Maybe you’re familiar with the story of the Chiefs’ role as pioneers in professional football’s integration. The team’s commitment should stand with the points of local pride such as barbecue and jazz, the kind of thing we brag about.
The short version goes like this:
By the time the Chiefs arrived in Kansas City, owner Lamar Hunt and coach Hank Stram had established themselves as equal-opportunity employers. With the Dallas Texans, Hunt had signed Abner Haynes, the first African-American to play at a predominately white four-year Texas college, North Texas. The Chiefs also hired the first black scout pro football scout, Lloyd Wells.
When Hunt brought the Texans to Kansas City, his ahead-of-the-curve race relations continued with the drafting and signing of players from historically black colleges. Wells helped bring Buck Buchanan from Grambling, Otis Taylor from Prairie View A&M, Willie Lanier from Morgan State, Gloster Richardson from Jackson State and Emmitt Thomas from Bishop College.
Stram made sure the best played, no matter their backgrounds.
Other AFL and NFL teams drafted players from black colleges, but no organization had the inside track like the Chiefs. Lanier became pro football’s first black middle linebacker. In 1969, the Chiefs became the first championship team with a majority of black starters.
Two occasions provide an opportunity to remember this chapter in history. This season marks the Chiefs’ 50th anniversary in Kansas City, making 2013 an appropriate time to reflect on the organization and its meaning to the region.
Also, teams from historically black colleges will play Saturday at Arrowhead Stadiium. Grambling faces Lincoln University for a 4:30 p.m. kickoff in a game billed as the Missouri Classic.
The game marks the first of two college contests at Arrowhead this season, with Northwest Missouri State facing Pittsburg State next month in Fall Classic XII. They’ll be the 31st and 32nd college games in Arrowhead.
Grambling played in the first, in 1972, the year the stadium opened. The Chiefs had played four preseason and one regular-season game at Arrowhead when the Tigers, coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson, beat Mississippi Valley State 27-21. In 2000, when Kansas State played Iowa in a game called the Eddie Robinson Classic, I asked Hunt how the original college contest had come about.
“I really can’t remember,” said Hunt, who died in 2006. “Over the years, we talked about trying to create a ‘classic’ game between historically black colleges but it never came about.”
Clark Hunt, Lamar’s son and Chiefs chairman and CEO, wasn’t surprised to hear about his father deflecting credit.
“When he was younger, he regularly attended Grambling games,” Clark Hunt said. “So there was a connection.”
Clark, 48, said Lamar never talked much about those old days and how the Chiefs came together largely because of his father’s foresightedness.
“That was the way he was, he never had a bias against anybody in his life,” Clark Hunt said. “And it wasn’t like him to talk about strategies that proved to be successful. But he and Hank Stram were on the same page about this.”
Doug Williams, the former Grambling quarterback and Super Bowl MVP, who was fired as the Tigers’ coach this week, said when the game was announced that the Chiefs held a special place in the Grambling program because of the history of Hunt, Stram and Wells.
Grambling, once described as the Notre Dame of black colleges because of its national popularity, is — along with other historically black colleges — an important part of the Chiefs’ past.
In the turbulent 1960s, no city or team was immune to race issues. But few teams at the time had a better recent history of open-mindedness and tolerance. The payoff was a cohesive team, a decadelong stretch of success, a Super Bowl trophy.
And a proud part of Kansas City’s history.