This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL’s past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport’s history.
On its own, it’s a pretty remarkable sight in the clip above: A kicker retrieving his own blocked field-goal attempt, scooping up the loose ball and running it in for a walk-off touchdown.
That doesn’t happen every day in the NFL, after all. But it’s the back story that makes Chester Marcol’s 1980 touchdown against the rival Chicago Bears one of the most WTF moments in modern league history.
Marcol entered the league in 1972, a Polish-born kicker whose family left their home country after his father committed suicide. He arrived at high school in Imlay City, Michigan (30 miles east of Flint) not knowing a lick of English, but a gym teacher discovered that Marcol could kick the heck out of a soccer ball.
Once Marcol was introduced to football and taught how to kick that oblique spheroid, a great talent was transformed. He went down the road to kick for then-NAIA Hillsdale College, where he went on to set several school kicking marks and become a four-time All-American. He made a 62-yarder in 1969 (a year before Tom Dempsey made a 63-yarder in the NFL) and attempted an unheard-of 77-yard try against St. Norbert (which just happened to be where the Packers held training camp at the time) that reportedly came up a few yards short.
Packers head coach Dan Devine thought enough of Marcol to spend a second-round pick (34th overall) on him, and Marcol rewarded him by making Pro Bowls in two of his first three seasons and being named 1972 NFC Rookie of the Year after making 33 field goals in 14 games and leading the NFL in scoring that season.
His efforts that season against the Chicago Bears endeared him to the locals. He beat them with late field goals in both games and frustrated Bears coach Abe Gibron so much that he handpicked special-teams ace Gary Kosins as a mercenary to go after Marcol on kickoffs to try to knock him off his block.
“What do they think he is, a Polish prince?” Gibron scoffed?
With that a nickname — and a legend — was born.
Marcol became a folk hero in Wisconsin, and its Polish community embraced him even tighter. His rise to stardom was meteoric, and on the outside he loved the newfound attention. But on the inside there were demons.
“I could go home after kicking three or four field goals and missing one, and it would take me til 4 or 5 o’clock [in the morning] to fall asleep,” Marcol told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2002. “I would sit at the kitchen table and rethink the whole game over and over.”
His effectiveness and usage dropped off a bit as the decade wore on, especially after Bart Starr took over as head coach, but Marcol was thrust into a key situation on Opening Day in 1980. It was knotted at 6-6 in sudden-death overtime against those rival Bears up at Lambeau Field, and the 31-year-old Marcol had made two field-goal attempts — from 41 and 46 yards — to that point.
Marcol lined up for a 34-yard try to win the game for the Packers. The snap and hold appear good. Marcol thumped the ball — and then there was a second thump. That was the sound of the Bears’ Alan Page, who had burst through the line, blocking the kick. But in an instant, the ball ended up back in the oversized hands of Marcol — hands that might have made him a goalie had he stayed in Poland — as he streaked freely toward an area kickers rarely ventured.
It was sheer chaos. The Bears were stunned. So was nearly everyone else in the stadium that moment.
Likely none more than Marcol himself. He raced to the end zone, escorted by a convoy of blockers, and the Polish Prince had once more beaten the Bears — but this time in stunning fashion: by scoring what would be marked down in the box score as a game-ending 25-yard blocked field-goal return. The bespectacled Marcol had scored all the Packers’ points in a 12-6 overtime stunner.
This might have been the football equivalent of Casimir Pulaski saving the life of George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine to any proud, Polish-blooded Packers fan.
Professionally speaking, it was Marcol’s finest hour. He clutched his game-winning ball as he was mobbed on the field by teammates. Lambeau went bananas. (“It’s bedlam!” said CBS play-by-play announcer Lindsey Nelson.) Tears streamed down Marcol’s face. Starr handed him the game ball in the locker room. His heart raced underneath his perspiration-soaked uniform as he led the team in prayer. But part of that — and what also made it his darkest moment — might also have been because of the cocaine Marcol had snorted at halftime.
No one yet knew it, but Marcol was becoming addicted to the drug he had tried for the first time just a few weeks prior. So much so that he felt the need to use it during a game.
In his 2011 autobiography, “Alive and Kicking,” Marcol detailed the downward spiral of his life when he first tried coke. He described in this book excerpt what happened before his magical run that hadn’t been known until the book came out:
“I had gone into the bathroom at halftime and while the coaches and players were preparing for the second half, I snorted coke. I don’t know if it would be accurate to say I was high when I scored that touchdown two hours later, but I definitely was under the influence.
“It’s not something I’m proud to admit. But it happened, and to tell the story of my touchdown without including the part about the cocaine would not be an honest account.”
Later in that season, despite Marcol’s heroics, Starr cut him — under the auspice of his kickoff distances being too short. But the Packers had been tipped off to his cocaine usage, and they already knew he was a big drinker. Marcol would freely admit later he was by that point an alcoholic.
In a strange twist of coincidence, Marcol was still in Green Bay the week he was cut when the Houston Oilers came to town and they realized late in the week that their kicker was too hurt to play. They signed Marcol, who made a field goal in the 22-3 Oilers victory, but he missed two of his three extra-point attempts and was cut after the game. It would be his final game in the NFL.
By 1986, Marcol was a complete mess. He attempted suicide by ingesting a cocktail of battery acid, rat poison, and vodka, and though he lived Marcol’s esophagus was so badly damaged that it must be stretched three times a year by a painful procedure that involves pushing progressively larger tubes down his throat.
Although Marcol struggled with his sobriety for years, he currently works as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor at Phoenix House in the Upper Peninsula in the town of Calumat, Michigan. Still, years of abuse have taken their toll — Marcol, 66, suffers from hepatitis C and heart problems.
But he’s a member of the Packers Hall of Fame and, most importantly, a survivor. The Polish Prince also will never not be known for his incredible touchdown run — one veiled by his then-hidden addiction — but it’s a story with an ending that he can be proud of. Even if it’s one that’s one of the more bizarre we’ve ever heard.
Previous Shutdown Corner NFL throwback stories: Joe Montana’s underrated toughness | Barry Sanders’ long-forgotten final game | Jake Delhomme’s playoff nightmare | Barry Switzer, outspoken as ever | Was Sebastian Janikowski worth a first-round pick? | How Jim Harbaugh punching Jim Kelly helped Colts land Peyton Manning | Jay Cutler makes the greatest throw ever | “Has anyone ever kissed your Super Bowl rings?” | How the Patriots once faced a fourth-and-63 | The Packers survived a miserable two-decade run | “NFL PrimeTime” changed how we watch football | One of pro football’s greatest games happened in the crazy USFL | The time Warren Moon should have had 650 yards in an NFL game | In 1979, Lyle Alzado boxed against Muhammad Ali. Seriously | Meet the NFL team that lost its only game before folding | In 1969 the NFL demanded Joe Namath sell his bar, so he retired | Let’s Ram It! An oral history of 1985 Los Angeles Rams’ rap song | The historic AFL-NFL merger 50 years ago | Was O.J. Simpson’s 1973 the best season in NFL history? | Hertz made advertising history with O.J. Simpson’s airport runs | Before they were coaches, Bill Cowher once broke Jeff Fisher’s leg | The man who turned down the NFL because of his religious beliefs | The short list of players drafted by the NFL and NBA | The crazy story behind Steve Young’s crazy 43-year USFL contract | When NFL players fought Andre the Giant and others at WrestleMania | Joe Delaney’s legacy still strong, 33 years after he died trying to save others
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