Maybe the Chiefs’ bizarre playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans last week at Arrowhead Stadium could be shrugged off if it were an isolated episode of the bewildering, from the sheer fiasco of flubbing a 21-3 lead, to Marcus Mariota’s touchdown pass to himself, to the incompetent officiating interpretation of “forward progress.”
Alas, it was only the latest in an interminable series of inexplicable phenomena to afflict the Chiefs in the postseason — during which they’ve won just two home games in franchise history, triumphed in just four of 20 playoff chances since winning the 1970 Super Bowl, and often have lost in circumstances flush with ridiculous twists of fate.
Even for those of us who don’t subscribe much to the supernatural, it’s impossible not to wonder how this mind-boggling stuff keeps happening … and whether something beyond the rational and explainable is at play.
How else to explain the fact that the Chiefs have not won a home playoff game since aging Joe Montana was their quarterback more than 20 years ago?
In the wake of the Chiefs’ latest misadventure, we heard from plenty of fans invoking theories of hexes at play: jinxed carryover from the agonizing way they lost their last game at Municipal Stadium in 1971; peculiarities about Arrowhead Stadium itself and the history of the grounds; how Hank Stram was fired …
And a spell that was, in fact, cast on the Chiefs and Washington amid their 1992 game at Arrowhead.
Call it coincidence, but … the Chiefs are 3-12 with all manner of debacles in the postseason since then.
After fans mocked American Indian protesters and engaged in the tomahawk chop despite pleas that they not do so that day, Dennis Banks, one of the group’s leaders and a founder of the American Indian Movement, put it bluntly:
“We’re asking a curse to be put on their games, the participants and the owners. ... It’s not voodoo. Strange things will happen. I believe in that,” Banks said, according to USA Today.
The “strange things,” he said, could include anything from injuries to persistent bad weather to … issues in the playoffs.
“Only another ceremony can undo that,” said Banks, who died last year. “I feel the owners and players will beg us to hold that ceremony.”
John Learned, founder and president of the American Indian Center of the Great Plains, confirmed his awareness of the curse.
And while he applauds much of what the Chiefs have done since then to address such concerns, he also believes it’s time the Chiefs go all-in on a healing ceremony that would necessarily include owner Clark Hunt and require the participation of specific Indian shamans.
“The Chiefs would have to embrace it,” he said. “It can’t be a publicity stunt; it has to be real pure, from the heart.”
And that’s not the only sort of sorcery people have been left to ponder.
The subject line on the email from John Turner read: “The Curse of Hank Stram Strikes Again!”
“The Chiefs won more games than any other team during the ten seasons of the AFL under Coach Stram,” he wrote. “The Chiefs won three AFL championships and went to two Super Bowls under Coach Stram.”
Nothing “pains me more,” he added, than to recall the “shoddy way” Lamar Hunt treated Stram after the 1974 season.
That was a reference to Hunt, the late founder and then-owner of the franchise, resorting to telephoning Stram to tell him he was fired after the declining Chiefs had gone 5-9. Stram had been in San Francisco scouting the East-West Shrine Game at the time.
Prowl around the Internet some, and you’ll find a few entries — without attribution, it should be noted — that treat the proposed whammy as fact.
One goes as far as to declare that Stram put a curse on the team by saying it would never return to the Super Bowl until he wore red again, and that he died without doing so.
In Turner’s case, he later clarified that he wasn’t claiming Stram put a curse on the Chiefs, but that “the curse was self-inflicted by the actions of Lamar Hunt toward the coach and thus carries his name.”
As it happens, though, Hunt was so despondent about firing Stram that he flew to California that day to meet with him.
“That (curse idea) is crazy,” said Stram’s son Dale, noting the Hunts remained like family to the Strams and that his father often wore red in his later years.
He added: “He lays dormant while they lose, and he’s definitely resurrected during the times when they win.”
As hexes go, Dale Stram recalled only the one that family friend Muhammad Ali briefly and playfully cast on his father in 1974 before lifting it moments later.
“Hank Stram, I’m going to put a curse on you,” Ali said before an exhibition at Kemper Arena, looking up at Stram’s seat in a suite and waving his hand across the crowd to reinforce it. “From now on, you’ll never win another football game until I OK it.”
Seconds later, per an Associated Press report, Ali said, “I take it back: Hank Stram’s a good man. The Chiefs will do all right in Denver Monday night. They’ll win.”
So they did, 42-34.
If only Ali had prophesied a more extended streak: The Chiefs then lost three of their last four, sealing Stram’s downfall.
Some muse that the Chiefs’ fortunes changed when they moved from gritty Municipal Stadium to swanky Arrowhead in 1972.
If inclined toward some of this mysticism, a case could be made that the mojo of the last game at Municipal — the Christmas Day 1971 playoff loss to the Miami Dolphins — was summoned along with a loss to the Dolphins in the first regular-season game at Arrowhead.
“The double-overtime loss to the Dolphins was the beginning of the curse,” lifelong Chiefs fan Paul Blackman texted after last weekend’s loss to the Titans.
Blackman added that he believed the era of Arrowhead has meant a palpable change in the Chiefs’ identity, or at least that of its fan base: from an “everyman’s team,” with the shared experience of sitting outside in the same conditions, to an atmosphere divided by creature comforts.
“I tell you what, just from my dad’s standpoint, it was never the same once they moved out of Municipal,” Dale Stram said.
To what degree that affected performance is hard to discern, though, and Blackman acknowledged it’s difficult to reconcile that with the success other organizations have had while moving from old digs to new.
Plus, it bears mention that while the Chiefs have lost six straight playoff games at Arrowhead since 1994, they never won one at Municipal. Each of their Super Bowl berths came via road games. In fact, the only playoff game contested at Municipal was that Dolphins game.
Other elements of Arrowhead, though, have given pause.
One reader, Steve Frazier, recalled the death of a construction worker weeks before the stadium opened in 1972, and wrote, “I have a feeling personally that the entire stadium is jinxed … too many weird things.”
The worker was Harold L. Bratton, 26, of Bucyrus, Kan.. He died a month before the stadium debuted when the boom of a crane bearing five men in a sound cage abruptly gave way, struck the rim of the stadium and collapsed.
The four other men who dropped some 175 feet into Section 110 of the stadium survived.
Investigators later determined that there was no violation of federal safety and health standards that day, but also noted “there is no precedent for this type of break.”
This was a haunting scene in itself, of course, and Frazier has remained conscious of Bratton all these years.
Even at a Jethro Tull concert at Arrowhead in 1976, it seemed eerie to him to know “this poor soul (was) floating around the stadium.”
“Someone needs to memorialize him,” he later wrote. “This article just might be suitable and God bless his family.”
Meanwhile, another bad vibe gained momentum.
Rumor was that popular syndicated astrology columnist Jeane Dixon had forecast the collapse of the stadium itself during the Chiefs’ Nov. 5, 1972 game against Oakland.
The murmurs were debunked by then-Star writer Bill Tammeus, who called Dixon in her Washington office.
“I didn’t know you had an Arrowhead Stadium,” she said, which Tammeus noted “put a dent in the report but also a kick in the chin of local pride.”
Dixon added that she would never forecast such a thing and added, “When the Kansas City Chiefs play, they play with my prayers.”
So the Chiefs had that going for them — at least until Dixon died in 1997.
But what about the site itself, where 5 million yards of earth and rock had to be removed from 370 acres that was formerly mainly farmland or undeveloped to make way for that half of the Truman Sports Complex?
Some have speculated about whether Arrowhead had been built on some sacred ancient burial ground.
We couldn’t confirm or deny that possibility despite hours of research (aided by several remarkably kind staff members of the Midwest Genealogy Center), so that will have to be left to another time.
Still, we know this:
The state of Missouri derives its name from the Missouria tribe, and many others once thrived in the region.
And sometime after the groundbreaking of the sports complex in 1968, Chiefs historian Bob Moore reminds, an in-house publication reported that arrowheads had been found during early excavation, inspiring Hunt’s name for the stadium.
Moore qualifies that as possibly a rumor, so it’s hard to know the depth of the specific long-term history of the grounds beyond what Independence mayor Eileen Weir can say with certainty:
A pioneer set foot on every inch of Independence, noted Weir, who formerly worked in public relations for the Chiefs.
“For all you know, there might have been a Civil War battle there,” Learned said.
Whatever transpired on the specific site there over the centuries is part of a mystery that intrigues Curt Nelson, director of the Royals Hall of Fame and dedicated historian of the franchise.
After all, a few hundred yards to the north and even through hard times of their own, the Royals have played in four World Series and won two.
“Maybe there is some sort of curse on that south side of the land?” Nelson said, adding that perhaps things would be different for both franchises if the stadium sites were reversed.
As an avid Chiefs fan, he added, “What’s the antidote?”
To understand the antidote, of course, requires understanding what needs to be cured or appeased, or at least addressed.
And whatever you think about jinxes, hexes or curses, maybe it’s worth considering what was really put to the Chiefs and their fans that November day in 1992.
Is it more important to continue to make sounds and gestures you think emulate Indians, or adorn yourself in feathers and/or warpaint or appropriate artifacts, than it is to respect the fact that many find this hurtful?
In the days before the game, the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and The Media convened here in Kansas City because of the Chiefs’ matchup with Washington, whose derogatory nickname the Star doesn’t use.
By game day, tensions were heightened by a recent development. The Chiefs cited fan demand in reversing course on a commitment to stop promoting the tomahawk chop.
To do so, the Chiefs took out a full-page ad in The Star that said the intent of such rituals wasn’t to insult or ridicule, but to create another symbol of team support and another way for fans to get caught up in the moment.
“If no offense is intended,” the ad said in part, “why then must offense be taken?”
Learned, who has worked with the Chiefs and is generally pleased with the direction they’ve taken, disagrees that the chop in itself is problematic.
But it’s undeniably offensive to many American Indians and part of a broader issue for all.
The panorama was all on display on Nov. 15, 1992, when the 300 or so protesters who arrived at dawn to begin burning sage were outnumbered at times by surrounding fans.
While the rally was generally peaceful, The Star reported, two men ran up to protesters shouting and shaking rubber tomahawks. Others made so-called war whoops and sang “Ten Little Indians,” or made obscene hand gestures.
One bare-chested fan wore paint and a plastic war bonnet and said, “If I were an Indian, I would appreciate people dressing up like me.”
In a turn that connects to today, fans reportedly were most angered by protesters holding a flag upside down, chanting “turn the flag” or “respect the flag.”
“We love football just like you do,” Vernon Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement, explained. “But we are holding the flag upside down like that as a symbol of our distress.”
For all the other scourges to contemplate, that curse we at least know actually was cast — from Banks’ declaration to Learned’s confirmation to an email from reader Phillip Wall, a retired Kansas City firefighter whose note triggered the research.
When he was volunteering with Visible Horizons, a Native American youth organization, Wall said he met a delegation of three shamans from Pine Ridge, S.D., in 1992. He said they were prepared to cast the curse.
“Native American mysticism is interesting,” Wall said, adding. “Stands to reason …”
In fact, the Chiefs have come a long way since those times, with K.C. Wolf rising as the innocuous mascot and Chiefs Cheerleader and equine therapist Susie DeRouchey riding the team’s “Warpaint” horse (a man in Indian garb held her role until 1989).
And while the Chiefs’ usage of the drum remains problematic to those who understand its more solemn history, progress can be found in the fact that the franchise has demonstrated an interest in learning more and educating others about the meaning, and that the drum now is blessed by representatives of the American Indian community.
Moreover, as Learned told The Star’s Blair Kerkhoff last fall, he sees fewer fans with headdreses and face paint at games now and notes that the Chiefs have asked their broadcast partners not to show fans wearing such regalia.
Still, he’d like to see those getups banned altogether.
More to the point, he’d like the Chiefs to consider owning this in a new way with a healing ceremony.
“If the Chiefs were sincere about it,” Learned said, “all the tribes in America would be behind them.”
Blair Kerkhoff contributed to this piece. @blairkerkhoff