Chiefs Hall of Fame QB Dawson was in ‘the right spot at the right time’
10/18/2013 6:42 PM
05/16/2014 10:30 AM
As he considered where to meet for a recent chat, Len Dawson chuckled and suggested that the conference room named after him at the Chiefs’ practice facility might be available.
But it was occupied, as it happened, a source of amusement to Dawson as he audibled to an alternate room.
Still “Lenny the Cool” after all these years, 50 of them now in Kansas City, where Dawson, 78, would be chiseled onto any sports Mount Rushmore as an original Chief who led the team to two Super Bowls and has broadcast their games since 1984.
But even with his legacy entrenched a half century this month since he quarterbacked his first home game in Kansas City, what stood out about our conversation was how Dawson still marvels at all the reasons he might never have been known at all here.
Dawson, of course, was highly skilled. And he had, and still has, a tremendous work ethic, and thus made plenty of his own luck.
Just the same
“You would never have heard of my name,” he said, “if it hadn’t have been for Lamar Hunt hiring Hank Stram.”
For starters, even that move was improbable.
The colorful and innovative Stram, who had been an assistant college coach at Miami, Fla., when he was hired by Hunt to coach the then-Dallas Texans in 1960, was at best third on Hunt’s list.
Hunt first had tried to hire then-New York Giants assistant Tom Landry and Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson.
Then Hunt turned to Stram, who coincidentally had been an assistant coach at Southern Methodist for one year when Hunt was a reserve receiver there. But they evidently only had met once, in the locker room after a Mustangs win in 1956.
And Hunt really only considered Stram after a nudge from friend Bob Wilkes on their flight back from Norman after saying he “didn’t have a clue” where to turn now, according to Michael MacCambridge’s biography, “Lamar Hunt: A Life In Sports.”
Yet Stram’s hiring was just one X-factor in the equation when it came to Dawson’s arrival here or anywhere in the NFL, for that matter.
Dawson’s pre-existing relationship with Stram also was vital, and it was a dynamic that also had unlikely roots.
Out of high school in Alliance, Ohio, Dawson had been wooed by, among others, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Purdue, where Stram was an assistant coach who recruited him.
It came down to the latter two schools.
And Dawson in 1953 chose Purdue despite the fact that the Woody Hayes-coached Buckeyes were his sentimental favorite and a rising power that would win the national championship in 1954.
Why? Well, Purdue was a passing team.
And Ohio State?
“I asked (Hayes) to explain how the Split-T works,” Dawson said, smiling as he recounted his discussion with Hayes. “And he said, ‘Well, you get under center, and you have three backs back (behind you), two halfbacks and a fullback.’
“And he said, ‘You get your hands under center, and you take the snap from the center and you step into the line of scrimmage.’
“Now, he got my attention when he said ‘into the line of scrimmage.’ What do you mean into the line of scrimmage?
“‘Well, we’re going to have you continue down the line of scrimmage. Because the back is going to come diving through, and you either hand off to him, or you fake it to him and continue down the line of scrimmage and we’re going to option off the defensive end.’
“‘What do you mean option off the defensive end?’
“‘Well, if he comes for you, you pitch it back to the trailing halfback. And if he goes for the halfback, then you keep it and you run.’
“And I got to thinking my health is going to be in the hands of some big defensive end determining whose head he’s going to take off. I knew it was going to be mine. So that ended any thoughts whatsoever of me going to Ohio State.”
Still, this was the one-platoon era, and the 6-foot, perhaps 175-pound Dawson had to play defensive back even at Purdue.
“Guess I was a free safety,” he joked. “They didn’t ask me to line up on anybody.”
But Dawson, whose college career began in 1954 with him throwing four touchdowns against Missouri, had the fortune never to suffer a football injury serious enough to require an operation.
Stram perhaps helped save him from that fate at Ohio State.
And he was instrumental in preventing it later.
One season in Kansas City, Dawson banged up his knee against the then-Boston Patriots and could hardly move.
After seeing a specialist, it was determined he’d need an operation. Dawson got as far as being on the operating table and being administered an anesthetic.
“Start counting down from 10, you get to about eight, and that’s about it,” he said. “When I woke up, my wife was there, and I said, ‘How did the operation go?’ She said, ‘You didn’t have one.’”
“‘What do you mean I didn’t have one?’”
She answered, “Hank has another doctor he wants to have a look at you.”
Ultimately, therapy trumped surgery. Dawson missed five games but not the most meaningful ones:
That was the 1969 season, when the Chiefs went on to beat Minnesota 23-7 in the Super Bowl. Dawson was chosen Most Valuable Player of the game.
But let’s go back a step.
The very fact that Dawson became a Chief, not to mention that he was given a chance to play, simply would not have happened if not for Stram and another chance meeting with him.
After the 1961 season, Dawson was languishing with the Cleveland Browns after three years of being overlooked in Pittsburgh. He had thrown 45 passes in five NFL seasons.
It was getting close to a time when he might have to think about making one of the offseason jobs he had, such as selling life insurance, his livelihood.
Then Stram came to a coaches’ convention in Pittsburgh, where Dawson still lived.
“How things happen,” Dawson said, smiling. “He became the head coach in this new league. I had lunch with him, and he could see I wasn’t too happy.
“He basically said, ‘If you ever get free, let me know. I’d love to have you on my team.’”
Soon, Dawson decided he would make himself free. He went to Cleveland coach Paul Brown and asked to be put on waivers. Brown happily complied.
“When you ask the coach to put you on waivers, and he says, ‘Oh, fine,’ yeah, I was off the radar,” Dawson said, laughing. “And in those days, the assistant coaches (around the league) took a month off, so they didn’t know about it. So I passed waivers.
“I talked to guys (later) who said, ‘If we’d have known, we’d have tried you out.’ I told them, ‘I’m glad you didn’t. I hope you enjoyed your vacation.’”
But it was slow going even when Dawson was reunited with Stram in 1962. Dawson’s skills had eroded. His release was slower, and he might find himself tripping over his own feet.
“(Stram) could see when I got there, ‘Whoa, what happened to this guy?’ I got rusty,” said Dawson, recalling that he had heard that Hunt scoffed when he saw him practice. “Lamar and his brothers (were) no different than the players. The players (in their minds) cut guys, too.
“They don’t get to (actually) cut them, but I think that they had me on the road back to wherever I wanted to go.”
It started to come together, though, and Dawson won the starting job. But it wasn’t until the 1962 opener, against Boston, that he started having fresh faith in himself.
In a third-and-long situation, Dawson remembered completing a play-action pass across the middle for a first down.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ because that was a big play,” he said. “I hadn’t had any big plays.”
You know the rest. The Texans went on to win the 1962 AFL title with a 20-17 double overtime victory over the Houston Oilers.
Months later, they stepped away from a fruitless battle with the Dallas Cowboys and moved to Kansas City.
That transition north helped solidify the AFL — which Brown had predicted would crumble — and the Chiefs cemented its status all the more by beating the Vikings to give the upstart league a second straight Super Bowl title.
Along the way, the broadcasting career also presented itself while Dawson still was playing. It started in 1966, when KMBC (Ch. 9) was seeking to boost its sagging ratings.
This, too, was a turn of fortune for Dawson.
Not that he hadn’t had any broadcast experience
“Of course: I had been interviewed a couple of times,” he said, with what seems a perpetually amused expression, adding, “The first year that I did it we went to the Super Bowl. So nobody said anything about the quarterback being on television.
“The next year I don’t think we made the playoffs, and they said, ‘Well, the quarterback spends too much time on television.’ I said, ‘Let me explain a couple of things. First of all, I don’t produce it. I (only) present it.
“And at least you know where I am at 10 o’clock at night.”
And you still know where he is: with the Chiefs every Sunday and still working at Channel 9 three days a week, even as he has been contending with shingles in his right leg the last few months.
At one point, he required a walker to get around. He’s still moving gingerly.
“It’s not very pleasant, but I feel much better now,” he said. “Let’s see: I’ve had (heart) bypass surgery and prostate cancer surgery. I thought, ‘Why would the shingles bother me now? I’ve already been through all those other things.’ ”
Yet those are only blips in the life of a man who made his own way but had some indulgences of fate on his side, too.
“I just happened to be at the right spot at the right time to get an opportunity,” said Dawson. With that, he invoked the fortune that must come with being “the seventh son of a seventh son.” It’s a genealogical distinction he makes frequently.
“Makes good copy, I think.”
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