Shaky Myhra made the kick that mattered most
Although he was overshadowed by many Hall of Famers, Steve Myhra played a prominent role in the magical 1958 NFL title game. Here's his story.
Johnny Unitas. Raymond Berry. Alan "The Horse" Ameche. Sam Huff. Frank Gifford. More than a dozen Pro Football Hall of Famers in all.
Steve Myhra? He's not in Canton, but his kicking shoe is. Myhra was a second-year pro from the University of North Dakota on the 1958 Colts, a two-way reserve at guard and linebacker. And, in an era before kicking specialists, he was also the kicker for PATs and short-range field goals.
He connected on only four of 10 field-goal attempts that season and missed three extra points. Myhra fell short on a 31-yard try early in the championship game and, given another life by a Giants penalty, had his next attempt from 26 yards blocked.
But with only seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the clock running, he sailed a 20-yarder just inside the left upright to tie the score at 17 and help introduce NFL fans to sudden death.
"I was reading about that game in the Parade magazine recently," said Garvin Stevens, Myhra's roommate at North Dakota. "It never mentioned Steve."
The Colts' overtime march downfield is the stuff of legend. Unitas and Berry turned the Giants seemingly every which way. Ameche bulled into the end zone on third-and-goal at the New York 1-yard line to end the methodical 13-play, 80-yard drive during which Myhra watched from the sideline. Final score: Colts 23, Giants 17.
"People say, 'Why didn't you kick the field goal?'" said former Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan, in retirement the team's resident funny man. "How the hell do I know?"
Myhra played five seasons in the NFL, another in Canada, then returned to his hometown of Wahpeton, N.D. Family, friends and former teammates describe a man who loved the outdoors and country music and rarely said no to a good time. He was married in 1959 and divorced by the mid-70s, started multiple companies but too often gave friends business breaks. He traveled to Minnesota for the annual "WE Fest" country music show in August 1994 when he died of a heart attack at age 60.
"Steve was outgoing, handsome, generous," said older sister Joan Holtz, Myhra's only sibling. "He never ignored anyone."
"He had a heart of gold," said Stevens, who also played alongside Myhra on the Fighting Sioux's offensive line. "He couldn't say no to anybody."
When Carolyn Myhra was asked if her ex-husband was a happy-go-lucky type, she replied, "Definitely."
"I always said I went to bed with two men every night: Steve and Johnny Cash," she said. "Johnny Cash was always on the radio."
Myhra grew up in a family of means in southeastern North Dakota. His father owned a farm equipment business and plenty of land outside of Wahpeton, located on the Red River across from Minnesota. Holtz recalls a comfortable home with a three-car garage, a couple of basketball hoops and a figurative welcome sign for any and all of Steve's friends to come over to play basketball or football.
"I'd count up to 30 guys getting out there to play," said Holtz, now living in Arizona. "This happened all the time."
Myhra initially enrolled at Minnesota and lettered for the Gophers in 1953, but that was the final season there for both he and retiring coach Wes Fesler. Holtz cited the coaching change and lack of playing time for her brother's transfer to North Dakota, but Stevens said another issue might have come into play. Although Myrha was a carefree sort, Stevens said he also could turn his own intensity inward.
"I think he was looking for a little less stress, took advice from counseling and medical people in transferring," Stevens said.
"He had excellent speed as a pulling guard," Stevens said. "He was a big kid but was light on his feet. He had strength, speed, agility. He could beat me at golf, tennis."
Stevens also introduced Myhra to a coed whom he had previously dated named Carolyn Birkland.
Myhra was drafted in the 12th round by the Colts before his senior season, before he was named a small college All-American for the second consecutive year. He arrived at Colts training camp in 1957 and, according to Donovan, never acted like a rookie.
"You thought he had played for 10 years," Donovan said. "Drinking, eating pizza like he was one of the boys. We called Steve 'Winky.' He was always winking."
On the Giants' second play from scrimmage in the championship game, Colts linebacker Leo Sanford's day came to an end -- and greatly altered Myhra's.
"My right knee had gone out earlier that year," Sanford said. "They go after a guy if they think he has a weakness. They ran an off-tackle play, and Roosevelt Brown went out on me. I was fighting that off, and the thing just went out."
Myhra replaced Sanford at right linebacker for the rest of the game.
"Winky was the best defensive man we had on the field that day," Donovan said.
The Colts trailed 17-14 with 2:20 left in the fourth quarter when they took over at their 14. Four Unitas passes, the last three to Berry, put Baltimore on New York's 13, clock ticking and no timeouts left. Myhra and the field goal team hurried onto the frozen turf.
"The hash marks were closer to the sideline at that time, so the angle that he had to kick from was more severe," said Pat Summerall, who did the Giants' kicking then. "I thought he missed at first. I turned around to somebody and celebrated because I thought the ball was outside the upright."
Berry thought it helped Myhra's kicking for him to play linebacker from the start of the game.
"When you've got to play an entire game, you're doing a whole lot of things other than thinking field goal as compared to being a kicker over there waiting for your time to kick," he said.
In overtime, the Colts forced the Giants to punt and took over at their 20. Nine plays later, they were at New York's 19 and arguably within Myhra's range. He'd hit from 41 yards in 1957 but not beyond 28 in '58.
"John Unitas was the quarterback," said Jim Mutscheller, Baltimore's tight end. "He was very confident, and we were confident in him. Why not go get the touchdown if you can get it?" Which Ameche did, following Mutscheller's block into the end zone.
Myhra and Carolyn Berkeland were married in Grand Forks, N.D., not far from the UND campus, in the summer of '59 after she graduated and just in time for him to report to training camp. The Colts repeated as NFL champions in 1959, needing only the standard four periods at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium to beat the Giants again.
Myhra played for the Colts through 1961 and set team records that final season with 39 field goal tries and 21 conversions, but injuries had caught up to him. His playing career ended with Saskatchewan in 1962.
"We knew he was a good football player, but he never got a chance," Donovan said. "[Colts coach] Weeb Ewbank knew that Steve was a fairly wealthy young man. Weeb didn't like anybody with money."
The Myhras started a family and returned to North Dakota, where Steve's business pursuits ran from starting an insurance company to sportscasting to opening a sporting goods store in Wahpeton. Three sons came along, and the family left cold weather for Phoenix.
But the marriage ended in 1975 and Steve returned north, where people liked to pat him on the back and buy him a beer. In 1976 Myhra was inducted into UND's athletic hall of fame, where his plaque is now displayed alongside the likes of Phil Jackson, Jim LeClair and Dennis Hextall inside the Fighting Sioux's $100 million hockey palace, Ralph Engelstad Arena.
He was a favorite at Little Richard's bar in Wahpeton and liked to spend summers in his Winnebago on nearby Otter Tail Lake in Minnesota. Stevens said he and Tom Clifford, a longtime UND figure who became the school's president, kept a close watch on Myhra during in his final years after the business and financial struggles. Then there was a hip replacement in 1992 and prostate cancer surgery in 1993.
"He was walking, went with an alumni group and even went out on the dance floor," Holtz said. "Not much later, the heart attack happened."
Myhra was laid to rest in a family plot at a country cemetery near Wahpeton, at St. John's Lutheran Church near the little town of Dwight.
"When Tom Clifford spoke at Steve's funeral, he mentioned the generosity that Steve always expressed," Holtz said.
Carolyn Myhra, at age 70, recently began a new career in real estate. She has kept in touch with some of the wives of former Colts. She learned from Mutscheller's wife, Pert, that she was invited to the 50th anniversary activities in Baltimore at the end of this month. She and grown sons Scott and Matt plan to make the trip.
"I'm really looking forward to it," she said.
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com
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