It was a random Tuesday afternoon in early January 1998, and the man across the dining table was grinning mischievously. All around us, his eyes were lasered on our table. He was creepy on my side. On the other?
“People have been looking at me like this for 35 years in this city,” Len Dawson said cheerfully.
I asked: “Isn’t that a little…”
“Strange?” Dawson said, laughing. “At first. But the beauty of this city is that they just want you to know that they remember you. What they want more than anything is to say thank you. You know, I had dinner with Joe Namath in New York and Bob Griese in Miami and it’s another thing altogether. People don’t just stare, they approach. In waves. Until you have to leave or ask the owner for a private room.
He waved his arms around Houston’s in the heart of the Country Club Plaza district.
“This,” he said, “is Kansas City.”
It had been 28 years since Dawson led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl victory, 23-7 over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. It would be another 22 years before the bosses added a second. Dawson had been involved in it all, first as a player, then as a local broadcaster and network commentator, and finally as a local radio analyst.
The Chiefs were terrible many of those years, and when they weren’t terrible they were something even worse: a tease, a big game disappointment, once losing three straight home games as the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“That’s the thing with the fans around here,” Dawson said that day, two days after the Chiefs stumbled as a 1 seed, losing 14-10 to the Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium, sending the entire city to permanent midnight for a sad few weeks. “They show their loyalty even more fierce when times are bad than when they are good.”
That’s why I can vouch for the following: if you don’t have a dog to hunt a week from Sunday at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona; if you are not a fan of either the Chiefs or the Eagles; if you are not a gambler; if the happiness of your day won’t be dictated by the box pools… you can feel good rooting for the Chiefs.
Because the Chiefs are the product of a city that has weathered years – sometimes decades – of slapstick with its two main tenants, the Chiefs and the Royals, yet still wear the dress, still care about the little things, even in the summers when the Royals flirt with 100 losses (as they did this summer) and fall when the Chiefs go 2-14 (which happened most recently in 2012).
A few months after lunch with Dawson, I spent the morning of the Royals’ home opener dragging George Brett from his home to an appearance downtown for the main event at Kauffman Stadium, a 1:05 start against the Orioles. And it was the same thing: every eye, in every cafe, in every parking lot, in every segment of the stadium, was on him.
It was as if the president was walking around among people, only there weren’t any Secret Service men keeping people at bay, just their strict Midwestern codes of decency. Every time he shook a hand, the fan froze, as if he were a slave; but those who did not receive handshakes did not spew envy. They were – honest – just happy to be there.
“I’m a California boy, okay?” Brett told me later, while he sipped a beer before the game. “I love the sun. Yet I live, year-round, in this city where it gets about 90 below in January. Maybe now you understand why I do it.
Look, every city is proud of its teams. Most, in fact, aren’t quite as fickle as New York or Boston or Philadelphia, places where killing the local nine (or five, or 11) isn’t just a way of life, but a rule of order. St. Louis contains a little bit of KC. Pittsburgh too. Cleveland? They love their teams in Cleveland.
But I lived in Kansas City for a year. It was different there. Purer. Despite how he’s looked the past five years, it hasn’t always been easy being a fan of the Chiefs. That January of 1998, I saw genuine desperation in scores of saloons, VFW halls, and high school basketball gymnasiums. This is why I felt so good when the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020.
Sometimes, as a sports fan, you wonder if there will ever be a payoff for all the devotion. There was that day. It’s been there, in Kansas City, every day since Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid started dueting. Good for that city. Good for his fans. And good for you, if you choose to adopt them in the next 11 days. You can be fine with that choice. I promise.