A generation of fans poured their hearts into the Chiefs. They’re ready for a payoff

Who will save these Kansas City Chiefs?

Chiefs coach Andy Reid needs help against home playoff losses at Arrowhead. Is there anyone who can help?
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Chiefs coach Andy Reid needs help against home playoff losses at Arrowhead. Is there anyone who can help?

The first thing Eli Waterman thought about was his father. In the moments after the Chiefs’ stunning loss to the Titans in last year’s playoffs, Waterman cried in the Arrowhead Stadium stands. “Bawled like a baby,” as he describes it.

Back home, his 63-year-old father had watched the Chiefs for the last time, nearing the final days of a battle with lung cancer. Waterman knew the end was close, and he considered staying home with the man who helped sprout his affection for the Chiefs. But he thought there would be one more game.

“Being a Chiefs fan, you’d think I’d know better than to be shocked, right?” Waterman says. “But I was shocked. And when reality settled in, knowing I’d never watch another Chiefs game with him, you feel all these emotions.”

“I just let it out.”

Waterman, a 33-year-old musician who grew up in south Kansas City and now lives in Raytown, fell in love with football along with his dad and brother. Sundays were holidays, observed with home-cooked meals and seats in front of the television. Neighbors joked they could tell whether the Chiefs were winning simply by listening to the yells coming from inside the home.

This is the quintessential root of Kansas City Chiefs fandom, shared by a generation of millennials who classify themselves as diehards. It’s their connections with family, friends, co-workers, even strangers.

Oh, and there’s one more element to being a Chiefs fan.

On Jan. 11, 1970, the Kansas City Chiefs hoisted the Super Bowl trophy for the first time in the team's history. Here's a look back on that day, as the underdog Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.

Heartbreak. How could we forget? All the postseason lows without the payoff. The loyalty without the reward.

These fans are out there, ready to share their 25 years of anguish with anyone who will listen. When The Star sent out a request for millennial-aged Chiefs fans to participate in a story, we received more than 350 emails in the first hour alone.

These fans have cried. They’ve cursed. They have broken household items. They’ve disposed of jerseys and hats. They’ve even lost relationships.

But to their credit, they have never truly given up hope. They keep coming back for more, rejuvenated by the “What if?”

“It’s like a drug,” says Gabriel George, 32. “You can’t quit.”

And so on Saturday afternoon, as nearly 80,000 people cram into the venue in which Chiefs have not won a playoff game in 25 years, Waterman and his brother will carry on a tradition that connects them to their father.

They will sit in front of the living room TV, their emotions hanging on every play, hoping that maybe — just maybe — this is the year.

ONE THING CHIEFS FANS WANT YOU TO KNOW is that it’s generational. They did not choose this life of postseason torment. Sure, it’s great to support the local team. The Chiefs are woven into the fabric of the city. There’s a sense of pride when they see the fountains light up red at Crown Center or when they walk past the red flags at the Plaza.

But it’s not about that. Fandom was passed down to them. From mothers. From fathers. To sons. To daughters.

For Gabriel George, one of his earliest memories is his mom bundling him from head to toe, zipping him up in a sleeping bag and taking him to the Colts-Chiefs playoff game in 1995. The Lin Elliott game. His mom worried she had given her son frostbite. Worse yet, she had subjected him to a lifelong feeling of disappointment.

George returned the favor nearly two decades later, taking his mom to the playoff game in Indianapolis in 2014. That was more devastation.

“I just want this so bad for her,” said George, 32, who lives in Kansas City. “She’s sunk a lot of resources into these guys. I want to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I really want her to see the light at the end of the tunnel one of these days.”

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Gabriel George, left, says it was his mother, Lana, who got him so heavily involved in rooting for the Chiefs. Submitted photo

The family ties drew in 29-year-old Jesse Bates, too. His grandparents raised him, and his grandfather specifically never missed a game. In 1996, his grandfather suffered a stroke, rendering him unable to talk. Still, every Sunday, Bates sat next to him, and they watched the Chiefs.

“Even though he couldn’t talk or anything, you could tell how excited he would get. He’d always give the ‘OK’ sign when things were going well,” Bates says.

Bates wants to be optimistic about the postseason for a change. And he says the presence of Patrick Mahomes offers assistance. But “you can’t help but feel like the world is closing in on you a little bit” when the playoffs begin.

He won’t stop rooting. Even if this weekend goes poorly, he will be back next season, ready to do it all over again. His grandfather taught perseverance.

The stroke happened over a Thanksgiving weekend. The Chiefs were on TV that day. His grandfather had just left the house to head to church. As he walked out the door, he turned back to his family and uttered what they believe were his last words.

“Go Chiefs!”

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Jesse Bates and his wife, Hollie, are diehard Chiefs fans. Bates grew up watching games with his grandfather. Submitted photo

PATRICK SUDAC, 27, ATTENDED CHIEFS GAMES every year of his childhood, but his dad dropped season tickets in 2004. Swore off the team after the infamous no-punt playoff loss against the Colts. His father moved to Kansas City from Croatia as a teenager. Picked up the Chiefs as the best way to feel like he belonged to a community that so clearly craved football.

Sudac lives in Baltimore now, but he’s never let go. “It’s heartbreaking being a Chiefs fan,” he says. “But it’s hard for me to give it up.”

In January 2014, he thought he finally had his reward. He watched the Chiefs’ playoff game in Indianapolis, a game they led 38-10 in the second half. Early into the third quarter, he told his girlfriend he wanted to go out to the bars after the game. Wanted to celebrate the end of a playoff curse with a few beers.

And, well, you know what happened next. Just as Andrew Luck was leaping into the end zone for a touchdown on a fumble that bounced off his lineman’s helmet, Sudac’s girlfriend walked into the living room, dressed and ready for the after-party. Sudac canceled the plans.

They broke up that night.

“She left,” Sudac says. “Packed up her stuff and left.”

This year feels different, he says. Patrick Mahomes is different. He’s an MVP candidate, the owner of 50 touchdown passes. For once, the Chiefs have the better quarterback in the game. But here’s the nature of being a Chiefs fan. The worry. The pessimism. He wouldn’t even mention Saturday’s game. “I can’t talk about it because I’ll get nervous. I find that I’m finding every reason why we won’t win this game. That’s what they’ve done to me.”

Sudac has a girlfriend in his new home in Baltimore. She’ll be out of town for this weekend’s game.

THEY’RE READY FOR THE PAYOFF. Antsy for something — anything — to celebrate.

The fans of this generation were too young to remember the last home postseason victory in January 1994. They were in diapers. They were in toddler-sized Joe Montana or Derrick Thomas jerseys.

Now, they’re marketing salesmen. Lawyers. Musicians. They work for Cerner. They attended high school locally. Went off to college. Came back.

And still, in a city that boasts about its development, nothing with the football team has changed.

“I’m not asking for a Super Bowl,” says Erin Wells, 28-year-old who lives in Midtown and will be in attendance Saturday. “I just want a home playoff win. I want to be there one time, when the whole stadium is waiting on something to go wrong, but for just once everything turns out to be OK.”

Wells has attended every home playoff game in the past 15 years. She was there for the no-punt game in 2004. The blowout courtesy of Baltimore in 2011. The 2016 loss to the Steelers, despite Pittsburgh not even scoring a touchdown. The loss to the Titans last season.

She’s not alone. These fans want to be there when it all finally happens, so they keep coming back. They want to celebrate with 80,000 who understand what they’ve been through. Can you imagine what that would be like?

“I’m going through the thick and thin because if you go through this for 30 years, then it’s going to be amazing when it’s all worth it,” says Adam Ungashick, a 27-year-old resident in Waldo. “That’s why you do it.”

It felt that way with the Royals’ championship in 2015, Ungashick says. That was another long-awaited reward. But supporting the Chiefs has a different feeling. “They pull you in and set up these expectations, then leave you at the altar. It’s just the most punishing way to be a fan.”

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Submitted photo

The disappointment itself has become part of the expectation. In their wedding vows, Aaron Karst’s wife told him she’d always be there for him after Chiefs losses. It wasn’t a joke.

You can sense it inside the stadium. Brad Boan, a 32-year-old Olathe East graduate, has attended every home playoff game in the past 25 years. That’s six straight losses, five of them in brutal fashion.

The fans know. They’re aware of the history. Heck, even Chiefs coach Andy Reid acknowledged it Thursday. But while he says it won’t play a factor inside the locker room, it will in the stands. There’s an aura about Arrowhead Stadium playoff games that will be ever present Saturday.

“I think when you’re in that stadium, as soon as the first thing goes wrong, you start to feel like, ‘Here we go again,’” Boan says. “And I’m usually a pretty optimistic person, but it’s the opposite when it comes to the Chiefs and things start going south.”

Jay Hall, 27, says he’s given up attending playoff games. Not because he’s done supporting his team. He’s just doing all he can to break the streak. Maybe it will take superstition, he says, so he’s watching from home Saturday.

Maybe it will take Patrick Mahomes. If there’s optimism among this group, it lies there. With a man who broke every franchise passing record in the book. After years of losing to the top quarterbacks in football, the Chiefs have one this time.

“It’s just a whole different excitement when you’ve got Mahomes on your side,” says 29-year-old Justin Koehler, a Rockhurst High School graduate.

He’s betting on it. A month ago, Koehler booked a trip to Atlanta for the Super Bowl. Bought a ticket for his wife, too.

REGARDLESS OF WHAT HAPPENS with the Chiefs on Saturday, it will be an emotional weekend for Eli Waterman, the 33-year-old musician residing in Raytown.

A week later will be the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. Two days earlier, his son will turn 2 years old.

He hopes to pass his fondness for the Chiefs on to his son, heartbreak and all, but insists, “I’ll leave that up to him.”

He recently bought his son, Atticus, a couple of gifts for his birthday. He’s looking forward to seeing him open one in particular.

A brand new Patrick Mahomes jersey.

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