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI – a team that the Chiefs had beaten in the regular season.
The Chiefs never got as close to the Super Bowl again as they did on that day in December. After making it to the big game as a rookie, Podolak assumed he would always get back to the Super Bowl, but it was not to be.”That was a tough deal,” he said. “To have a real good year and think we were going to make it. Most of us on that team will probably say that that team was probably better than the one who won the Super Bowl, but that particular day, Miami beat us.”Podolak continued to have great individual years in Kansas City, leading the team in rushing four times. But the teams that Podolak played for continued to win less and less, and after the 1977 season – the Chiefs’ third-straight losing season – Podolak decided it was time to leave the game.He knew he had two or three seasons left in him, but the losing made it “easy to retire,” he says.Or, about as easy as it gets for a professional athlete. Podolak still dreams at night of breaking into the secondary and heading for the end zone, but he considers himself lucky in getting out when he did.He hasn’t suffered from the health ailments that plague most former NFL players – the knee surgeries, the hip replacements, or the severe arthritic pain.If he had played another two years, Podolak says, who knows what might have happened.”Somehow I got really lucky,” he says. “I had almost 3,000 carries in the NFL, and I don’t have knee or hip problems. My best friend, who was the center on the team and who is younger than I am, he’s had four hip replacements; and my roommate, who is the same age as I am, he’s had three knee replacements. And they both have back problems.”Still the same after all these yearsWhen Sunday’s game kicks off, Podolak says, it won’t be much different at its core than the same game he played 36 years ago.There’s a lot more money involved nowadays. The first pro contract Podolak signed with the Chiefs in 1969 was for $125,000 over three years.
“And that was a lot of money at the time, more than most people were making,” he says.Still, from its inception, the Super Bowl was designed to be the biggest thing of its kind – a national holiday that centered around America’s love of sport and showmanship.It was huge when he played in the game 36 years ago, and it’s huge still, Podolak says.”The highest-priced advertising money ever is with the Super Bowl. It shows you what it’s about,” he says.Then a quick joke: “If you can get people to come to Detroit, it must be something.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org