A man you’ve never heard of but whose work you’ve almost certainly seen is here to tell you about the time he almost got into a fistfight with Warren Sapp in front of 70,000 people, and many more watching on television.
“He started it,” Ken Bradshaw says. Bradshaw is 75 years old, and his straight face tells you he is not joking.
Bradshaw and his wife raised five kids, and much of the rest of his life has revolved around sports. Sold sports equipment, reffed high school and college games, scouted for the Phillies.
The most precious of those experiences may have been working on the chain crew at Chiefs games.
He started in 1970, for $15 per game, which means he’s been on the chain crew longer than Arrowhead Stadium has existed.
He’s worked the sideline with every Chiefs coach in history, from Hank Stram to Andy Reid, 47 years in the middle of the weekly chaos. He was the longest-tenured employee on the field in Chiefs history. He has been with the team long enough that quite literally everything around him changed but the chain he held, close enough to dog-cuss a future Hall of Fame lineman.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” he said.
Bradshaw and his crew were coming onto the field for a measurement. Players are supposed to stay back, in part to make the process quicker, in part to not influence, and in part so the cameras can zoom in on the drama.
Well, Sapp wasn’t staying back. And Bradshaw — at least in his telling of the story — politely but directly asked the 6-foot-2, 300-pound man to move.
“He jumped my ass,” Bradshaw said. “It was, ‘Oh, you’re getting paid to do this, shut up and do your job.’ So I turned around.”
Bradshaw pauses. He’s told this story before. It’s a good one.
“I said, ‘I don’t need to hear from a fat (expletive) like you,’” he said.
That’s when Sapp got nose to nose to Bradshaw, or at least nose to facemask. Hard to tell who was cussing the other worse.
“I was scared out of my mind,” said Kenny, Ken’s son, who was working the sideline that day, too. “I’m standing behind him thinking, ‘What do I do if Warren Sapp hits my dad?’”
Kenny likes to tell people he always assumed his dad would die on the sideline, and that he’d have to finish the game, because that’s what he’d want. He meant that his dad would never give it up, and work himself to exhaustion, but as it turns out the closest he ever came might’ve been seeing if one of the game’s best and meanest linemen would take a swing.
“Yeah,” Ken said, pointing to his own cheek. “But if he hits me, I’ve got a nice lawsuit.”
This will be the first Chiefs season since 1969 without Bradshaw on the sideline. Kenny will be working his 18th year on the sidelines, so the family will still be represented at Arrowhead, but it won’t be the same. Can’t be the same. He’s done, having quit after last season, time finally catching up but the memories living on.
“I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” he said, and presumably he even means that time Bennie Thompson cracked seven of his ribs with a blindside hit.
That’s a good story, too, and we’ll get to it soon. But first, it’s impossible to overstate how much Bradshaw loves the Chiefs. Some of his life’s favorite memories are from games — some of his life’s least favorite, too, but you know how that goes — and he talks about the team in the first person.
He is still not quite over the Christmas Day game in 1971, and don’t get him started on Steve Bono.
“He was salty on the sidelines, I do remember that,” said former Chief Tim Grunhard. “He’d run out with the chain and be pumping his fists if we got the first down, and it was like, ‘Is that legal?’ I’m sure the other team was like, ‘What the hell?’ He was a staple of those teams, always there, part of the team, the good times and the bad times.”
Oh, yes, Bradshaw has seen some stuff. He remembers the awkward way a football field crammed into Municipal Stadium, and games where they only needed one ball. Now, each team brings its own, and the kickers use a different one that even has its own ball boy.
Bradshaw used to referee all the Chiefs’ practices, so he got to know all of the players well. Guys were fined for penalties in practices — just $5 a pop, but that adds up over a full season — so he heard plenty from players who thought he was in their pocket.
Once, after too many fumbles against the Seahawks, Marty Schottenheimer came up with what he called The Seattle Rule. Whoever had the ball last had to hand it to the official, or they’d be fined. Some of them would forget, and Bradshaw would try to politely remind them, under his breath, so Schottenheimer wouldn’t notice. He really was a good fan.
Bradshaw thinks Stram was the Chiefs’ best coach, because of the Super Bowl, and that Schottenheimer was his favorite, because, well, for a lot of reasons.
Schottenheimer was the best at coaching all phases, not like Dick Vermeil, who was only interested in offense and hardly said anything during practice. But some of it was personal, too. Schottenheimer treated Bradshaw well, joked with him, and Bradshaw always appreciated that.
Bradshaw remembers assistant coach Joe Spencer playing a joke on the notoriously hot-headed Marv Levy, waiting for a lull in the action to walk behind the head coach and invent some slight on the field, watching and laughing as Levy threw his hat and cussed the officials.
Bradshaw remembers the Chiefs’ Deron Cherry — a college punter, by the way — kicking a ball so high he believes it’s still stuck in the team’s indoor practice facility. Speaking of punters, Bradshaw remembers one getting a burst of helium into a ball, and punting it so high and so far the officials knew something was up.
He’s been on the sideline when a chain broke, and when the down-marker box broke (he threw it away in trying to avoid a collision). He’s cursed missed field goals, and he’s cheered sacks, always at least trying to keep a straight face.
The basics of Bradshaw’s old job — a steel chain measuring exactly 10 yards to determine first downs — haven’t changed much.
But everything else has. The players are faster, the equipment better, the coaches privy to so much more technology. Bradshaw started working the sidelines when games were rarely broadcast on television. Now they’re all on TV, many nationally and internationally, in high-definition and in different languages.
Even the fields are different — stadiums bigger, goal posts moved back, new playing surfaces. Television tries to approximate Bradshaw’s job with that yellow line.
Bradshaw remembers a football trade show where a man had a way to embed technology into a ball to automatically determine whether a first down was earned. He guesses that was 40 years ago. But the old way of that steel chain has never changed, thanks to some combination of tradition and the league enjoying the drama of a close measurement.
There are a few dirty little secrets about Bradshaw’s line of work. The first is that nothing a chain crew does is exact. It’s all subject to human error and estimation, from where the chains are placed to where the 5-yard clip is hooked on the chain to where the referee spots the ball.
In recent years, officials have grown more brazen in those spots, too. Particularly outside of two-minute drills, they’ll routinely move a ball a half-yard or more to line it up on a yard line. That makes a potential measurement easier, and often unnecessary. Speeds up the game, too, though Bradshaw thinks this is a sign of laziness from the referees.
None of that is Bradshaw’s worry anymore, though, and he’ll be safer now, too. No more potential collisions on every snap.
And now it’s time for that Bennie Thompson story.
“I liked Bennie,” Bradshaw said. “But he was the craziest sumbitch I ever knew in my life.”
It happened during one of those practices Bradshaw used to referee, and he still has tape of the play at home. Forty-three lead. It was a handoff to one side, a run between the guard and tackle. Thompson didn’t have run coverage on the play, but that hardly mattered.
The play came toward Bradshaw, which would’ve been fine, except Thompson burst up from his safety position for the kind of flying-hero tackle that’s by now long since prohibited. He never made it to the ball carrier, though, because his head speared into Bradshaw’s back.
Seven ribs, cracked.
“I couldn’t hardly breathe,” Bradshaw said. “I was crawling out of there. Kind of hurt my feelings that nobody cared.”
Bradshaw guesses the trainers didn’t see it. The collision happened toward the end of practice, and a lot of times they’re packing up by then. The pain was bad enough that he missed missed two weeks and wore pads when he came back ... and none of this is the takeaway from Thompson’s blindside hit.
Because those are the only two games Bradshaw missed in 47 years.
When the Chiefs’ players and coaches heard what happened, they sent him a card.
Schottenheimer signed it: Get back to work.
“I told you I always liked him,” Bradshaw said as he told the story. “I liked them all. Every minute. I’m going to miss it.”