Chiefs

Will Kansas City Chiefs’ Clark Hunt bring home his father’s AFC trophy?

This isn’t the kind of thing Clark Hunt relishes.

Oh, he loves to talk about the Chiefs and can go on about every memorable play of this special season. Despite his button-down image, a look that fits Hunt’s title as CEO, those who know him best say he loves nothing more than roaming the Arrowhead parking lots on game day and talking with fans — like his dad used to do.

But talking about himself, or what his leadership means to the Chiefs at this time? It makes him visibly uncomfortable.

This isn’t about him or his family, Hunt insists. It’s a mantra passed down from his father.

“Let’s win a championship,” Lamar Hunt told his grown children in the days before he died of prostate cancer, late in the 2006 season. “And do it for the fans.”

As Clark Hunt shared in the week before the franchise’s biggest home game: “The fans were always on his mind, even at the end of his life.”

On Sunday, inside a super cold, raucous Arrowhead Stadium, Clark and his three siblings and his mother, Norma, could see the team Lamar brought to Kansas City in 1963 move one crucial step closer to achieving what he wanted for this community.

And if things go the Chiefs’ way, and the quarterback phenom who has lit up this fan base leads KC to victory, Clark Hunt will hoist the trophy named for his father.

“This city has been waiting for years for this opportunity,” said Deron Cherry, who played for the Chiefs from 1981 to 1991 and is now a Kansas City businessman. “It will be special for Clark and the Hunt family, but the Hunt family will tell you it would be special for the fans.”

It wasn’t until after the whistle blew at the end of last weekend’s game at Arrowhead, after the Chiefs beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-13, that Hunt says the emotion of it all began to sink in.

“It sort of struck me, ‘Wow, we are playing for the AFC Championship, the Lamar Hunt trophy, at Arrowhead,” Hunt said. “It just really struck us, ‘Wow, we are really going to do this.’”

It’s special not because of what the trophy is called — and, truth be told, Clark says his humble father was a bit embarrassed to have his name on it. It’s special because of what it signifies.

“It means we’re one more step closer,” Hunt said. “One more step.”

The Chiefs haven’t been to a Super Bowl — a name coined by Lamar Hunt — since 1970. They won that year and have chased another championship ever since. A win on Sunday and they’re in the Feb. 3 game: Super Bowl LIII.

“He would have loved to have played for it,” said Clark Hunt, in a signature suit with a Chiefs pin on the lapel, referring to the Lamar Hunt trophy.

For those who know the family, who have played for the father or walked alongside the son before a game as he thanked those die-hard fans, watching Clark have this moment makes it all even more special.

They’ve seen the 53-year-old step outside the shadow of Lamar, playing a pivotal role in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with players in 2011. And again when he made the decision to bring in coach Andy Reid in 2013 and shake up the organization’s structure so Reid, general manager Brett Veach and team president Mark Donovan all report directly to him.

They say he cemented his leadership even more seven weeks ago, when the team cut star running back Kareem Hunt after a video surfaced of him pushing and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel last February.

Cherry showed up at the Chiefs’ training camp in the summer of 1981, hoping to make the team as a punter. During practice, a young Clark Hunt — just 16 years old — shagged punts for the rookie.

Though Cherry didn’t make it as a punter, he soon came back as a safety and played 11 seasons, making the All-Pro team five times. And through the years, he and Clark became friends.

Watching him now, Cherry says he’s proud of the guy he’s seen come into his own.

“Here’s a young man trying to fulfill a destiny for this organization,” Cherry said. “As he’s taken over for his dad, he wants to make his dad proud. People don’t understand the competitiveness he has and the overwhelming desire he has to win and bring a championship to Kansas City.

“I feel like it’s Clark’s time.”

Like father, like son

He was 4 when the Chiefs won their one and only Super Bowl. He knows he was at the game, but Clark doesn’t have any recollection of it.

His first vivid game memory dates back to Christmas Day, 1971. He was 6.

“We played the Dolphins,” he said. “It’s still the longest game in NFL history and we lost in double overtime.”

Hunt remembers specific details from the day. How “our great field goal kicker” Jan Stenerud missed one. How the young Hunt put his head down in the press box and took a nap at one point.

“I remember the game going on forever,” Hunt said. “And when I woke up, it was deathly quiet because we had lost the game.”

He also won’t forget, despite that loss, “hearing my dad talk about how he felt that was probably the best Chiefs team ever.”

As he grew, he and his family experienced many other crushing losses — the 1993 AFC Championship Game in Buffalo particularly stung. But they also had great wins. Under coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil. And now, under Reid.

“Certainly in my memory this is the most talented team we have had in the last 30 years,” Hunt said.

No one really knew just how good second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes would be in his first season as a starter. Training camp was fine. So was Week 1.

In Week 2, in Pittsburgh, Mahomes showed what he could do.

“There wasn’t a left-handed throw, there wasn’t a no-look throw,” Hunt said. “But there were a lot of great throws. He just shredded what had been a very good defense in the National Football League in their building.

“That game, I think, sort of told all of us, ‘Wow, we really have something special.’”

And after a few weeks of consistent performances, many began to wonder what could be.

Robert Alpert, Clark’s close friend since first grade, remembers the Steelers game and how the two went to dinner afterward. They were about to leave the Pittsburgh restaurant and head back to the hotel when Hunt spotted some Chiefs fans.

“And Clark wanted to talk to them,” said Alpert, who admits he was ready to call it a night. “We were standing there for 20 minutes.”

Hunt was in his element, Alpert said, chatting it up with a group of people who love what he loves: Football and the Chiefs.

When Alpert spoke with Norma Hunt this past week, they discussed how everything was playing out. How her husband’s team was just two wins away.

And how the Lamar Hunt trophy would be presented here in Kansas City.

“Arrowhead,” Norma told Alpert, “was Lamar’s favorite place in the world.”

Game day

The way the Chiefs’ chairman sees Sunday’s game, it shouldn’t be so different than any other Sunday at Arrowhead.

Sure, there’s more on the line this time. And more excitement and nerves and all that.

But when you break it down, Hunt said, he and his family will do what they always do.

Strong in their faith, they’ll say a prayer at some point.

“We try hard not to pray for victories,” Hunt said, smiling. “Instead we pray for the team to play to the best of their ability and for all participants to avoid injury.”

He’ll likely wear one of his “A” ties, the good ones he saves for the weekend. And in the hours before the game, Clark will walk the grounds like he does for home games — “any kind of weather, it doesn’t matter” — and talk to the people decked out in red and gold.

“It gives me a connection with the fans,” Hunt said. “I know they love the games, but they love tailgating just as much.”

It’s something he learned from dad. Lamar Hunt became known for his nonchalant jaunts before the game, striking up conversations and listening.

“In terms of somebody understanding the heartbeat of a professional sports team, my dad totally did,” Hunt said. “And for him, it was the fans.”

Sometimes, the whole family would be out there, he said, “following him around, watching him walk around the parking lot.”

Alpert has been on many of these tailgating tours. It’s where his friend is at ease and comfortable.

“We will just go wander,” said Alpert, who goes to several games, both home and away, each year. “He and I have lost to a couple of fans playing cornhole. We met one couple, I think they had been season ticket-holders for as long as I’ve been alive.”

Even last Saturday, with the snow coming down and the wind blowing, Clark encouraged his friend to leave the warmth of a suite and take a walk through the tailgates with him.

Another person who has witnessed those pregame walks with Clark is Ken “Fuzzy” Kremer, a Chiefs defensive lineman from 1979-84.

“He goes out and greets them and thanks them,” Kremer said. “He’s given them passes to be on the sideline for pregame. It’s impressive to see him go out on any given Sunday. ... He doesn’t mind listening and he wants to hear what fans have to say. I think it’s almost a family trait.”

Hunt admits he’s done it so long, and learned from the master, that it’s just ingrained at this point.

“I did it a lot with my dad,” he said. “Particularly the last 10 or 15 years of his life.”

He remembers another thing his father would do at the stadium, right before kickoff.

“He’d kiss my mom on the cheek for good luck.”

These days, especially if the score is a close one, Clark and wife Tavia will take a few minutes to pray together. Often it’s a prayer for strength.

“That I will be the right kind of leader for whatever the day requires.”

A ‘good job’

Along Interstate 35, just before Cambridge Circle as you’re coming into Kansas City from the south, the massive billboard looms. And for a few seconds, there’s an image of the trophy that will be presented Sunday.

The words with the image read: “BRING IT HOME”

That same urgency came through all week on KC sports radio shows as hosts every hour on the hour — and some days more — talked about what it would be like. First, the Lamar Hunt trophy. Then ...

Could this really be the year?

Bakeries are selling dozen after dozen of cookies shaped like arrowheads and grade-school kids are asking moms and dads for a hairstyle like Mahomes’, the one where curls of hair hang down over a signature Chiefs headband.

Clark Hunt might not be the focus of fans’ attention, but what he has been building in recent years is. Those in Chiefs circles, who have been watching him his whole life, say this is his moment. This is his team.

“I think when it’s all said and done, people will understand that Clark is his own person,” Cherry said. “He learned from his dad, but he set a direction and tone for this team in his own way. He’s done it his own way.”

Kremer agreed.

”I think he’s hired his own people. He’s hired his own coach,” he said. “In my mind he’s done a great job of putting his stamp on this version of the Chiefs.”

In the book “Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports,” author Michael MacCambridge paints a picture of the revered owner’s last days around family and friends. At one point, Lamar had time alone with Clark.

The author described the moment and the words father and son spoke.

“I’ve worked hard to create some businesses that I think are really outstanding,” Lamar told Clark. “I know you’re going to do a great job looking after them. I’d like to think that I had some ability myself, but I know you’ll do fine.”

Clark, according to MacCambridge’s book, responded: “I will do my absolute best. And I’ll work as hard as I can.”

Three days before the biggest game in his tenure as chairman, Clark Hunt struggled with one question. What would his dad think of the job he’s done getting the team here?

“Well,” he said with a pause. It was clear he would deflect here.

“I think he would be excited primarily for the fans,” Clark said. “But I also think he would be very excited about the quality of the people that the organization is doing it with. The team, Mahomes and (Justin) Houston, Andy Reid and Brett Veach. The leadership team, I think he would be so excited for them.”

But what about what he’s done? Him personally.

Hunt still struggled, uneasy about making any of this about him.

He thought back to his high school and college sporting days. Football and soccer, then soccer at Southern Methodist University.

“It was always so special when something good happened on the field and he congratulated me,” Clark said, a bit nostalgic with the memory. “He wasn’t somebody who had to use a whole bunch of words to tell you what he was thinking.”

A “good job” could mean everything.

And today, here in Kansas City, he expects his father would say something simple like that.

“He would congratulate me,” Clark said, nodding his head and smiling.

And that would mean everything.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Laura Bauer came to The Star in 2005 after spending much of her life in southwest Missouri. She’s a member of the investigative team focusing on watchdog journalism. In her 25-year career, Laura’s stories on child welfare, human trafficking, crime and Kansas secrecy have been nationally recognized.
  Comments