In 1987, Salem’s Rich Karlis crushed the Browns with his overtime-winning boot for the Broncos
By Ryan Buck
The 1986 NFL season’s AFC Championship Game arguably could be considered the high-water mark of the Super Bowl-era Cleveland Browns.
As the host and favorite, the Browns appeared to be poised to beat the Denver Broncos, advance to their first Super Bowl and end a two-and-a-half decade drought of major professional sports titles for Cleveland.
With another losing season nearing its frustrating completion this Sunday, Browns fans are again left to wonder what might have been on that ill-fated afternoon at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
On Jan. 11, 1987, Salem native Rich Karlis was the only person there to dare expose any part of bare skin to the frigid temperatures spurred on by another dominating Cleveland winter and gusts off Lake Erie that could loosen the tear ducts of a U.S. Navy SEAL.
After breaking his way into the National Football League and becoming the starting kicker for the Broncos, Karlis earned the moniker of the oddball who kicked barefooted.
He was the last of a group of professionals that practiced the zany method, a small cult of nonconformists that fascinated fans of the 1970s and ‘80s, who then dismissed it just as quickly.
Karlis, though, left perhaps the most lasting impression.
He picked up on the oddity during his first year of college, more experiment than expectation.
“It was either good or it really hurt,” Karlis said recently by phone from Denver. “I did the best I could do with it. I think everyone kind of got used to it. It was a novelty.
“For the most part it was fine, except the days when the weather was inclement.”
The AFC Championship Game offered the perfect chance to test his sentiments.
“The playoffs,” he said, “that’s where you earn your reputation ... and your money.”
Karlis stood 33 yards away from capping a come-from-behind overtime victory over the Browns.
“As a player you dream as a kid of playing in a big game,” he said. “You never know when that game might come and when you can make a kick that’s significant.”
Before his moment of glory could come, however, Karlis had to first find his way to the NFL.
A casual football fan as a child, Karlis’ father, Dick, took him to Browns training camp every summer.
He followed the Packers dynasty of the 1960s and then the Vikings’ Super Bowl teams of the 1970s.
Everything else, however, came second to working with Dad.
Dick Karlis owned and operated the family business in Salem. Rich helped him maintain and fix commercial properties the company owned; roofing, cleaning, sanding, painting, fixing and replacing surfaces and structures of all kinds.
“You name it, we did it,” the son said.
What it also did was build the foundation for his eventual success.
“What he taught me was just a good work ethic,” Karlis said of his father. “I learned to work and that’s never a bad trait to have. Nothing was ever handed to me.
“He set a good example for me. You deal with your disappointments and work through them.”
Athletic, but a non-athlete, Karlis wanted to change that before his senior year at Salem in 1976.
Over lunch breaks, respite from working with his father, friends Brett Alright and Tim Tamati, the captains for the Quakers, persuaded Karlis to come out for the team.
“I really had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I never played soccer or anything.”
After a one-win season at Salem, but with some success kicking the ball, Karlis made his way to the University of Cincinnati and walked on to the football team.
“It was enough to whet my appetite to see if I could do it in college,” Karlis said. “I had no intentions of going to college at that time.
“They encouraged me to give it a try. It was a choice that changed the direction of my life.”
It was during spring practice after his freshman season when the barefoot kicking took flight. Karlis assumed the full-time kicking duties in his junior season, after two years of kickoffs only.
He later kicked his way on to the Broncos as a free agent after college.
With only 30 NFL jobs to go around at the time, Karlis’ approach to the game helped him earn one. Unwavering confidence kept him there.
“The mental part of the game is the hardest part,” Karlis said. “You’ve got to be mentally prepared to manage disappointment.
“I saw a lot of young guys come in that could kick the ball a country mile and then, all of a sudden, they couldn’t kick.
“Maybe it was just an underdog mentality,” Karlis said. “No one recruited me out of high school. No one was knocking down my door wanting me to kick for them. It was an attitude of determination and persistence.”
John Elway’s fourth-quarter, 98-yard drive and 5-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson sent the championship game to overtime and the quarterback into football lore.
But it was Karlis that won the game, 23-20, in overtime. His shoeless blast snuck inside the left upright (though Browns fans still question the accuracy), sending Denver to Super Bowl XXI.
“For me, it couldn’t have been scripted much better, coming back to where I grew up,” said Karlis, whose parents for a time bore the brunt of threatening phone calls from disgruntled Browns fans. “I only played senior year of high school and for a college that didn’t have much success.
“To be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that’s big dream type of stuff.”
Karlis, a father of three along with two stepsons, has found success away from the field. Retired since 1990, he filmed instructional videos for aspiring kickers. He intentionally omitted any lessons on the art of barefoot kicking.
Today, he is Director for Corporate Sponsorships for Denver-based CenturyLink, where he has been since 2001.
Karlis has built corporate sponsorships and sports marketing relationships with numerous NFL (the Seattle Seahawks play at CenturyLink Field), NBA and MLB franchises as well as Creighton University.
“I understand the value of a brand,” said the man known to millions of football fans as a novelty. “I love the business of sport. I’ve been very fortunate the last 12 years. I transitioned into something I really like and that is making the business of sport work.”