It’s a crisp Sunday morning with a bright sun warming a slight chill in the air. Outside Arrowhead Stadium, the smell of barbecue wafts through the air as tailgaters busy themselves preparing food and enjoying drinks before the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A sea of red and gold waves outside the football field, but one group of die-hard fans is not hard to spot. The Red Coats are coming!
No, the stadium has not been invaded by a British military contingent but a dedicated group of volunteers who represent the Chiefs in the community. They are also part of the pregame festivities on the field, and they welcome fans and players alike to gameday.
About 55 Red Coaters enter the tunnel inside the stadium 20 minutes before game time. Lined up single file along the wall, Red Coaters head captain Sandy Bentch and stadium team captain Ralph Garvin make sure they are ready to enter the stadium. As they line up on the visiting team sideline, some of the Red Coaters pick up their Chiefs-colored flags and position themselves to walk onto the field. With music blaring, fans cheering and fireworks rocketing overhead, the Red Coaters take the field for the players to run by them.
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It’s gameday, and the Red Coaters are part of the excitement that is Chiefs Kingdom.
“It never gets old,” said Judy Bardwell, a four-year Red Coat veteran who lives in Kansas City, North.
This is apprentice Pam Greiner’s first season as a Red Coater.
“Being out on the field with the noise and the people … I had goosebumps and tears,” she said. “It is something you dream about.”
In minutes, the Red Coaters are back off the field and head to their seats to watch the game, but not before a few hugs.
“Until next time,” said Joanie Smith, another veteran Red Coater.
So it goes at every home Chiefs game as the Red Coaters represent the team and the Hunt family. The Red Coaters have been around since founder Lamar Hunt moved the team here from Dallas. The team used the Red Coat volunteers to sell tickets but their role has morphed into a focus on community service and they no longer sell tickets.
“They were born to help with ticket sales and show that Kansas City had passion for a team,” said Chuck Castellano, Chiefs director of community outreach. “As time has marched on, they have moved from that sales role to the service role.”
Since switching from their role in ticket sales to community service, the Red Coaters have left their mark. They gave 4,200 hours of community service in 2014 and are well on their way to surpassing that benchmark this season.
“For that small segment to make that kind of community impact is invaluable,” Castellano said.
More than a half-century old, the Red Coaters are a unique organization.
“You’re talking about professionals in Chiefs Kingdom that come from a vast array of professional people, and the one thing that binds them together is the Chiefs — like sharing that passion and giving back underneath the banner of the Hunt family,” he said.
The Red Coaters were key in the creation of Red Friday in 1992, marking the start of the NFL season. Since its inception, Red Friday has raised more than $600,000 for local charities. The Red Coaters helped Joplin when it was hit by a catastrophic tornado a few years ago, donating hours of help. Most recently, the Red Coaters helped create a new tradition with the pregame parade outside the stadium along with the Rumble drum corps and Chiefs cheerleaders.
Currently, there are 60 active Red Coaters who have been serving from one to 43 years in the program. Of the group, about 55 take the field for pregame festivities. In addition, there are eight apprentices — Red Coaters in training.
There are several requirements to become a Red Coater. You must:
▪ Be a Chiefs season ticket holder, or a family member must be a ticket holder, or you must have access to season tickets.
▪ Complete an application and go through an interview by Red Coaters to be accepted into the apprentice program.
▪ Participate in five Red Coat/Chiefs-approved community events and four stadium events (such as the draft party or American Royal barbecue contest), earning one point for each shift.
▪ Attend six out of seven apprentice meetings, go to two Red Coaters social events and work Red Friday.
▪ Participate on the field for two preseason games.
▪ Complete a special project assigned in the month of November.
“We try to be very careful up front,” Bentch said. “We truthfully do not take everybody. You have to pass a background check … and we look for personality and fit. We look at why you want to be involved with us.”
If they meet all of these requirements, apprentices receive their Red Coat during the last home game of the season; this year that will be Jan. 3 against the Oakland Raiders. The Chiefs provide the coat; members pay for the remainder of their uniform of black pants, socks, shoes and white polo shirt with Red Coaters insignia.
To remain a Red Coater, members must participate in five community events, four stadium events and two social events. Red Coaters must sign a code of conduct and follow a few rules, too, including not hanging out with players and coaches. They don’t want potential Red Coaters to assume that this is a way to get to Chiefs players.
In addition to community service and pregame activities, the Red Coaters enjoy social outings, including a night at Kauffman Stadium and a flag football game with a former Chiefs player. There is also an away game trip Red Coaters take at their own expense. This year, 17 Red Coaters jumped the pond to attend the London game, participating in on-the-field festivities since it was considered a home contest.
The Red Coaters are a unique entity in the NFL, Castellano said.
“Nobody has what the Red Coaters are,” he said. “There are different groups that have individuals that help with elements of what they do. … By and large, whenever someone has tried to replicate the Red Coaters, they haven’t quite been able to accomplish it.”
The Red Coaters are committed to their work in the community, and the Chiefs organization appreciates what they do. During the Red Coaters’ tailgate before the Oct. 25 home game, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt stopped by to chat with members.
“The Red Coaters have been an integral part of our organization,” Hunt said. “They really are our community arm and represent us to charities. I am a big believer in tradition, and they are part of that tradition and makes our franchise so special.”
Hunt mingled with Red Coaters along with team president Mark Donovan, chatting and posing for pictures with the dedicated volunteers.
“They are an integral part of our pregame ceremony,” Hunt said. “It adds a lot of color and uniqueness to the pregame experience, and it means a lot to the players.”
Just ask them.
“The Red Coaters are a supporting group for the Kansas City Chiefs organization and for the whole city,” said Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. “They represent a very strategic, prestigious group. Every time we have some kind of event, the Red Coaters are affiliated with it. The support that they have — it’s always great to see a Red Coater.”
Former Chiefs running back Priest Holmes garnered an appreciation for the Red Coaters early on in his career with the team.
“I think they are a great asset,” Holmes said. “When I started the Team Priest foundation, the Red Coaters were responsible for helping fund some of the proceeds through some of the newspapers that were sold during Red Friday,” Holmes said. “That allowed me to do things like bringing students to games who had never been before and working with the Police Athletic League chess club.”
The relationship didn’t stop when Holmes retired.
“When I come back for alumni weekends, there is a Red Coater selected as my host to help if I have any family members coming to town and make suggestions of where to go to eat,” Holmes said. “They always go above and beyond.”
“They make my job easier,” said the Chiefs’ Castellano. “I can talk about the organization but they live it. … They are not collecting a paycheck for what they’re doing, and it really resonates with the community.”
Melissa Nicholson, the team’s Red Coaters liaison, is impressed by their dedication.
“Their willingness to give back with no compensation is amazing to me,” Nicholson said “And they are giving even beyond their official capacity.”
For the Red Coaters themselves, many feel they get far more than they receive in being part of the Chiefs organization.
“You are giving back and doing what you need to do in the community,” Bentch said.
Greiner, who awaits her Red Coat at season’s end, is enjoying the journey.
“It feels good to be giving back,” Greiner said. “I would recommend it to anyone.”
Lacey Glover of Overland Park agreed.
“It is the ultimate fan experience,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to give back while showing support for the Chiefs.”
So who are these people who don the Red Coat at Chiefs games and in the community? Their demographics are diverse: They come from all over the metro area on both sides of the state line and as far away as Iowa. They are men and women, spanning in age from early 30s to nearly 80. Some are working while others are retired. One thing unites them — their commitment to helping in the community on the Chiefs’ behalf.
Sandy and Dan Bentch of Lee’s Summit have been loyal Chiefs fans for years but didn’t join the Red Coaters until seven years ago. Sandy Bentch has been a season ticket holder since 2001.
“I was on a wait list for five years before that,” said Sandy Bentch, who was single at the time.
“That’s the joke — he married me for my Chiefs season tickets,” she said with a laugh.
Now in her seventh year as a Red Coater, Bentch had wanted to join the group for years.
“I actually saw the Red Coaters on the field and around town at different things, and I wanted to see what they were about,” she said. “They always seemed to be having a good time, and it just looked like fun. I didn’t have any idea what they did.”
Bentch became an apprentice in 2006.
“In those days, you had three years to earn your coat,” she said. “You had to earn 50 points — 40 had to be selling season tickets and the other 10 were for working volunteer events.”
Once Bentch was in, her husband decided to join her a few years later.
“It is really a privilege,” said Bentch of being a Red Coater.
Bentch, who is a technical trainer for Centriq Training, is now serving a two-year term as head team captain. She works closely with three other captains — for apprentices, community and stadium — to guide the organization.
Bentch has enjoyed her years as a Red Coater. Away game trips have taken them to Tampa, Green Bay and San Diego. This year, the Bentches traveled to London to see the Chiefs play in Wembley Stadium.
While she enjoys being part of the on-the-field pregame show, it’s the off-the-field activities that mean the most to her.
“What is special to me is all of the different charity organizations and giving back to the community,” Bentch said. “One of the neatest projects I’ve been involved in was when the tornado came through Joplin. … The Chiefs organization picked five grade schools in Joplin, had them write a Christmas letter as to what they wanted.”
The Red Coaters reviewed the letters, organized the wish list and purchased gifts.
“We had a big wrap party. … We all got on a bus and hand-delivered them,” she said. “It is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done.”
Sometimes Bentch is asked why she puts in so much time with the Red Coaters, especially since there are no freebies, not even game tickets.
“They say, ‘You do all this work and you get nothing for it,’ and I say, ‘How can you say I get nothing?’ ” she said. “I get the satisfaction of helping out, and I get to go out on the field at every game.”
Overland Park resident Paul Cherry has been a Red Coater for more than 40 years. The 58-year-old has been following the Chiefs since he was a kid.
“I have been going to games for 49 years, and my family has had season tickets for 50 years,” he said.
“I became a Red Coater at the age of 18 during high school,” Cherry said. “I went to high school with former coach (Hank) Stram’s son, Stu.”
When Cherry joined the Red Coaters, he was working on his own in construction while still in school.
“I wanted to get new business, and I thought it was a good way to do it,” he said. “I wanted to meet new people.”
Cherry joined the Red Coaters when their main responsibility was ticket sales.
“I sold my share of season tickets,” he said. “We needed to sell 50 at the time. … I lost track of how many season tickets I sold over the years.”
When the Chiefs organization changed the Red Coaters from a sales to community service group, Cherry remained committed.
“We do a lot of volunteer working, and our impact on the community is huge,” he said. “I like helping people out.”
Cherry is a carpenter in the plant operations department of Children’s Mercy Hospital. At one point, his wife was a Red Coater, too; Cherry said she stepped out of the role to focus on the couple’s two children. “I’ve only missed four home games in 49 years,” he said.
Cherry has some wonderful memories from his time as a Red Coater. There have been trips to away games and meeting some of the older players during alumni weekend festivities. He’s even flown with the team on its charter flight during the early years. Regardless, his thoughts always seem to circle back to one thing.
“I have met a lot of neat people in this city through the Chiefs, including members of the Hunt family,” he said. “I’ve made so many friends I can’t remember them all.”
About 20 years ago, Cherry had to replace his original Red Coat; it sits in a special place in his closet.
While he has the most seniority of any current Red Coater, Cherry has no plans to give up his involvement any time soon.
“Eventually I’ll retire, but don’t know when,” Cherry said.
Northlander Bardwell has been a Red Coater for four years, serving one year as an apprentice. She was thrilled to meet and shake hands with Donovan at the Red Coaters tailgate party.
Bardwell, 55, has been a longtime Chiefs fan and season ticket holder but chose to give up her tickets when she got divorced. “I had to change my focus to raising my daughter as a single parent.”
Her daughter got married six years ago, and she re-upped. “And I got thinking, it’s my turn,” she said.
A Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City co-worker, Gwen Nickles, was a Red Coater.
“She knew I was a little lost because my daughter had gotten married,” said Bardwell, who is a Blue Cross analyst. “It sounded like so much fun, and she hooked me up with an application.”
Bardwell remembers the interview process to become a Red Coater.
“It was like rapid dating,” she recalled. “You go into a room for about 10 minutes, and you were interviewed by Red Coaters who asked serious and silly questions about why you want to be a Red Coater.”
A few weeks later, Bardwell got word she was in.
“Not everyone is automatically accepted,” she said. “I felt really proud I made it.”
She said she enjoys every minute as a Red Coater, whether it is stuffing snack packs at Harvesters or participating in on-the-field pregame festivities.
“You feel thrilled, and that thrill of being down on the field doesn’t go away,” she said. “It never gets old.”
Perhaps the best part of being a red Coater, Bardwell said, is helping others.
“It’s being involved in my community and doing volunteer work and be associated with so many charitable organizations in the city through the Chiefs,” she said. “To be a part of something bigger than myself. Thanks to the Chiefs organization, we are able to make a big difference in our community.”
Nickles, the co-worker who introduced her to the Red Coaters, died in October from breast cancer. Just a week later, Red Coater Mark Stubbs was killed when a stolen car crashed into his vehicle. Bardwell and several of the Red Coaters now wear the Chiefs Arrowhead pin over a black ribbon in their memory.
Greiner, 58, is one of eight Red Coater apprentices this season. When she first moved to the area in 1985, she knew little about the Chiefs. She was soon smitten.
“I have been a Chiefs fan for many years and always wanted to have season tickets, but as a single mom couldn’t afford them,” Greiner said. “When my husband and I got married about 10 years ago, he got me season tickets for Christmas.”
Regularly attending games, Greiner kept her eye on the Red Coaters.
“I always saw the Red Coaters on the field, and I wanted to learn more about them and be one of them,” she said.
Greiner went for her interview in March.
“It was very scary, and I was very, very nervous,” she said. “I thought, ‘They won’t want me.’ But they were very comforting when I got there.”
A few weeks later, she received her acceptance letter to apprentice this season.
“It has been pretty awesome,” Greiner said of her Red Coaters experience to date. “We do so much volunteer work, and there are so many different opportunities.”
In the beginning of her apprenticeship, she was a little overwhelmed.
“It’s a lot of hard work. I thought I wouldn’t get all of my points in, but once we got going there has been no problem,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly. … I am amazed at how close our group of apprentices has become.”
In the meantime, just last week Greiner and other apprentices spent an evening delivering Thanksgiving food packages to families in need as part of their special Red Coaters’ project.
“Knowing you are doing good in the community and representing the Chiefs at the same time — it is an honor to be part of the organization,” she said.
For Glover, being a Red Coater runs in the family. The 32-year-old resident has a great mentor in her mother, Clara Fuller, who lives in Shawnee. They are the Red Coaters’ only mother-daughter duo. Fuller has been a Red Coater for about 10 years; this is Glover’s fifth.
“I have been a Chiefs fan my entire life,” said Glover, whose family has had season tickets over the years.
“My first memories are not only going to the games but being a member of the old Arrowhead Club and going to a Christmas party when I was 8 or 9 and Santa was there — it was just a fun evening,” Glover said.
Fuller attended games with her brother, Terry Crouse, who was a Red Coater back in the 1970s. When her brother moved to Florida, Fuller stopped going to games. Her focus was on her family, including Glover. After raising her children, Fuller circled back and joined the organization.
“Getting to be the face of the Chiefs and help people is a priceless experience,” she said.
During her years as a Red Coater, Fuller lost her husband and Glover’s father to cancer. The Red Coaters provided support, including her current husband, Scott Fuller, an 18-year veteran.
“That’s actually how we met,” Clara Fuller said. “Scott and I had been friends, and the romance blossomed from there.”
When Glover was in her late 20s, she was looking for more fulfillment than her career as a massage therapist provided.
“I wanted to get involved in the community service aspect of it,” Glover said. “I saw how much fun my mom had with the Red Coaters and wanted to join in. … I wanted to spend more time with mom, and there were certain things she was doing I couldn’t do. And of course, it was the Chiefs.”
Now Glover is fully engaged with the Red Coaters, serving as the community team captain.
“I am in charge of organizing the community events as the Red Coaters are concerned — making sure I have enough volunteers for everything,” Glover said, adding that she delivers information to the Red Coaters and makes sure either she or someone else is there to take attendance and keep the credits.
She likes helping others who are facing tough times. And she is no stranger when it comes to facing adversity. An avid horseback rider, Glover collided with her older sister and suffered a traumatic closed head injury. She was in a coma and on full life support for some time; her family wasn’t sure she would survive, but she did.
“It’s made me feel very fortunate for what I have and to be very thankful for everything I have in life and help others,” said Glover. “It gave me the spirit of perseverance.”
Being part of the Red Coaters has created a special bond for mother and daughter.
“It is very cool to share some of those experiences with your daughter,” Fuller said. “We have had a special kind of closeness for years, so it’s great sharing this with her.”
As for getting to be on the field during pregame, “it’s electric,” Glover said.
She has applied what she has learned as a Red Coater to her everyday life.
“It has taught me time-management skills,” she said. “There is so much we get to do. It has really given me an appreciation for what it takes to put on an event or a fundraiser. There are so many moving parts.”
But the best part is spending time with her mom.
“We have been such good friends as adults,” Glover said “No matter how busy our lives are, we are always going to be able to come together and serve in this capacity.”
Red Coaters history
Red Coaters history
The Kansas City Chiefs Red Coaters are the community service arm of the organization. The Red Coaters have been part of the NFL team since 1963, when Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt moved his Dallas Texans to Kansas City. It was then-Mayor H. Roe Bartle who brought the business community in to sell Chiefs season tickets, and the group became known as the Red Coaters. From the Chiefs’ inaugural season in Kansas City, the Red Coaters have participated in pregame festivities, creating a “tunnel” for players to run through.
Over the years, the Red Coaters have played an important role in selling season tickets and helping with the team’s renewal program. Below are key milestones in the Red Coaters’ history.
1992: Red Friday established to celebrate the start of the NFL season. Red Coaters took to the street corners of Kansas City selling newspapers with a special Chiefs edition to benefit local charities. Since its inception, Red Friday has generated more than $600,000 for local charities.
2010: Red Coaters change efforts from season ticket holder sales to representing the team at civic and charitable programs throughout the community.
2011: Following a deadly tornado in Joplin, the Red Coaters contributed more than 3,100 hours of community service in the Kansas City area to support a special project, Christmas for the Children of Joplin. More than 1,200 gifts were purchased on behalf of the Chiefs organization. Red Coaters, Chiefs cheerleaders and Chiefs staff wrapped the gifts and delivered them to four elementary schools in the Joplin area.
2012: The Red Coaters contributed more than 3,500 hours of community service in Kansas City. In addition, many went to Joplin on two occasions to assist with the rebuilding of homes, building a playground and visiting patients at the VA Hospital. More than $40,000 raised on Red Friday benefited Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Kansas City.
2013: Red Coaters volunteered more than 4,000 hours in the community and for stadium events at Arrowhead. In addition, $75,000 was raised on the sale of Red Friday Magazines benefiting the Ronald McDonald House.
2014: Red Coaters were part of Arrowhead history as they led the crowd to 142.2 decibels, taking the title of the Guinness World Record loudest crowd roar back to Kansas City. Red Coaters helped create a new tradition at Arrowhead with the pregame parade. Red Coaters served more than 4,200 hours of community outreach on behalf of the Chiefs organization.
Compiled from the Kansas City Chiefs official website