Alive and Kicking: Chester Marcol Cherished Years with Packers
Throughout the Green Bay Packers’ storied history, a remarkable number of victories have been attained or clinched with moments of sheer, athletic beauty: an Al Harris interception and return for touchdown; a last-second Farve-to-Kitrick Taylor Bengals-beater; a Desmond Howard 99-yard sprint to the end zone.
Then again, one of the most memorable game-winning moments in Packers history was anything but pretty. With the Packers and Bears tied 6-6 in overtime at Lambeau Field on the opening day of the 1980 season, a Lynn Dickey-led drive into Bears territory put the Packers in position to earn the win with one Polish-born, bespectacled offensive weapon: kicker Chester Marcol.
The 30-year-old Marcol had been a member of the Packers since his NFL career began in 1972 — a year in which his 33 field goals in 48 attempts and team-leading 128 total points-scored made him a Pro Bowler, NFC Rookie of the Year, and, eventually, a Packers Hall of Famer. Marcol was the league-leading scorer two out of his first three years in the league, and ended up with 120 field goals, which still ranks him third on the all-time Packers’ list (behind Ryan Longwell and Chris Jacke).
Marcol’s most impressive successes came early in his career, though, and as his seasons with the Packers wore on, his aura of can’t miss dependability faded. By the time Marcol lined up to take that potentially game-ending 34-yarder against the Bears, his erratic off-field behavior had some in the franchise viewing him as more of a liability than an asset.
But Marcol’s role as the unsteady, somewhat faded hero made what happened in the next few seconds of that game even more stunning. Marcol had already had a good day — the Packers six points had come from his kicking field goals of 41 and 46 yards (the Bears points had come from a pair of field goals kicked by Bob Thomas). A 34-yarder looked to be a piece of cake. The snap from center Larry McCarren was on the money despite the fact that McCarren was still recovering from hernia surgery that day, but wanted to play to extend a 63-game streak of consecutive starts. The hold was good and Marcol drove his foot through the ball, hard and true. Kick is good? In an Alan Page-less universe, perhaps. The fearsome defensive tackle was no longer a Purple People Eater, but was still big and fast enough to swat down a field goal attempt. Except that this time, when Page swatted the ball he sent it straight back to Marcol.
The flustered kicker grabbed hold of the ball out of blind reflex and before anyone had time to figure out what happened, he tottered left, scurried not-so-gracefully to the end zone and scored a game-winning touchdown — the only touchdown of his career. That moment of spectacular glory proved to be Marcol’s last as a Packer — he was cut from the team just weeks later by then-coach Bart Starr. The officially-cited reason was that the team needed a more dependable foot for kickoffs.
But as some suspected and as Marcol later admitted, the real problem was he was in a losing battle with the demons of depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. In a curious footnote to Marcol’s career, he played one game against the Packers as a Houston Oiler. Oilers kicker Toni Fritsch was unable to start a December game at Lambeau and Marcol, who was still in Green Bay after being cut, signed with the Oilers to handle kicking duties for the day. He kicked one field goal and made one of three PATs in a 22-3 Houston win.
Marcol’s amazing touchdown has long made him a figure of great affection among Packers fans, though most fans are also aware of the darkness that hounded him. Marcol’s father was an alcoholic who committed suicide when Marcol was just 15 and Marcol himself made a gruesome attempt at suicide himself in 1986 when he swallowed a quantity of battery acid. Marcol’s messy post-Packers years included arrests, estrangement and homelessness, and his downward spiral seemed to bear testimony to the fact that real life rarely ends as neatly and upliftingly as a game-winning score.
But there is a happy ending to Marcol’s story, as he himself makes clear in his autobiography, aptly titled Alive and Kicking: My Journey Through Football, Addiction, and Life. The book, written with Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is a compelling and unflinchingly honest look at all the ups and downs of Marcol’s wild ride of a career. And, in the book’s first chapter, he explains exactly what happened during the most famous seconds of his time with the Packers.
“People have asked me over the years what I was thinking at that moment. What was I thinking? There was no time to think. It was a bang-bang play, and I just reacted and caught the ball. Fortunately, I had good hands and reflexes. My experience as a goalie on Poland’s national junior soccer team and my background as a receiver in high school had prepared me.
“Instinctively, I started to run to my left. Most of the Bears were in a heap on the ground, having gone all-out to try to block the kick. By the time they realized I had the ball, it was too late to do anything about it. Jim Gueno, our left up-back, got in the way of the only Bears defender in the area and threw a little hook block. It wouldn’t have mattered; nobody was going to catch me.
“I held the ball high and tight to my chest and sprinted into the corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown. Lambeau Field went crazy as my teammates mobbed me, screaming and pounding me on the back… In the locker room afterward, Starr presented me with a game ball and asked me to lead the team in prayer. I did so with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks. The ball I carried into the end zone is today in the Packers Hall of Fame.”
After years and years of struggle, Marcol is now clean and sober and has worked mightily to repair the family relationships and friendships that were strained during his years of drug abuse. At 61, he suffers from a number of ailments: his esophagus is still damaged from his suicide attempt, he has hepatitis C, and wears a defibrillator to assist his weakened heart. But he is strong of spirit and has dedicated himself to helping others as much as possible — he works as a drug abuse counselor at a Phoenix House in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (and though he’s a Michigan resident, he still considers himself an ardent Packers’ fan).
In one of his book’s later chapters, Marcol takes the opportunity to reflect on his life’s path, and on his greatest moment as a Packer: “As funny as it sounds, I wouldn’t trade the mistakes I made for anything because the whole package, good and bad, made me who I am today. I’m in a very good place. I have a great family, a terrific and fulfilling job as a drug and alcohol counselor, and a rich, full life. I sincerely hope that my story, warts and all, will entertain Packers fans, whom I love with all my heart. But more importantly, if just one person who reads this book decides to get help for a substance-abuse problem, I’ll consider it a tremendous success. The touchdown I scored in 1980 against the Bears has been called “Marcol’s Miracle.”
The real miracle is that I’m still alive and kicking.”
Chuck Crisafulli is a lifelong Packers fan who has been writing professionally for over 25 years. He has written several books including: Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song, Moonlight Drive: The Stories Behind Every Doors’ Song, Me and A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis My Best Man, and Go To Hell: A Heated History of the Underworld.