The man with a deeper and longer connection to the Chiefs than anyone ever, living or otherwise, approaches the locker room after another win. This is in San Diego, a place where Len Dawson played 12 games.
Those days are far enough back to stretch before the stadium now was built, and the stadium now is an outdated dump. That was a lifetime ago, really, back when he was still a Hall of Fame quarterback. Yes, it’s been a very good life.
A large man stands outside the door with his arms crossed, the posture screaming try me, but he smiles and extends his hand as Dawson approaches. Dawson doesn’t notice, though, because he’s looking down for the credential he wears now as a Hall of Fame broadcaster.
“I don’t need to see that,” the big man says. “I know who you are, Mr. Dawson.”
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“You do?” he says, unsurprised but still playing the role.
“It’s good to see you, sir.”
“Well,” Dawson says, “it’s good to be seen.”
Even now, at 80 years old, Dawson is seen on televisions or heard on radios most days back in Kansas City.
This is his 50th season broadcasting, long enough that babies have been born and grown up to be grandparents during a second career on the air that by now defines him every bit as much as his first career under center.
Any list of the most influential or successful sports figures in Kansas City is incomplete without him. He has been, in many ways, the Chiefs’ frontman for half a century straight now — first as the Super Bowl winning quarterback, and now as the Channel 9 sports broadcaster and radio color man for Chiefs games.
“He’s an establishment,”coach Andy Reid says.
“As a young boy, the only hero I had was Len Dawson in terms of sports figures,” chairman Clark Hunt says.
“Fifty years?” Dawson says. “I hadn’t realized that. People back in Alliance, Ohio, they’d say, ‘What?’ I mean, after five years, they probably said, ‘What?’ ”
Len Dawson began broadcasting in the prime of his playing career, essentially as a publicity stunt for the Chiefs to sell tickets, a proposition that would be entirely ridiculous on many levels today, but 1966 was a long time ago and a different world.
That story has been told, about how general manager Jack Steadman talked KMBC into doing sports during the 10 o’clock news by offering up the quarterback as a broadcaster.
Dawson had zero experience, and no idea about the arrangement until it was already done. The implications exist today — not just with Dawson still broadcasting on KMBC three days a week during football season, but with the thoroughly reasonable suspicion that broadcasting robbed the football world of a terrific coach.
“That would’ve been on my mind,” Dawson said of coaching. “Because I was the coach (when playing). They listened to me.”
Those were different days, when Dawson played, with quarterbacks calling most of the plays. One year, the Chiefs beat the Jets on Dawson’s play call. This was 1969, the year after the Jets won the Super Bowl, and before the game Dawson and receiver Otis Taylor had decided they could hit a big gain if Taylor was isolated on a safety.
Taylor noticed he had that matchup when lined up in the slot, mentioned it to Dawson, and they scored a key touchdown in a win over the defending champs.
One call Dawson didn’t make was the most famous in franchise history — “65 toss power trap,” the winning play in Super Bowl IV. Hank Stram hadn’t called many plays that game, so Dawson was surprised when receiver Gloster Richardson came in and gave the call.
“Did you tell him I’m nervous and can’t call a play now?” Dawson remembers saying.
The play worked perfectly, of course, Mike Garrett scoring without even being touched, and in some ways is symbolic of Dawson’s enormous life. His rise from Steelers castoff to NFL champion to Chiefs legend and one of only three men honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as both a player and broadcaster is stacked with these little moments that could’ve gone another way.
He joined the Chiefs on a lucky break.
Stram had been an assistant when Dawson played at Purdue, and put a bug in his old quarterback’s ear that he’d love to coach him in the pros. So after a series of events that included the Lions’ overly ambitious celebration of their 1957 championship, which pushed them to trade their quarterback to Pittsburgh, thus burying Dawson on the depth chart. He was traded to Cleveland where he played little and asked to be released.
Dawson was a terrific talent on his own, but certainly benefited from a superb roster around him, and turned the fluke broadcasting opportunity into a lifetime job. Executives in New York saw his work on KMBC, and asked him to help start something called “Inside the NFL” on HBO.
Dawson got permission from his bosses in Kansas City — “Cable? That’s no competition to us, go have fun,” he remembers them saying — and became one of the nation’s most recognizable voices and analysts on football as the show grow into prominence.
It’s not just professionally, either. Dawson met the woman he'd marry, Linda, on a flight, after he’d asked to be moved away from some blabbering know-it-all while traveling to New York to do television.
Think about that. A break gets him playing time in Kansas City, another break gets him the broadcasting job at KMBC, which leads to the opportunity with HBO, which puts him on that flight next to the annoying man, which means he moves seats and meets his second wife.
His life is story after story of receiving a lucky break, and then making the absolute most of it through some combination of charm, talent and determination.
“I’m lucky,” Dawson said. “I’m a lucky guy.”
Dawson doesn’t type. Doesn’t watch much film. Doesn’t go to the practice facility much. Not anymore, at least. He has long ago earned the knowledge and respect to do what he does on his terms, but he is playfully evasive when asked how much longer he wants to work.
“They might say, ‘Isn’t that enough?’ ” Dawson says of his broadcasting bosses. “And after I get together with that young lady that’s around here, she might say, ‘Why don’t we go down south in the wintertime, instead of you going to Buffalo?’ ”
It’s a good line, but the question — how long will the city’s most famous broadcaster work? — is important enough to push back. You’ll want to keep working as long as your boss at work and your boss at home are OK with it?
Dawson smiles. He likes how that sounds.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding his head at his wife. “And this one has more power.”
This interview was going to happen at the beginning of the season, back in September, to commemorate the first week of Dawson’s 50th year broadcasting. But he got sick, very sick, and had to cancel. It was just a virus, no big deal, but it does serve to make another point about Dawson continuing to broadcast — both bosses and his own body have to be willing.
On that last point, Dawson says he feels good. He’s had more surgeries than he can immediately remember over the years, and lately it’s been those damn shingles, but overall he is happy and strong.
So you want to know how long he’ll keep doing this? Hard to see an end in sight. He’s an institution on the air, his wife supports his work, and his health is good. This is Dawson, though. He likes to answer questions with jokes, so he mentions that on team flights he makes sure to sit near the doctors. One next to him, two behind him.
“Just in case,” he says. “I want them close by.”