Football

Undaunted beats heart of the Chiefs: Despite daily radiation treatments, team owner keeps up a grueling schedule with aplomb, goodwill and a winning sense of humor

LAMAR HUNT | 'I'm happy to be here eight years later'

DALLAS | The elevators zoom down 40 stories, out of the airy Texas skyline and into the bowels of a dark parking garage. Suits ramble on their earpiece cell phones, secretaries dash by in their pantsuits and sneakers, and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt slowly inches to his BMW. He uses the cane in tough spots. He doesn't want it today, holding it at his side. Hunt is on his way home, and that's reason enough to smile. He's not going to the hospital today. For the last few weeks, at straight-up five minutes after 3 o'clock, Hunt has left the plush Thanksgiving Tower in downtown Dallas, or a mountain of paperwork at home, and gone for daily radiation treatments. The radiation was fast. Easy almost, he says. Ten or 12 minutes, and Hunt was back on his way, back to his crushing schedule. If the man is on borrowed time, like a doctor said eight years ago when the words "prostate cancer" and "three or four years to live" were uttered, he won't dare return a second of it. He's a vintage Rolls Royce with rusted paint and worn tires, a 74-year-old body and a brand-new motor. He has so much to do. "I'm doing OK," Hunt says as he eases into a leather chair upstairs in his offices. "I don't feel great every day, but it comes and goes. I'm happy to be here eight years later, and hope I can continue some more." Hunt says the cancer has never gone away, and it's been a constant stream of good days, bad days and doctor visits in Dallas and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. This would appear to be one of the rough stretches. He's tired, he's missed two Chiefs games already this season, and his gait is slow and measured. Hunt peels a cough drop out of its wrapper and takes a sip from a large Styrofoam cup of ice water. Pardon him, he says. He's caught a cold. Most days, the Chiefs owner stares out a massive window into downtown. In the distance he sees Texas Stadium, and it no doubt reminds him of Kansas City's renovation project at the Truman Sports Complex. All over the office are pictures of his family, the 14 grandkids, and the 47 football teams he's embraced through the years. "Hey, I've got a factoid for you," he says. "My son Daniel told me this yesterday. The three teams we've beaten in a row, all three of them start with an S. San Diego, Seattle and St. Louis. So we're going to get Miami to change its name to something S ... South Florida." On a sun-splashed, short-sleeved day in north Texas, Hunt chats for two hours, with construction plans scattered on the table and a big alarm clock that's running an hour fast. He's asked if he has to leave. "Don't worry, I've got ... I don't have anything that is more pressing than this," Hunt says. "Nothing is more important than this." Hunt just returned from a 650-mile road trip to St. Louis. The Chiefs were underdogs last week -- again -- and pulled out a 31-17 victory with a backup quarterback and a slapped-together lineup that had lost four starters. Hunt loves this 5-3 team. Says they're tough. He'll tell you this now: When quarterback Trent Green went down in the season opener, and the Chiefs started 0-2, he threw up his hands and braced for a 3-13 season. "That was a number I used," Hunt says. "Because there's such a fine line between a really successful season and one game." He hasn't been there to see all of it. When the Chiefs were rallying in Arizona, Hunt was watching from a hospital bed. He missed San Francisco, too. Hunt jokes that he's trying to limit his feel-bads to earlier in the week. When he goes to the hospital on Fridays, they lock him up all weekend. If life was a merger, or a free-agent acquisition, then Hunt could ride his tenacity and it would probably come out all right. Like the time he wanted a football team nearly 50 years ago and the NFL turned him away. Hunt just went out and started the American Football League. But cancer, he says, is an inexact science. In 2003, he had his prostate removed. It was a radical surgery, but one the doctors recommended because it could give him more of a chance to live. "Let's do it," Hunt told them. Stomach problems and fevers laid him up recently. Minor setbacks, he says. He wrapped up his last round of radiation about a week ago, and now Hunt says he's just "waiting for the next steps" from his doctors. He says he has too many doctors. Three to four years, that's what one doctor said would be a reasonable expectation when Hunt was diagnosed in 1998. "That sounded like a pretty long time," Hunt says. "But you start thinking about things differently." Hunt had to be in St. Louis last weekend. It was for the Governor's Cup, and he loves that state bragging rights stuff. After the game, the Cup lay on the floor in the middle of the locker room as Hunt weaved his way through the discarded towels and grungy uniforms. He had to do his traditional handshakes with the players. Hunt talks to the players about how they felt that day or how their college team did that weekend, the short exchanges usually ending with giant hands reaching down to a weary grip. "Thank you, Mr. Hunt." Defensive end Eric Hicks doesn't play much anymore, but he still gets the handshake. A long time ago, when Hicks was new to Kansas City, his wife was waiting in the parking lot when she eyed Hunt pulling up in a Ford Escort. "He actually went up to her and said, 'Hey, Erica, how you doing?' " Hicks says. "And we'd only been here for a minute. He knows everybody's name in this locker room, from the highest-paid to the lowest-paid guy. He knows everybody who works in the equipment room and the training room. He's truly involved." Generations X and Y buzz through the revolving glass doors in the lobby of the Thanksgiving Tower and pass a giant bronze statue of Hunt's father, Haroldson Lafayette Hunt. Most don't know who he is. H.L. Hunt was a legendary oil man. A gentle man, the inscription says. In the statue, H.L. looks as if he's ready to move. It's often debated how many hours a week Lamar Hunt puts in these days. He'll say around 40, but his son Dan argues that it's closer to 60 or 70. They've tried to get him to slow down, before the cancer, between the treatments and surgery. "Even when he feels really poorly, he is still working," Dan says. "I'll go to the house to check on him and say hi to my mother and he's working away. He's an amazing person. I am a lucky son." Last spring, outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked Hunt to be on the committee searching for his replacement. Hunt pushed through for months, but when the finalist interviews started, he needed to be back in Texas for chemotherapy. His son Clark went in his place, a passing of the baton that has been in motion since about 2001. Clark is the Chiefs' chairman of the board, and he represents the family at board and league meetings. Four months later, Lamar still hates the fact that he missed it. Roger Goodell was eventually appointed commissioner, and afterward, Hunt sent him an e-mail. Actually, he had his secretary do it because he doesn't deal with e-mail messages. The note mentioned Goodell's twin daughters. "I said something like, 'And you thought managing twin girls was difficult,' " Hunt says. "Because now, he's got to manage 32 idiots." If Hunt's schedule is breakneck now, consider the years of 1966 and '67. He had the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, was one of the founding investors of the Chicago Bulls, and dabbled in professional soccer and tennis. Oh, and in 1967, the stadium referendum passed. The stadium renovation project is Hunt's baby, the bright glimmer in his tired eyes. He moved a radiation appointment recently so he wouldn't miss one of the meetings. Hunt used to take his kids to Arrowhead Stadium before they were toddlers. He showed them the massive parking lot, the tailgating, the spectacle. He always told them one thing. "We need to take care of it so it can be here for a very long time." Arrowhead, Hunt says, is the heart of the franchise. He is proud that while nearly every NFL city tears down stadiums and starts again, the old haunt is still standing. "We're looking at improvements that will definitely last 25 years, or probably more," Hunt says. "I won't be here to look at it and worry with it 25 years from now, but it's hard to imagine at any time that Arrowhead will be replaced." Former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil likes to tell this story about Lamar Hunt. Vermeil was sitting in his office after a game a few years ago, and Hunt was still wandering around in the building, alone. He asked if Hunt wanted to come over to his Country Club Plaza condo for leftover Oklahoma Joe's spareribs. "I'd love that," Hunt said. They stayed up for hours, laughing and talking. Vermeil came to Kansas City in 2001 after winning a Super Bowl in St. Louis, and he always had one goal -- to win one for Hunt. After all, the man hasn't held the Lombardi trophy in nearly 40 years, and he's never hoisted the AFC championship hardware that bears his name. The 2003 Chiefs rolled to a 9-0 start while cancer was kicking Hunt around. That year, Vermeil tacked pictures of his boss on the goals board. On top was a saying: "From visionary to legendary." But after finishing the season 13-3, the Chiefs lost to Indianapolis in the playoffs, and Kansas City hasn't been back since. The 2005 team, Vermeil says now, was better than '03. The Chiefs won 10 games, missed the postseason, and Hunt went back to Texas empty-handed. He never complained. When Vermeil retired at the end of the season, the most emotional part of the news conference was directed at Hunt, who was seated in the back of the room. "I didn't get you to a Super Bowl, Lamar," Vermeil said as he choked back tears. "But you'll get there some day, and I'll go with you." Hunt sits at the head of a massive table in the board room at Unity Hunt, and the place is eerily quiet. Across the hall, past two heavy doors, Clark is busy in a meeting. Lamar wants to show off his antique map collection. There's one from 1719, that's his favorite. California is an island; the world is an unknown. He runs his finger through the journeys of Magellan. He has at least 10 of these framed maps, and each one comes with a story. He's been married to his wife Norma for 42 years, and they do a lot of antique shopping. They bought an ancient Venetian painting that hangs on a wall in the board room. Hunt stares at it and jokes that it's a depiction of Super Bowl I. When he was younger and stronger, he'd garden at least one hour a day, seven days a week. Trimming the bushes into shapes and forms helped him find peace. Now Hunt is simply happy to maneuver through airports and locker rooms. "I just marvel at the guy," Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson says. "He's got to exist on four hours' sleep because nobody can churn out the stuff he does. Despite some of his health problems ... he doesn't seem to slow down. "I know where his heart is and where his mind is all the time. He's excited about the Chiefs." Peterson feels the urgency to win for Hunt. So do the Chiefs. They wonder if it will happen this year, when so many things have gone against the franchise but the team has held strong. They walk faster to meetings and practices while their owner slowly inches on. Nothing is more important than this.

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