Here comes Warpaint, the bay and white-spotted horse, clomping around the Municipal Stadium turf.
Len Dawson has just faked Chicago Bears cornerback Bennie McRae with play-action, rolling out and finding Otis Taylor along the right sideline: 70-yard touchdown. The horse sprints around the field, the rhythm of his hooves dissipating as elation echoes through 33,041 fans in the stadium. Warpaint’s task is to prance around like this each time the Chiefs score, even in this preseason game, and rookie Jan Stenerud has just kicked the first extra-point of his career in Kansas City.
It’s Aug. 23, 1967. The 75-cent game program bears a black-and-white drawing of Chiefs running back Curtis McClinton, a football tucked under his right arm. Over a cyan background, under the Bears’ and Chiefs’ logos and the art of McClinton, the program reads: “First AFL-NFL Game In Kansas City.”
Taylor wrote in the Kansas City Chiefs Encyclopedia in 2013 that this game was the greatest ever played by the Chiefs. Hundreds of fans had climbed over fences, then lined up against the walls of the concourse, or found a fine view under the bleachers; some even watched from the Kansas City Athletics’ bullpen. The Star wrote that Ken Harrelson, an A’s first baseman who was released four days earlier, was spotted in the dugout.
Nearly 50 years later, with the Chiefs visiting the Bears today at Soldier Field in Chicago, we remember the spectacle of this game — a clash that changed national perceptions about Kansas City’s pro football franchise, and the American Football League.
Here comes Warpaint again, the pinto from Abbyville, Kan., galloping steadily around the turf. Linebacker E.J. Holub intercepts a pass, and one play later Dawson finds Chiefs split end Chris Burford for an 11-yard touchdown. Warpaint runs around again after Stenerud’s extra point.
It had been 220 days since Super Bowl I, and Burford still couldn’t quite explain what happened in that 35-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. It takes him a minute or so to count his grandchildren now — he has 10 — but he can remember, vividly, one bad thing leading to worse in that game, the snowball effect of playing the best team in football. Packers coach Vince Lombardi would later say that Kansas City “doesn’t compare” with NFL teams. Burford calls the comment “hot air,” but the national media runs with it, slamming the Chiefs and the AFL again and again after the loss.
“We were just ruminating,” Burford said.
About a month after that Super Bowl, Chiefs tight end Fred Arbanas was sitting in his cousin’s barber shop in his hometown of Detroit. His cousin ran a sports book out of the back room of the shop, and people would come around talking sports, people who thought they knew something about the AFL. Burford was loyal to the AFL; he was an AFL player during an eight-year career with the Dallas Texans, then the Chiefs. He certainly knew more than any gambling man who had never played in the league.
When the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Arbanas was at the barber shop, folks’ putdowns of the AFL never went too far. But Arbanas knew the AFL’s image after that January loss.
“We just didn’t get respect from anybody,” Arbanas said.
“It was kind of unwarranted, but that’s just the way it was,” Burford said. “So did we want to stick it to the NFL? Probably, yes.”
Here comes the horse again. Bob Johnson rides bareback, wearing a red-and-white headdress and racing around the turf. Chiefs running back Mike Garrett gets the touchdown this time. The Chiefs proceed to fake the extra point, and McClinton secures a pass from Dawson for the two-point conversion. Just a few minutes into the second quarter, Kansas City is sticking it to the Bears.
This is just the way Chiefs coach Hank Stram did things. He had implemented a sophisticated offense during the eight weeks of training camp. Jobs were earned in those practices, not in games. He played preseason games to win, even when opposing an AFL foe. The day before the game, Stram sat with Sports Illustrated in his temporary training-camp office at William Jewell College and said, “Remember, this is not just another exhibition.”
Chiefs guard Ed Budde knew the Bears were bigger, faster and stronger than most NFL teams, especially on the offensive line. He said that at one point, the Chiefs had the heaviest line in professional football, AFL or NFL. Stram’s was the only team that would walk onto the field for warm-ups with no shoulder pads on, just so opponents could see how brawny his players were.
“We didn’t treat exhibition games like, ‘this is just a fun time and we’re going to screw around out here,’” Burford said. “He’d pull out any stop to win.”
Here comes Warpaint once more, racing down the sideline. Dawson throws another touchdown, this one to Gloster Richardson. Stenerud hits the extra-point. It’s still the first half, and Johnson’s rear end is already getting sore from riding bareback. After the Bears return the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, Dawson throws another touchdown pass to Taylor, Dawson’s fourth of the half. At halftime, the AFL’s Chiefs lead the NFL’s Bears 39-10.
For Burford, halftime of that game was his most emotional moment in Kansas City. As the Chiefs walked up the Municipal stairs on the third-base side, the crowd was louder than he had ever heard it. The players still heard the screaming while they were in the locker room, and when they returned to the field, there were even more cheers.
The Chiefs scored again to open the half and make it 46-10. It was somewhere around this part of the game that Bears linebacker Dick Butkus became frustrated. When the Chiefs had their biggest lead, Warpaint ran across that turf and Butkus yelled at Johnson, “I’m going to tackle that damn horse!”
With the Chiefs up 36 points, Butkus and the rest of the starters never touched the field again. The Chiefs tacked on 20 more, missing a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds. Warpaint ran around the field five more times, and Butkus never tackled the horse.
The Chiefs won the game 66-24. When The Associated Press got the final score from Burford, who was working for the NBC television affiliate in Kansas City at the time, it asked him to correct the score. They just couldn’t believe it.
An AFL team had defeated an NFL team by 42 points.
It was the worst loss in Bears history. Burford and Taylor both say Bears coach George Halas, in his final season, walked off the field with tears in his eyes. It was the worst defeat of his career. He had failed to do what Lombardi did seven months before.
But this day was about the Chiefs, not the Bears. This AFL-NFL game was a coming of age for the Chiefs and the AFL. Before this game, every player would recount that the Chiefs were just as good as any NFL team, if not better. They shook off Lombardi’s comments and the negative press that followed. Perhaps Lombardi’s jab was tongue-in-cheek after the Super Bowl — just a quip that meant nothing. But seven months later, the tide had changed, and Lombardi’s words from that warm night in Los Angeles no longer held true.
Outside the Bears’ dressing room after the game, Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt loomed nearby as Halas assessed the Chiefs organization and, in a sense, the AFL at large. “They gave us every evidence they are as good as any team,” Halas said.
“Well, I wonder what the world will say now?” Burford said after the game. “Now maybe everyone will get off our backs.”