Sam Mellinger

After five years away, Carl Peterson thrilled to return to Arrowhead

Carl Peterson in 2010
Carl Peterson in 2010 The Associated Press

The best part was being part of it again. The smoke from the grills in the parking lot smells better, somehow, after five years away.

Carl Peterson was at a Chiefs game on Sunday. Again. Finally. He was there primarily to watch one of his old stars, Priest Holmes, be inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. But he was also at Arrowhead Stadium to move on from what sometimes felt like five years of exile.

Peterson hadn’t been to a game at Arrowhead since what was technically his resignation at the end of the 2008 season. The Chiefs hired Scott Pioli to replace Peterson as general manager, and right or wrong, players and officials from the past began to feel less welcome and sometimes even dismissed.

“Disappointing, but not surprised,” Peterson says. “I think my successor at the GM spot, Scott Pioli, for whatever reason had a real concern about bringing back or connecting the past with the future. That was a reason that I was not invited, I’m certain of that.”

There is a bit of conflicting memories here. A Chiefs spokesman says Peterson was invited to “multiple events,” including at least one alumni weekend that included a game. The spokesman also said Peterson attended a retirement party for a longtime staffer at Arrowhead in 2010. Peterson said he didn’t remember the retirement party and is adamant that he was never invited to a game.

The distance hurt him, and it’s something he’s talked about privately over the years. Behind the scenes, Pioli often talked about the Chiefs’ history in general, and Peterson’s time in charge specifically, as something to walk away from rather than be proud.

The most visible part of this was the Ring of Honor at Arrowhead being replaced by an electronic ribbon board before public sentiment demanded it be changed back.

For whatever reason, Peterson became a flashpoint of sorts during Pioli’s time in charge of the Chiefs. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t welcomed back for games. He was actively badmouthed.

For Peterson, the worst was probably not being invited for Marty Schottenheimer’s Ring of Honor ceremony in 2010.

Schottenheimer was the first hire Peterson made after taking the job in December 1988, and together they turned the Chiefs from afterthought to rock stars in Kansas City with a team that was among the leaders in wins in the 1990s.

Peterson had Lamar Hunt as a boss, of course, but Hunt’s main directive to Peterson was to fill Arrowhead and build a terrific game-day experience. The biggest part of that is winning, but it also means helping cultivate what might be the country’s best tailgating scene, smoke rising from grills across an enormous parking lot on Sundays every fall.

It wasn’t always like that, you know. The year before Peterson took over the Chiefs, they averaged just more than 50,000 fans a game. That rose to just more than 60,000 his first year, just more than 70,000 in his second year, and nearly 75,000 in his third year. It wasn’t all Peterson’s doing. He got on just as the NFL was exploding across the country. But it’s probably true that for two full decades, no one person spent more time working at filling Arrowhead than Peterson.

So, yeah. Of course it was great to be part of that again this weekend.

“Without question,” he says. “I missed it.”

Peterson is in a strange place in Chiefs history. He was the leader of a franchise resurgence, the man in charge when the Chiefs drafted Derrick Thomas, traded for Joe Montana and signed Marcus Allen. He and Schottenheimer built ferocious defenses in the 1990s, and then he and Dick Vermeil built beautiful offenses in the 2000s.

But the Chiefs never made it back to the Super Bowl in Peterson’s 20 years and didn’t win a playoff game in the last 15.

So Peterson resigned after the 2008 season, when the Chiefs were 2-14. They had won fewer games for three straight seasons, and had only made the playoffs twice since 1997. Beating up on that record was easy, so when Pioli and his coach Todd Haley saw something they didn’t like, they often called it “two and 14.”

We know how that turned out. The Chiefs made the playoffs in their second season under Pioli and Haley but then deteriorated from there, lowlighted by their own 2-14 in 2012, a season that came with so much drama and a mutual dislike between the front office and fans that it became something of a civic embarrassment.

Peterson never stopped loving the Chiefs. Two decades is a long time. The healing began after Pioli was fired. Peterson has known current coach Andy Reid for years, and has a good relationship with general manager John Dorsey.

He came back to Arrowhead for a special screening of “Derrick Thomas: A Football Life” last September. Peterson heard words of encouragement there from old friends, he says, including Clark Hunt. He wanted to come back for a game, but when asked about it, always said the situation had to be right, which was basically code for “I just want to be invited.”

The invitation came with the planning of Holmes’ induction. Some 77 alumni were said to be there, one of the biggest turnouts they’ve ever had, which one former player said “absolutely” was partly due to a renewed commitment from the team to honor the past.

After the game on Sunday, Peterson talked about his day the way an old graduate might talk about homecoming at his university. So many old faces. Allen. Willie Roaf. Will Shields. Schottenheimer and his wife, Pat, who Peterson was not sure he’d see. Ed Podolak. Bobby Bell. Tim Grunhard. On and and on.

Peterson even talked with Reid, briefly, just before the second half started. He saw Tammy, the coach’s wife, who told him that all the good things he’d said about Kansas City were being proved right. There was a certain relief in Peterson’s voice as he talked about all of this, a tone that was noticeably different than when he’d talked about the frustration of being separated from the franchise he most identifies with for those five years.

“Time moves on, water flows under the bridge,” he says. “Whatever created — and I hope it wasn’t me — the animosity or whatever the right word is, in my opinion, doesn’t exist. I will always, always, have a huge spot in my heart for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Chiefs’ fans.”

As it happened, this was Peterson’s second game this fall at the Truman Sports Complex. The Royals invited him to the first game of the World Series last month. Peterson saw old friends there, too, from David Glass to George Brett, and from John Schuerholz to Dayton Moore.

It’s striking sometimes to think about how long Peterson was such a big part of our sports scene. When he took over the Chiefs, Bo Jackson was playing left field for the Royals and running back for the Raiders. Brett won his last batting title and collected his 3,000th hit after Peterson joined the Chiefs.

For a while, that longevity was presented as a negative. So it was good for Peterson to feel it celebrated again. Friends and strangers at both games — the World Series and the win over the Jets — talked about old touchdowns and sacks.

It’s nice to be appreciated, especially after years of feeling the opposite.

“I was knocked over with the number of fans who stopped and said, ‘Thank you, and how about those Royals?’” Peterson says.

He pauses.

“You know, it’s better to dwell on the positive than the negative.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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