A cold December wind fluttered the Chiefs flag outside of Christabell Jones’ car, and she sat in an empty parking lot at 11 a.m., waiting for the doors to open. The invitation to say goodbye to Lamar Hunt was open to anybody, billionaire owners in Armani suits, 83-year-old season-ticket holders.
Jones found a warm seat in the back of Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence on Tuesday afternoon and sat among the red sweatshirts and Larry Johnson jerseys. She never knew the man who brought football to Kansas City, who drew about 2,000 people for a memorial service. She had to come.
“I’m 83 and ain’t missed a game,” Jones said. “I remember when I couldn’t give my tickets away. But I kept them. The team is like my family, and the fans are like my family.
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“I just wanted to pay my respects.”
One by one, they circled the front of the domed auditorium, police escorts and limos inching through a sleepy corner on the east side of town. Hall of Famer Marcus Allen. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer in his dark, tear-concealing sunglasses. Lions CEO Matt Millen.
Some of them cried, some told stories, some took off the face paint and parked for one last tailgate.
Sharron Munson sat in the front row, next to a modest stage flanked with flowers, two white crosses and a large picture of Hunt on the projection screen. Her dad never liked a lot of attention drawn to himself.
He was educated at SMU, voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school, and still fancied himself on being hip to the youthspeak. He was entrenched in his 70s when he’d use phrases like, “It freaked me out” around Sharron.
The kindly Texan with the sweet Southern drawl sang to his only daughter when she was a little girl, giving her two choices at bedtime — “Home on the Range” or “On the Street Where You Live.”
Six days before he died of cancer, Hunt was in ICU, his children at his bedside. He asked Sharron to sing, and she belted out, “On the Street Where You Live.” Lamar joined in, singing through his oxygen mask.
“He was in a lot of pain,” Sharron said, “encumbered in every way you could be.
“He never complained, even in the final days in the hospital.”
The family filed out of his hospital room in one of the final days, after they’d sang and read Scripture. As they closed the door, Hunt had one final thing to say.
Dick Vermeil sat off to the side, away from the dignitaries and the football players in their uncomfortable suits. An occasional passer-by patted him on the back. Vermeil dabbed his eyes.
He worked under Hunt for five years, up until he retired at the end of 2005, but he couldn’t sit in the middle of everything. It was too painful.
“We lost somebody,” Vermeil said, his voice breaking. “And it hurts.”
They met in 1976, when Vermeil was a young coach, but Hunt never made him feel that way. They became close through the wins and the struggles of a franchise that made it to the playoffs just once in Hunt’s final eight years.
The degree of second-guessing, Vermeil said, was always minimal. The friendship was unconditional.
“It’s hard on everybody,” Vermeil said, “even though you know it’s coming. I lost both parents that way. You know it’s coming, and all of the sudden it happens and you sink. And so I sunk a little bit today.”
Vermeil will be in Oakland this weekend as part of the broadcasting team for the Chiefs-Raiders game. The Raiders were always Hunt’s biggest rival.
“He’ll get some penalties called on the Raiders,” Vermeil said. “You watch. He loved to beat the Raiders.”
Don Ostrander eased into a seat near the aisle, in the middle, because he wanted a good view of the people.
That’s what Ostrander loved the most in his 10 years as a security guard at Arrowhead Stadium, the people. He met Priest Holmes and Herm Edwards and Bobby Bell; he loaned the founder of the AFL a dollar for a Snickers bar.
Hunt showed up at the stadium late one night, Ostrander was working the 4-to-midnight shift, and the boss softly asked whether he had change for the candy machine. Ostrander dug through his pockets and plunked down a handful of change, Hunt asked for a piece of paper.
He wanted to write an IOU.
The next day, in an interoffice envelope, Ostrander pulled out a dollar and a handwritten note. Thank you for the money, he said. He had a sweet tooth. Signed, Lamar Hunt. Ostrander framed the dollar and the note.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful person,” Ostrander said. “I always said you could talk about Mr. Hunt for a solid month and never say the same thing twice.”
Ostrander steered his 2005 GMC Crew Cab 114 miles one way to work from St. Clair County every day, mainly because of Hunt’s family atmosphere. But gas prices kept rising, and Ostrander had to retire.
He saw Hunt before a game recently, and his old boss looked worn out. He apologized for missing his retirement party.
Len Dawson sat in the power cluster of the church, next to the Hall of Famers and the men who make football geeks’ hearts go pitter-patter. Two rows behind him, Schottenheimer sat with his head down.
Dawson pondered how different the town would be without Hunt. He figured it would be something like the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Think about it,” Dawson said. “There would be no AFL, no game called the Super Bowl, no Kansas City Chiefs, no Arrowhead Stadium.
“In my mind, Lamar Hunt earned his wings a long time ago. He was my friend, my angel.”
@ To see a photo gallery from the memorial service, go to KansasCity.com.
To reach Elizabeth Merrill, call (816) 234-4744 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.