A quarter-century has passed since the Chiefs’ previous AFC Championship Game appearance. It’s been nearly 50 years since they last won a conference or league title.
So when the Chiefs battle the New England Patriots on Sunday, with the winner heading to the Super Bowl, they’ll have the support not only of those in Arrowhead Stadium but players who wore the uniform and didn’t get this far or take the final step.
“This is so meaningful for generations of Kansas City players,” said Tim Grunhard, who spent all 11 of his NFL seasons as a Chiefs center.
The Chiefs have a strong alumni chapter. Every year a former player is inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor, and the ceremony attracts several former players and coaches. Former tight end Tony Gonzalez was honored this season.
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Also, the team created a program — Chiefs Ambassadors — made up of former players who represent the Chiefs in public and at charitable functions. Pro Football Hall of Famers Bobby Bell and Jan Stenerud are part of this group.
“Hey, we’re part of the family, like that crazy uncle that only shows up at the holiday parties,” Grunhard said. “But every alumni and ambassador I talk to couldn’t be happier for this team.”
Many never got as far as these Chiefs. Since winning Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs have appeared in the postseason 17 times including this season. Their only other AFC title game occurred after the 1993 season. Joe Montana was the quarterback, but the Chiefs lost 30-13 at the Buffalo Bills.
Keith Cash was a tight end on four Chiefs playoff teams in the 1990s, including the one that lost at Buffalo. A week earlier, Cash’s touchdown reception in the divisional-round game at the Houston Oilers got the Chiefs on the board, and he punctuated the play by firing the ball against a hanging banner that included an image of Oilers defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
“That was a good team, and you never know if you’re going to get back to that spot,” Cash said. “I’m just a fan now, but as an Ambassador you feel like a little part of it.”
Cornerback Jayice Pearson played on three Chiefs playoff teams, the last in 1992. He was part of the team’s resurgence when coach Marty Schottenheimer and general manager Carl Peterson arrived after 1988 and saw Arrowhead Stadium grow from an echo chamber to a spectacle.
He finds himself in an odd spot, cheering for a team without wearing its uniform.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling,” Pearson said. “You didn’t have a direct part in this. You’re not a player and you feel more like a fan. But I’m really happy for all those (current) guys, getting to experience this. It’s a fun team to watch.”
It’s a record-setting team, too, and the highest-scoring in team history. Patrick Mahomes obliterated the franchise’s single-season passing records, throwing for 50 touchdowns and 5,097 yards. And over the past two games, including a playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs’ defense has stepped up and allowed just one defensive touchdown.
“The city is excited and we all feel a part of that,” Cash said.
There is a way for the alumni to feel a stronger connection, Pearson said.
A championship ring is guaranteed for Sunday’s winner: a Super Bowl ring or an AFC Championship ring, if Sunday’s winner loses the final game.
Pearson and Cash say they want in on that.
“We’re hoping they don’t forget us old guys,” Pearson said.
“Hey, look I know I’m just an old cat that played 25 years ago,” Cash said with a smile. “Now I’m not looking for one of those big ones, but maybe a middle-tier one.”