This was a random Tuesday afternoon in early January 1998, and the man on the other side of the lunch table was smiling impishly. All around us, eyes were lasered at our table. It was unsettling on my side of it. On the other?
“People have looked at me this way for 35 years in this city,” Len Dawson said cheerfully.
I asked, “Isn’t that a little …”
“Weird?” Dawson said, laughing. “At first. But the thing about this city is, they just want you to know they remember you. What they want more than anything is to say thank you. You know, I’ve had dinner with Joe Namath in New York and Bob Griese in Miami and that’s a whole different thing. People don’t just stare, they approach. In waves. Until you either have to leave or ask the owner for a private room.”
He waved his arms around the Houston’s in the heart of the Country Club Plaza district.
“This,” he said, “is Kansas City.”
It had been 28 years since Dawson had led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl win, 23-7 over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. It would be 22 more years before the Chiefs would add a second. Dawson had been around all of it, first as a player, later as a local TV newscaster and network commentator and finally as the local analyst on radio.
The Chiefs were dreadful in a lot of those years, and when they weren’t they were something even worse: a tease, a big-game disappointment, once losing three straight home games as a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“That’s the thing with the fans around here,” Dawson said that day, which was two days after the Chiefs had stumbled as a 1 seed, losing 14-10 to the Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium, sending the entire city into permanent midnight for a few mournful weeks. “They show their loyalties even fiercer when times are bad than when they’re good.”
It is why I can vouch for the following: If you don’t have a dog in the hunt a week from Sunday at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.; if you are a fan of neither the Chiefs nor the Eagles; if you are not a gambler; if the happiness of your day won’t be dictated by box pools … you can feel good about rooting for the Chiefs.
Because the Chiefs are the product of a city that has withstood years — sometimes decades — of slapstick with its two major tenants, the Chiefs and Royals, and yet still wear the gear, still fret over the little things, even in summers when the Royals flirt with 100 losses (as they did this summer) and autumns when the Chiefs go 2-14 (which that happened as recently as 2012).
A few months after lunch with Dawson I spent the morning of the Royals’ home opener trailing George Brett from his home to an appearance downtown to the main event at Kauffman Stadium, a 1:05 start against the Orioles. And it was the same thing: every eye, in every café, in every parking lot, in every segment of the stadium, was fixed on him.
It was like the President walking around the people, only there weren’t Secret Service men keeping the people at bay, just their own strict codes of Midwestern decorum. Whenever he shook a hand the fan froze, as if in a thrall; but the ones who didn’t get handshakes didn’t spew envy. They were — honest — just happy to be there.
“I’m a California kid, OK?” Brett told me later, as he sipped a pregame beer. “I love the sun. And yet I live, year-round, in this city where it gets to be about 90 below in January. Maybe now you see why I do this.”
Look, every city has pride in its teams. Most, in fact, aren’t as fickle as New York or Boston or Philly, places where killing the local nine (or five, or 11) isn’t just a way of life, but a rule of order. St. Louis has some KC in it. Pittsburgh, too. Cleveland? They do love their teams in Cleveland.
But I lived in Kansas City for a year. It was different there. Purer. Despite the way it’s looked the last five years, it hasn’t always been easy to be a Chiefs fan. That January in 1998 I saw genuine despair in scores of saloons and VFW halls and high school basketball gyms. It’s why I felt so good when the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, 2020.
Sometimes as a sports fan you wonder if there’ll ever be a payoff for all the devotion. There was that day. There has been, in Kansas City, on every day since Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid started dueting. Good for that city. Good for its fans. And good for you, if you choose to adopt them the next 11 days. You can feel good about that pick. I promise.
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