The days of sitting on the bench in Pittsburgh and Cleveland as a young quarterback taught Len Dawson a valuable lesson.
Football would not last forever.
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When Dawson, who revived his career with the Dallas Texans and led them to the 1962 AFL championship, accompanied the franchise to Kansas City in 1963, he, like most of his teammates, looked for offseason employment or second jobs during the season that could lead to post-playing careers.
Linebacker Bobby Bell worked at the GM plant. Emmitt Thomas taught school. Dawson tried his hand at selling insurance.
“I was not very good at it,” Dawson says now, 50 years after arriving in Kansas City.
But in 1966, Dawson’s fourth season in Kansas City, he found a career in broadcasting that eventually made him as big a celebrity off the field as he was as a Hall of Fame passer and Super Bowl champion.
Dawson was approached by KMBC radio about doing a weekly radio show, and about the same time, KMBC’s television partner, Channel 9, was looking to boost its flagging ratings.
A broadcasting legend was born.
“In those days, there were just three TV stations,” Dawson said, “and at night, ‘The Tonight Show’ was so strong, the other two stations tried to start (15 minutes) early to hold the audience with a movie.
“Since Channel 9 was last (in the ratings), they thought they’d try something new and go to a 30-minute newscast. They needed somebody to do sports, and since I was talking to the radio side, they asked if I’d be interested in that.”
Dawson certainly was game, and the Chiefs, looking for all the exposure they could get, signed off on it.
“I just happened to come as the right man at the right time,” Dawson recalled. “I was the only guy actually playing who was on TV at the time. Many organizations wouldn’t have stood for it. A guy like (former Browns and Bengals coach) Paul Brown? No way.
“The Chiefs actually recommended me. They felt if they had one of their people on the sports at 10, there would be one station not ripping the football team.”
Dawson would still be in pads interviewing teammates after practice, then hustle to the TV station and anchor the sportscast. Thus began a nearly 50-year career with Channel 9, though it was interrupted during a seven-year period in which he served as an NFL game analyst for NBC.
“I not only asked the players to interview them, but I’d tell them the questions and give them the answers,” Dawson once joked. “The only experience I had was being interviewed.”
Sure enough, Channel 9’s ratings zoomed from last to first place. And by doing the 6 and 10 o’clock sportscasts, Dawson became the Chiefs’ most familiar face.
“Until Channel 9, I was rarely recognized,” he said. “They could see what I looked like. With the helmet on, they don’t know what you looked like.”
Just as he did as a quarterback, Dawson made the job look easier than it was, though there were some growing pains.
“I started very shaky. I was so nervous I wanted to get it over with,” he said. “If it was 31/2 minutes of sports, I tried to do it in 2. Something could go wrong, and I’d say, ‘Well, after all, football is my primary occupation.’ ”
Dawson’s work on television did not detract from his performance on the field. In fact, he led the Chiefs to the 1966 AFL championship and Super Bowl I, where they lost to Green Bay. Three years later, Dawson was MVP in the Chiefs’ 23-7 upset of Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.
His teammates harbored no resentment regarding Dawson’s taking the spotlight on and off the field.
“We didn’t give it any thought,” guard Ed Budde said. “He was that talented that was his job. He was a leader. There was no jealousy. Lenny had a lot of class.”
“We started calling him The Governor,” cornerback Emmitt Thomas said. “To this day, I call him Governor. He was
guy here in Kansas City.”
Dawson was so successful on Channel 9 that he landed the NBC job following his retirement in 1975, and he also joined HBO’s groundbreaking “Inside the NFL” as studio host in its second season in 1978, when cable television was still in its infancy.
At the time he began working for HBO, Dawson once said, he didn’t get to see the show at home because he didn’t have cable ... yet he spent 24 years as a fixture on cable television’s longest-running television series.
Shortly after Dawson left NBC, he became the analyst for Chiefs radio broadcasts in 1984, a position he still holds, and returned to full-time duty at Channel 9 in 1985. Though Dawson, 78, has retired from anchoring the sports on Channel 9, he still contributes to Chiefs coverage and occasionally pinch-hits on the news desk.
Just last year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame presented Dawson with the Pete Rozelle Radio Television Award, which recognizes “long-time exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.”
Dawson, inducted into the Hall in 1987, joined Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf as the only men to be enshrined as both players and broadcasters.
And that newcomer to Kansas City who struggled as an insurance salesman? Dawson became a popular pitchman in Kansas City as well as serving as a spokesman for the American Cancer Society following his successful bout with prostate cancer in 1991.
“When you get an opportunity, take advantage of it,” Dawson said of his broadcasting career. “If you don’t like it, if you’re not good at it, try something else.”