As Chiefs general manager John Dorsey scouted players at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January, he was approached by a procession of former Kansas City players and coaches who were coaching in the game.
One by one, they offered two words to Dorsey, whose first Chiefs team was coming off a surprising 11-5 playoff season:
Just a year earlier, the Chiefs endured a humiliating and tragic season. They went 2-14 in 2012, the final year of Scott Pioli’s four-year reign of mostly terrible football, a season scarred by linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide that ended at the team’s practice facility.
Those who played, coached and worked for the Chiefs from 1963, when Lamar Hunt brought the franchise to Kansas City and went to two Super Bowls, to the playoff-filled 1990s, and to the offensive juggernauts of the early 2000s, were appalled and embarrassed by the dysfunction of a once-proud franchise.
But in one short year, Dorsey, hired as general manager in 2013, and coach Andy Reid led a revival of the club, and it was important for the former Chiefs to express their appreciation for making the team relevant again.
In fact, former defensive end Eric Hicks, one of the ex-Chiefs assisting coach Dick Vermeil at the all-star game in Los Angeles, even gave a shout-out to Dorsey, who was observing the pass rush drills.
“You guys pay attention,” Hicks told his players while pointing out Dorsey and some red-clad Chiefs scouts. “These guys restored our faith in a great Chiefs franchise and are going to get us back to the glory days.”
Dorsey, whose team opens the 2014 regular season at noon Sunday against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium, was touched by their sentiments.
“When you have not only former Chiefs players, but coaches of coach Vermeil’s status…” Dorsey said, “You don’t know the impact you make until all these guys come up to you and say, ‘Thank you.’ That’s kind of cool. It’s humbling.
“This is a very proud franchise. All along, I’ve called it one of the crown jewels of the National Football League. It’s the deep, rich history and what they have meant to professional football. It makes me proud to try to do everything I can do as the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs to restore that name.
“With that being said, we have to continue what we’ve been doing. We want continuity year in and year out, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
Hicks had never met Dorsey until that day on the practice field and was glad he could personally express his feelings with the leader of the Chiefs’ renaissance.
“It’s home,” said Hicks, who played for the Chiefs during 1998-06. “Really for me, it was a sense of pride for the fans, more than anything. The fans were so great when we were there. They deserved a better product than what was put on the field (the previous four years). It was painful to watch … and to hear the comments that were going around and to see how some people were treated. …
“I grew up under Lamar Hunt, the best owner ever, and I don’t think that would be the way he wanted his team to be perceived. His name is on the AFC championship trophy, and he named the Super Bowl for god’s sake. It seems like they got it back to the way Lamar would be proud of, and I’m glad Clark (Hunt) was able to get the ship turned around in the right direction.”
Vermeil’s staff at the all-star game in Los Angeles also included former Chiefs assistants John Bunting, Charlie Joiner and Carl Hairston, and former Chiefs guard Will Shields and running back Priest Holmes.
Though some do not live in Kansas City anymore, all feel as much a part of the franchise now as they did when wearing the Chiefs’ colors.
“It matters a lot to us,” said Vermeil, the Chiefs coach during 2001-05 who lives near Philadelphia but frequently visits Kansas City. “When you physically commit to a pro football team like NFL players do and coaches do, the commitment goes deeper than physical. You get emotionally involved with the team and the community and especially ownership and management people.
“There’s a great positive feeling through affiliation with somebody who is being successful. Once again, you yourself feel like you’re winning. It’s like alums of colleges, they live and die for their teams. We’re all Kansas City Chiefs alums. Some of us live and die with the team each week.”
Or as former Pro Bowl and Chiefs Hall of Fame safety Deron Cherry put it: “You want the guys who came after you to succeed as much as the guys before you.”
One of the first moves Dorsey and Reid made after they were hired by Clark Hunt was to re-establish ties with former players who did not feel welcomed by the Pioli administration.
The club had even removed the names on the Ring of Honor in favor of electronic ribbon boards when the stadium was renovated in 2010, a mistake that was rectified a year later.
Dorsey, having spent all but one year of his 28-year NFL career in tradition-rich Green Bay, valued the contributions former players could make after their careers ended and invited them to rookie dinners and to training camp. He encouraged the alumni to offer the current players advice on multiple levels, whether it was how to play their position better, deal with autograph seekers, handle their newfound riches or plan for careers after football.
“Those are the guys who made that organization what it is,” Dorsey said. “It’s our responsibility to respect and honor those men. It’s important for the young guys to understand the traditions. What better way to do that is have the (former players) involved?
“You bring them up to training camp and mingle and let the younger players understand what this organization is all about. That’s what proud franchises do. You respect their past, and you’re also building for the future.”
That all sounds well and good, but it still comes down to playing the game. Alex Smith can’t ask Len Dawson to throw a pass for him, and Tamba Hali can’t ask Neil Smith to sack the quarterback.
But the former Chiefs offer inspiration to those who follow them.
“You go to rookie dinners and are asked to say a few words,” Cherry said. “Their eyes are lighting up and saying, ‘I can’t believe so and so is here.’ They see the tradition. It makes a difference how they look at it and how they perform.
“When you walk into Arrowhead Stadium as a player and you see the names of the players on the Ring of Honor, it brings chills up your spine. When I was a rookie and saw the names of those players up there, guys who I saw on TV when I was growing up, you say to yourself, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if one day my name was up on your stadium?’
“It’s going to challenge yourself. … If I want to be one of those guys, I need to pay a price to be up there. I need to make a sacrifice for this team and I’ve got to play my best in order to be recognized. It perpetuated itself that this is a special place.”
Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo spent three seasons at Green Bay, where the names of former Packers greats fill the facades at Lambeau Field, and he’s noticed the names of Chiefs immortals at Arrowhead.
“It’s definitely cool to see the dates of when they played or when you wear somebody’s number, and they’re watching you play,” Zombo said. “For that guy who’s wearing that number, it’s important to play well.”
Alex Smith, in his second season as Chiefs quarterback after spending eight seasons at San Francisco, where Joe Montana and Steve Young led the 49ers to five Super Bowl championships, appreciates what he has inherited in Kansas City.
“There is a tremendous amount of tradition and family feel around here, going all the way back to the beginning, and you can feel that,” Smith said. “I felt it from my first day here. You walk around the building, and you see the past, you see the history. We get to see Len Dawson a lot. As a quarterback, that’s awesome, to get to pick his brain here and there.
“That speaks to the bigger feel of the environment around here and how special it is to have that tradition and legacy and family feeling.”
Chiefs Pro Bowl linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali know no other franchise. Johnson is 19 tackles shy of 1,000 for his career, which will make him the franchise record-holder. Hali’s 731/2 career sacks and 28 forced fumbles rank third only to the revered Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith.
“Their legacy … puts you in a frame of mind where you want to be able to do what they did or at least pay homage to what they accomplished here,” Hali said. “Guys like DJ and (punter) Dustin Colquitt and I …we’ve played so long and you want to leave a legacy. The biggest goal is to win a Super bowl. Individually, you want to perform at a high level and pay respect to who played here.”
Johnson, a first-round pick in 2005, said: “It’s a high standard here, being on this Chiefs defense and bringing it up to standard of what they had in the past. That Ring of Honor is a small circle of great players and hopefully one day I’ll be fortunate to get that. But right now it’s about beating the Titans and winning the Super Bowl. After the season, I can reflect and say, ‘Hey, I broke that record and can do a lot more.’”
Dawson, the Hall of Fame quarterback, is the last link, through his role as radio analyst, connecting the franchise’s past and present. He led the club to its greatest heights in Super Bowl IV and witnessed its deepest depths in 2012.
From his perch in the broadcast booth, Dawson suffered through the Todd Haley and Romeo Crennel years before enjoying the rebirth of the team.
“Some of the head coaches who have been here,” Dawson said, “You said, ‘What in the heck was that guy thinking? What’s he trying to do?’ You win two games the whole year? How humiliating was that? Our teams were in the business of winning games. And to get things turned around and win the first nine games of the season last year … and to get to the playoffs for the first time in several years. ….
“For us, it’s bragging rights. I’m through playing. But I can still brag.”
Not only can the old Chiefs brag, but so can the next generation of Chiefs fans.
“My son is excited about it, because he was a little too young when I played to understand it,” Hicks said, “but this is a football town. I know the Royals are doing great … but it’s going to be a football town no matter what.
“It kind of makes me mad when you hear things about the 12th Man in Seattle being the loudest … That’s (garbage) because we have the loudest stadium and when it’s going good, and things are rocking, that place is unequaled in professional sports almost. And to see the place rocking like it used to be, it’s amazing.”