No. 1 sports fan is cheered

DALLAS | At precisely 12:30 p.m. Saturday, the church bells tolled at Highland Park United Methodist Church as the limousines pulled in front of Moody Coliseum on the Southern Methodist University campus.

This was one of Lamar Hunt’s favorite places. And about 1,000 people gathered in the historic gym at Hunt’s beloved alma mater and paid tribute to Hunt, who died Wednesday at the age of 74 after a eight-year bout with prostate cancer.

Hunt, the Chiefs’ founder, was remembered as a visionary, a gentleman and a sports pioneer during a 90-minute service.

“Whether it was attending 60 straight Cotton Bowl games or seeing his grandchildren playing soccer just a few weeks ago, Dad always wanted to be there,” said Clark Hunt, one of Lamar’s sons.

“When he and my mother were dating, one weekend they attended five football games,” he added. “He was fond of referring to that weekend as a fipple-header.”

A large color portrait of Hunt adorned the stage between floral arrangements. Typical of Hunt, the service was simple and his family wanted to celebrate, not mourn, his life.

His longtime confidant, Chiefs vice chairman Jack Steadman; his daughter, Sharron Munson; and sons Clark and Dan gave moving eulogies while Hunt’s wife, Norma, sat in the front row.

His oldest son, Lamar Jr., played a heartfelt hymn, “The Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” on the flute.

Saturday’s service also included a who’s who from the National Football League, including the league’s last two commissioners, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell.

Owners of at least 12 NFL teams attended, including Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson and Tennessee’s Bud Adams — the last surviving members of “The Foolish Club,” with whom Hunt founded the American Football League in 1959.

Also attending were former Chiefs players E.J. Holub, Sherrill Headrick and Curtis McClinton, who were members of the Dallas Texans before Hunt moved the team to Kansas City in 1963, and current Chiefs running back Priest Holmes, who missed this season because of injury.

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, recalled seeing Hunt at the MLS Cup championship game Nov. 12 at the soccer-specific stadium built by the Hunt Sports Group in the Dallas suburb of Frisco.

“Lamar was about as happy as we’ve ever seen him, even after the game, walking on the field with a big smile on his face,” he said.

Garber also remembered how active Hunt was even years after his cancer diagnosis.

“We saw him at a number of World Cups,” Garber said. “I traveled with him in 2002, and he had more energy than any of us young guys running around throughout Korea and Japan — and like only Lamar could do, not in the VIP way.”

Steadman, who with Hunt spearheaded the building of the Truman Sports Complex in 1972, said the upcoming $575 million renovations of Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums were foremost on Hunt’s mind, almost to the day he died.

“Lamar never stopped thinking of ways to make the game better, as well as the sports complex,” Steadman said. “During our last time together, he said, ‘Jack, be sure we get the new Arrowhead design’s construction right. We owe it to our fans and the taxpayers who supported it.’ He wasn’t thinking about himself, but the people in Kansas City who supported his franchise that he loved so much.”

Hunt also loved Southern Methodist, where he was a third-team wide receiver from 1952 to 1955.

He served on the university’s board of trustees, was the 1973 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award and donated $5 million to help build a new football stadium.

“Other than his family, he had two great loves,” university president R. Gerald Turner said. “One was SMU and one was the Chiefs, and the order of those depends on who’s talking to you.

“… If we had an event, we’d have somebody watch for Lamar or he would come in and sit in the back. Of all the great graduates that we’ve had, I would imagine he’s the best known in the country.”

As the service was under way in Dallas, the Chiefs were in San Diego preparing for tonight’s game against the Chargers.

Hunt’s death could spur the team on, much the way the New York Giants responded a year ago with a big victory days after that team’s longtime owner, Wellington Mara, died.

“Hopefully this does give us that extra go-ahead to go out there and get it done for our owner and founder, one of the founders of the whole league,” said tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Besides founding the AFL, which merged with the NFL in 1966, Hunt founded World Championship Tennis in 1969 at a time when the world’s top players could not play professionally, and he helped found the North American Soccer League and later MLS.

“The first sports league meeting I ever went to was in August 1969, a meeting of the North American Soccer League, and believe it or not, the meeting was held on Lamar Hunt’s bed in a hotel room at the Atlanta airport,” recalled Tagliabue. “That’s how small the league was. Less than a year after that, the Chiefs were making their Super Bowl run and winning it.”

Hunt’s pioneer spirit was not lost on Grace Hunt, his 7-year-old granddaughter, who asked her mother, Tavia, whether there was football in heaven.

“Tavia did her best job of suggesting there might be,” Clark Hunt said, “and Grace replied, ‘It doesn’t really matter. If there isn’t football in heaven, Pappy will start his own league.’ ”

The Star’s Elizabeth Merrill contributed to this report. To reach Randy Covitz, call (816) 234-4796 or send e-mail to