Football

Beauty in the little things

Lamar Hunt, the founder of the Kansas City Chiefs, the man who named the Super Bowl and a guy who once tried to buy Alcatraz, called the cell phone a couple of years ago when my wife and I were in the doctor’s office with our oldest daughter.

“Is she all right?” he asked with grave concern in his voice.

“Oh. Yes, she’s fine. It’s just a regular checkup.”

“Well, you take care of her. I can wait. If you would be kind enough to call me back later, that would be great.” And he hung up the phone so quietly that I was not entirely sure he had gone.

•••

This will be a series of small stories because that’s what Lamar Hunt appreciated. He may have had a larger effect on American sports than anyone who ever lived, but he did not find himself very interesting. That’s a rare quality among rich and accomplished men. It is the first thing anyone who met Lamar Hunt noticed.

“He’s just a regular guy,” they would say — everybody said that. Bill Grigsby, that beautiful Chiefs announcer, often remembered loaning Hunt change so he could buy coffee. Brian Waters, the Chiefs Pro Bowl tackle, often remembered how Hunt wanted to talk about places they both knew in Texas. Fred Arbanas, the great Chiefs tight end of the 1960s, often remembered Hunt serving the players food and drinks on the plane to road games. And so on.

Everyone remembered small things with Lamar Hunt. He would have liked that.

•••

Lamar Hunt wanted to be called the Chiefs “founder” rather than the Chiefs “owner.” He insisted on it, and he rarely insisted on things.

“To me,” he said, “every Chiefs fan has ownership in the team. They are just as invested emotionally as I am. I was able to bring the team to Kansas City, but it is Kansas City’s team.”

•••

Lamar Hunt had a unique way of turning conversations away from personal talk. He would simply shift the talk suddenly and surprisingly. For instance, you might ask him how he became interested in sports, and he might begin by talking about his childhood. They called him “Games” back then because he was always inventing some new sport with a ball, a wall, chalk lines, concrete steps, whatever. He was the son of H.L. Hunt, the oil magnate, a billionaire in a time when there were only a handful of billionaires in the world.

So you might ask Hunt then whether those little games were a way for him to escape that soap-opera world of Texas oil. This would spur Hunt to talk about — kneeling quarterbacks.

“I don’t think quarterbacks should be allowed to kneel at the end of games,” he would say. It would be a bit stunning because the conversation had not gradually turned to this point — nobody had said one word about quarterbacks or kneeling or even football. But Hunt would just keep talking about kneeling quarterbacks like it was the most natural thing in the world. He would say teams should not be allowed to just run out the last 2 minutes of a game.

“No other sport allows you to just hold on to the ball like that,” he would say. “In basketball, they have the 10-second rule and a shot clock, plus they are allowed to foul you. In baseball, you still have to keep pitching the ball. In soccer, you can try to keep the ball away, but it takes great skill to do that. But in football, we allow our quarterbacks to just fall to one knee to run out the clock, and I don’t think that’s good for the sport.”

He would then offer up a series of potential rule changes — he could go on like this for quite a while. And by the time he finished, you had forgotten what you were asking about Hunt’s life, which was probably the point all along.

•••

An e-mail story: A man was killed in a motorcycle accident; he was working at the time for Lamar Hunt’s construction company. The accident had nothing in particular to do with the construction job, but Hunt’s personal secretary went to the home of the widow and gave her a book of blank checks, each signed by Lamar Hunt.

A week later, the secretary returned with a message from Hunt: “Please don’t use these checks to pay for $10 items or small amounts. Please use them for what you really need.”

•••

Lamar Hunt loved playing around with numbers. He would take scraps of paper and scribble for hours. One time, he figured up some statistic to show what a 1,500-yard running back might do for the Chiefs. Another time, he totaled up the number of times he saw Michael Jordan play live.

“I believe it’s 108,” he said, this was in 1997, a few months before Jordan retired for the second time. Hunt was an original partner in the Chicago Bulls, and watching Jordan play was one of the sporting thrills of his life, along with seeing the World Cup for the first time, watching Rod Laver hit forehands, being there in Atlanta when Michael Johnson ran his famous 19.32 in the 200-meter dash and, of course, seeing Otis Taylor break free in Super Bowl IV. The beauty and adventure of sports moved him much more than winning and losing. That’s what defined him as an owner and a sportsman.

“You know I’ve never met Michael Jordan,” he said suddenly, as if he only just realized that. “And I don’t think I ever will.” When asked why, he said the words that I still believe cut closest to the heart of the man. “Sometimes,” he said, “beauty is best appreciated from afar.”

•••

Lamar Hunt would sit absolutely still during games. He would not cheer during touchdowns or boo after interceptions. His wife, Norma, used to tear a referee doll limb from limb after questionable calls, but even then Lamar would not change expressions.

“I suppose I’m a pretty patient man,” he said once, talking about the Chiefs. “It’s a vice. I tend to let things play out. I want to see what will happen.”

It was that patience (and quite a bit of money) that helped him through the early salad years of the American Football League. It was that patience that kept him believing, until the last days of his life, that professional soccer would find its place in American sports. It was that patience that kept him hoping — every year for the last 36 years — that his Chiefs would make it back to the Super Bowl. Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson said Hunt never said no to any move — no matter the cost — that might make the team better.

Yes, some wanted him to be more forceful, shake destiny a bit, fire decision-makers more quickly, spend money with more abandon. But that just was not Lamar Hunt.

“Bad luck,” he would say to Peterson after losses.

•••

Lamar Hunt named the Super Bowl after his daughter’s Super Ball and spent $2.5 million for one gigantic painting called “Icebergs.” He tried to start a professional bowling league, and he did help start professional tennis (he’s in the International Tennis Hall of Fame). He put a bid on Alcatraz Island (he wanted to turn it into a shopping center and space museum). He built amusement parks. He never gave up on his dream for a rolling roof that could cover both Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. He claimed for many years to own just one suit because he said one was all a man needed. His name was in the Dallas phonebook until the day he died.

“There are those who would say I never quite grew up,” he said. “And I suppose they’re right.”

•••

When I called Lamar Hunt back that day, he again asked whether my daughter was all right. I assured him that this was just a checkup, she was fine, she got a lollipop on her way out, and he said that was good. “Health is so important,” he said. Hunt was already sick by then. He still thought he could beat the cancer.

We talked for a little while about Kansas City — Hunt remembered in the mid-1960s, when Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City A’s, asked whether Hunt would move the Chiefs to Atlanta so they could be a package deal. “This is a (lousy) town,” Finley said, only he didn’t use the word “lousy,” which is why it is in parentheses. He used a much harsher word, one not fit for print, and one Hunt says with a slew of apologies.

“Charlie could be a crass man,” Hunt said.

He did not move the team, of course, because he thought there was something real and admirable about Kansas City. He did not move the team in the 1970s and ’80s either, even though the team was lousy and the seats at Arrowhead were half empty, and things just didn’t seem to be working out. Then in the 1990s, when the Chiefs started making the playoffs and every seat was filled with someone wearing red, he would sit in his owner’s box and look around in wonder.

“Kansas City is really a wonderful place,” he said. “It amazes me how things happen. One of the blessings of my life was moving the Texans to Kansas City.” Then, perhaps because he thought the conversation was turning too personal, he asked whether I thought baseball would be better if there was a pitch clock that forced the pitcher to throw the ball within, say, 20 seconds of when he got the ball back from the catcher. It was just another odd Lamar Hunt turn, but by then I had grown used to them. I said that a clock like that might do more harm than good — it might ruin the pace of the game.

“You could be right,” he said. “Baseball does have a nice easy pace. Like life.”

“Not your life,” I said.

“No,” he said, and he laughed. “Not mine. I’ve always managed to get into something, haven’t I?” The conversation ended shortly after that. Every single time I saw Lamar Hunt after that — until he was no longer well enough to come to Chiefs games — he always asked how my oldest daughter was doing.


To reach Joe Posnanski, call (816) 234-4361 or send e-mail to jposnanski@kcstar.com. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com
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