Vahe Gregorian

October 4, 2013

Fifty years later, former Chiefs marvel at how far the franchise has come

For all the enchantment and behind-the-scenes scheming that precipitated the Dallas Texans’ move here in 1963, the freshly hatched Kansas City Chiefs were broadly viewed with skepticism as they prepared to play their first regular-season home game 50 years ago Sunday. Unfathomable as it might seem now, Chiefs legend Len Dawson said, “We weren’t readily accepted.”

For all the enchantment and behind-the-scenes scheming that precipitated the Dallas Texans’ move here in 1963, the freshly hatched Kansas City Chiefs were broadly viewed with skepticism as they prepared to play their first regular-season home game 50 years ago this Sunday.

Unfathomable as it might seem now, Chiefs legend Len Dawson said, “We weren’t readily accepted.”

That response defied the enthusiastic scramble to get the team here when it became clear to owner Lamar Hunt that something had to give in his battle with the Dallas Cowboys. The standoff was compromising the prospects of each franchise and jeopardizing the future of the fledgling American Football League.

The Chiefs’ move north was paved through covert negotiations between Hunt, his general manager, Jack Steadman, and then-KC mayor H. Roe Bartle. In turn, it was engaged by a quite-public season-ticket drive that was vigorously embraced by the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.

Dawson still marvels at the campaign, which resulted in a then-AFL record 15,182 season tickets sold and 52 companies purchasing at least 50 season tickets: In three years in Dallas, only four companies had bought as many for a season.

But the impressive numbers that ultimately compelled the uprooting of the 1962 AFL champions from Dallas seemed a mirage at the Chiefs’ first exhibition game against Buffalo, which lured all of 5,721 to Municipal Stadium for a 17-13 victory.

“There were more Boy Scouts doing usher work in the stands than there were people in the stands watching us,” said Fred Arbanas, then the Chiefs’ tight end.

In an interview this summer, Steadman remembered thinking, “Oh my gosh, what did I talk Lamar into?”

Dawson chuckles at the inauspicious memory.

“I think we were supposed to go out and throw footballs into the stands, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just go up and shake (fans) hands and hand them to them?’” he said. “It wasn’t like it was a full house.”

Meanwhile, Dawson and Co. weren’t so sure about Kansas City, where his friends suggested livestock was running rampant in the streets.

“I didn’t know there were two of them: Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas,” Dawson said. “(Friends asked) which one it was. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”

What he did know, or at least perceived, was that KC was “a baseball town.”

Perhaps, but the proud Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues were in their twilight years and the Athletics of the American League were no good and drew just 7,848 per game in 1963.

Yet the A’s evidently still had first dibs on games at Municipal Stadium: The Chiefs didn’t play a home September game until 1968, after the A’s moved to Oakland.

“It wasn’t one of those deals where we were partners,” Dawson said, smiling.

But if being seen as secondary was annoying, there were truly agonizing issues in the transition, including hard times for African-American players such as future Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell, who had grown up in North Carolina and gone to college at Minnesota.

“In Minneapolis, you could live where you wanted to live, eat where you wanted to eat,” Bell told The Star in 2003. “Down here, there were places you could live and places you could not, places you could eat and places you could not. It was a different world.”

As the Chiefs closed in on their first regular season in Kansas City, 11,000 attended their final exhibition game in Wichita.

But the game was shrouded by a chilling injury suffered by Stone Johnson. The rookie from Grambling who had been a 1960 Olympian suffered a broken neck blocking on a kick return and died a week later with Hunt believed to have been by his side much of the time in between.

The scene of Johnson in convulsive trauma on the field was haunting and indelible, and all the more so because there was no appropriate medical help to be had and not even an ambulance at the stadium

“I remember it very clearly, because I am the one who hook his helmet off,” said Arbanas, who had assumed Johnson had his “bell rung” and has been left to wonder whether an action he had believed helpful was instead harmful. “He was dazed, and I slid his helmet off him like most guys did back then.

“Maybe that’s what really, you know, got to him. Or maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know. It was a hell of a collision that he had and one of things you try to help somebody. And maybe what you did did or didn’t help. I’ve thought of that several times in the past.”

So has Dawson.

“That was awful. It affected a lot of the players It was on their minds (all season), maybe until this day,” Dawson said.

Dawson was one of the pallbearers at Johnson’s Dallas funeral, the first he ever attended, and he still remembers vividly the weeping and wailing of the mourners who walked up to the open casket.

“You start with one of your teammates dying,” Dawson said. “It’s not a good sign.”

Even amid that crisis, the Chiefs blasted Denver 59-7 in their regular-season opener with Dawson throwing for four touchdowns. The first TD in Chiefs history was a 17-yard pass to Curtis McClinton.

After a 27-27 tie at Buffalo and a 24-10 loss at San Diego, the Chiefs were 1-1-1 entering the first game here that counted. It was against Houston, the very franchise that moved to Tennessee and the Chiefs are facing in Nashville on Sunday — 50 years to the day later.

The Chiefs swamped Houston 28-7 by picking off quarterback George Blanda four times. Dawson again threw for four scores, including two to Arbanas.

“I did? I don’t remember It’s too many years ago, too many games ago,” Arbanas, who said his memory is generally fine but that he has never held on to such moments. “If it’s over, it’s over.”

Despite an encouraging turnout of 27,801 in a stadium that held 34,164 at the time, the crowds dwindled in the wake of a seven-game winless streak that followed. Fewer than 13,000 attended each of the Chiefs’ last two home games, victories against the Boston Patriots and New York Jets.

The Chiefs’ cumulative regular-season home attendance for the season was 150,567 for seven games.

That’s just 589 more than have attended the Chiefs’ two home games this season and nearly 5,000 fewer than showed up in their last season in Dallas. In 1964, attendance dipped to 126,881 before bubbling back up to 150,449 in 1965.

For at least two reasons, that all started to change in 1966.

Arbanas recalled spirited efforts all along to have players get out in the community, everywhere from schools to service stations to churches to speaking to groups.

“And we lived in the regular neighborhoods back then, among regular people,” he said. “We lived with the policemen, firemen, electricians and plumbers. So they got to know us, and they slowly began to accept us. And then they started to show up for the games a little bit more.”

But that might not have sparked much if not for an improvement on the field.

The Chiefs, who had been the epitome of mediocre at 19-19-4 in their first three seasons, started 3-0 in 1966 to attract 43,885 to their home opener against Buffalo.

By the end of that 11-2-1 season, they’d have a record home attendance of 259,071 on their way to what would later be dubbed the first “Super Bowl.”

Three years later, they’d win it all and reinforce the credibility of the AFL a year after the New York Jets had beaten Baltimore.

“Now, how big was (the Jets’ victory)? That was huge,” Dawson said. “Now, here we come the year after, and we beat them in the playoffs. And then we beat the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl.

“So this old American Football League here did pretty well.”

No doubt further legitimizing the organization, the gradual merger between the NFL and AFL was finalized shortly after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl.

By 1972, the first season at Arrowhead, home attendance had grown steadily to 509,291. And despite some lean years in between, an institution was entrenched.

“The people could feel that, ‘OK, this is our team,’ ” Dawson said. “That’s a proud thing for a community.”

And hard-earned, no matter how taken for granted it might seem now.

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