Vahe Gregorian

Former Chiefs coach Hank Stram’s legacy looms large

Before the Chiefs played in Super Bowl I, a TV variety show called “The Hollywood Palace” invited coach Hank Stram and running back Mike Garrett to appear. They took this photo with, from left, Jimmy Durante, Dale Stram, Phyllis Stram (to the right of her husband and Garrett), Henry Stram (in front of Phyllis), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Before the Chiefs played in Super Bowl I, a TV variety show called “The Hollywood Palace” invited coach Hank Stram and running back Mike Garrett to appear. They took this photo with, from left, Jimmy Durante, Dale Stram, Phyllis Stram (to the right of her husband and Garrett), Henry Stram (in front of Phyllis), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

At precisely noon on a steamy Louisiana Fourth of July in 2005, Dale Stram was prepping a property to be seen by a prospective buyer when he was startled by a fleeting gust of cool air.

Returning to his car and phone about a half hour later, he saw he had missed numerous calls from his wife, Janet, and St. Tammany Parish hospital, where his father, Hank, had been in the hospice unit.

He frantically called Janet to confirm what he knew.

Then he pleaded with his puzzled wife to tell him the exact time Hank Stram had died.

It had been high noon, as it happened.

The convergence of timing had profound spiritual meaning to Dale Stram, who had been at his father’s side virtually day and night through his last years spent battling debilitating illnesses.

“It was like Dad on his way out hit me with this thing that gave me this great peace, this feeling that everything was going to kind of be all right,” he said. “It was unbelievably powerful.”

Such was the force of nature that was Hank Stram, whose vast and fascinating legacy still flourishes and swirls all around us and the game he helped morph into its modern form.

Dale Stram, son of original Chiefs coach Hank Stram, takes Star columnist Vahe Gregorian on a tour back through time, showing off some treasured artifacts from Stram's personal memorabilia collection. One of three parts.

That’s more acutely so as Super Bowl 50 on Sunday harkens to the first edition of the game, which matched Stram’s Chiefs of the upstart AFL against the Green Bay Packers of the establishment NFL.

There never was and never will be another one like Stram, the colorful, charming, staccato-chirping innovator who three years after the devastating 35-10 loss guided the Chiefs to their only Super Bowl triumph with a 23-7 clobbering of Minnesota.

Such memories surged toward his widow, Phyllis, in the Arrowhead Stadium tunnel at halftime of the Chiefs’ Sept. 17 game with Denver during a reunion of Chiefs Super Bowl teams.

Surrounded by players her husband loved and who loved him, all so much older now, others conspicuous by their absence, she sat and cried.

“God, there’s almost more dead than alive now,” she said as she recently sat in the living room of Dale and his wife, Janet.

Eyes moistening again as she thought of the September ceremony, she said, “The happiness and sadness of the moment just got to me.”

She added, “He was a pretty special little fella.”

On the eve of an event commemorating Stram’s ascent into the national spotlight, The Star met with several family members to reflect on what made him a phenomenon and events surrounding the first Super Bowl.

The son of Polish immigrants, Stram was born Henry Wilczek in Chicago in 1923. His father, Henry, was a tailor by trade and a wrestler by avocation.

Hence … the “wrestling tailor.”

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Stu Stram, another of Stram’s six children.

The origin of the Stram surname has been considered a mystery about ever since it became attached to Stram’s father’s wrestling name.

But Dale Stram has determined his grandfather had a German trainer who called him “stramm,” roughly translated as “strapping” or “sturdy.”

Dale Stram, son of original Chiefs coach Hank Stram, takes Star columnist Vahe Gregorian on a tour back through time, showing off some treasured artifacts from Stram's personal memorabilia collection. Second of three parts.

An “m” somehow got dropped, and when Hank Stram enlisted in the Army in 1943 he took the name legally.

By then, the wrestling tailor had been dead for some eight years.

It wouldn’t be until his early 20s, Dale Stram said, that Hank Stram learned his father had committed suicide, a crushing fact his mother, Nellie, had hushed to protect him.

Dale Stram wonders to this day what impact that twist had on his father, who adored his mother and took from her a work ethic reflected in opening a restaurant to make ends meet for Hank and his sister, Dolly.

But Dale is certain that losing his father young was why Hank Stram grappled with insecurity some saw as cockiness and saw coaches as father figures as he was growing up in Gary, Ind. — and that’s why he took to heart his role as a mentor even to pro players.

And Dale also knows that his grandfather had an indelible influence on his father, especially in his flair for showmanship and obsession with clothes and being well-groomed and well-dressed at all times.

So as a child on the sidelines at Chiefs games, he had to wear a sports coat even though his duties were such grunt work as cleaning cleats with a tongue depressor.

That sartorial sense was why Stu Stram remembers not being allowed to have blue jeans and his father halting the family from leaving for church one Sunday until he shined his shoes properly.

Dale Stram, son of original Chiefs coach Hank Stram, takes Star columnist Vahe Gregorian on a tour back through time, showing off some treasured artifacts from Stram's personal memorabilia collection. Third of three parts.

He applied similar standards to his teams as they traveled, permitting players to express themselves through their shoes or shirts but always requiring sports coats and standard dress pants.

Game uniforms were truly uniform, though, down to the shoes.

And it was a similar mind-set that prevailed in how his teams stood for the national anthem, a ritual Stram actually made them practice.

They’d line up numerically …

“Helmet in left arm and right hand over your heart,” said Phyllis, now 86, cringing at the disintegration in what she sees on the sidelines now.

These times in the corporatized NFL, Stu Stram reckons, would have been for his father to reconcile.

“He couldn’t wear a suit (jacket) on the sideline anymore,” said Stu Stram, who like his sister, MaryNell, lives in the Kansas City area while their other siblings Henry, Julia and Gary live in New York. “He was lucky and blessed that he coached when he did, because it would have driven him crazy to not be the disciplinarian and make his team a reflection of who he was.”

As much as Hank Stram became an obvious reflection of his parents and heritage, a man Dale Stram said typically played (and sang to) Polish polka music on his way to Municipal Stadium on game days, he also was a singular character.

His future wife knew that from their first date when they were in school at Purdue. Inexplicably to this day, he asked the majorette to go to a home show.

This from a man who never could handle a tool, as she playfully reminds by singing, “If I had a hammer …”

Once, he “installed” a mirrored medicine cabinet … only for it to come shattering down, revealing it was fastened only by heaps of athletic tape.

Consumed as he would become with the intricacies of football, a game in which he advanced strategies and schemes and implemented a movement towards weightlifting and accelerated the cause of integration, Stram had some absent-minded professor in him.

On a duck hunting trip shortly after his honeymoon, Phyllis Stram recalled, her husband used the barrel of his rifle as a cane to help him through some muck.

As he later prepared to fire, a friend pulled his gun away, saving him from the backfiring ramifications of a mud-clumped barrel.

On occasion after games, he simply forgot his children at Municipal Stadium, leaving them to be brought home by equipment manager Bobby Yarborough or groundskeeper George Toma.

But there was no lighter side to Stram than his proclivity for assigning nicknames to anyone in his sphere.

Some seemed utterly random — or at least for reasons only Stram could explain: His mother, for instance, was “Pocahontas” and daughter-in-law Janet was “Bird.”

(As in, “Bird, let me try that carrot cake and make sure it’s a good piece for you,” as the diabetic Stram was apt to ask. Stram never drank or smoked but almost until he died was unable to resist sweets, particularly cakes and pies and licorice and jelly beans and the other stuff he kept in his office drawer and chomped on as a nervous habit.)

Others nicknames were more logical. Frank Pitts was “Riddler” for a laugh that reminded Stram of the Batman villain, and future broadcast partner Jack Buck was “Skippy” for his fondness for peanut butter.

The team chaplain, Monsignor Vincent Mackey was “Blackbird,” to whom for particularly meaningful games Stram would plead to start “strumming those beads; we might need a little help.”

As much as the scale of the Super Bowl would exponentially increase, even then no game seemed more meaningful to Stram than the Chiefs’ meeting with the Packers on Jan. 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

It was especially momentous as the representative of the league still fighting its image as “Mickey Mouse,” a notion that Stram tried to turn to his advantage on game day.

Sensing the team was tight, he sent Yarborough and athletic trainer Wayne Rudy to Disneyland to get some Mickey Mouse “ears” for the staff to wear as they greeted the team at the Coliseum.

Dale Stram recalls they even secured a record player to pipe in the Mickey Mouse theme as players arrived.

Despite such efforts at levity, there was no getting past the intensity of the scene, particularly as a culmination of heavy times along the way.

While the franchise had won the 1962 AFL title as the Dallas Texans before moving to Kansas City in 1963, the very fact it had to move was testament to the nasty battle with the NFL.

And their successes on the field were pocked by piercing misfortunes.

With Dale and older brother Henry on the sideline for a 1963 exhibition game in Wichita, rookie Stone Johnson suffered a fractured vertebrae on a kickoff return. He was partially paralyzed and died about a week later, sending a shudder through the team.

Other shocks, including racism that stifled black players’ efforts to find homes, would reverberate through a team finding its way in a new city.

In early 1964, guard Ed Budde suffered a fractured skull in a fight and, later in the year, tight end Fred Arbanas lost sight in his left eye after being surprise-attacked by a man wearing brass knuckles.

A season later, running back Mack Lee Hill died from what reportedly was an embolism during surgery for a season-ending knee injury.

“It was all in a short period of time, and it all happened when we moved to Kansas City,” Dale Stram said. “So it made that team bond very strong.”

With the opportunity to play Green Bay secured by an AFL title-game victory over Buffalo, the Chiefs went to California 11 days early.

Green Bay wouldn’t arrive until days later, treating it more like a grim business trip as the Chiefs were absorbing scenic California from their headquarters in Long Beach, a hotel then known as the Edgewater Inn.

“The accommodations were kind of decorated in ‘early attic,’ as I recall,” Phyllis Stram said, laughing.

But it was a fine backdrop for the two children who accompanied her: the oldest boys, Henry, now an actor who has appeared in such shows as “Titanic” and “The Elephant Man” on Broadway, and Dale.

As he fiendishly prepared for the game and spent infinite time with the news media, even Hank Stram took some time to enjoy himself — including an appearance on “The Hollywood Palace,” where Stram, his wife and the two boys and running back Mike Garrett spent time with Hollywood icons Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope.

For the considerable fuss surrounding all this, on game day there were at least 35,000 empty seats in a stadium with a capacity close to 100,000.

The Chiefs would acquit themselves well in the first half, trailing just 14-10 to Vince Lombardi’s vaunted Packers and prompting Stram at halftime to passionately tell his team he knew they could win.

But after an ill-considered heave by Len Dawson was intercepted by Willie Wood and returned 50 yards to Kansas City’s 5-yard line, the game soon turned lopsided.

It was a bitter defeat for Stram, whom Dale Stram remembers walking off the field and resolutely saying to key scout Lloyd Wells, “We’re going to come back, and we’re going to win one of these.”

Stram would feel all the more determined afterward, when it was relayed to him that Lombardi had told reporters, “I don’t think that Kansas City compares with the top teams of the NFL.”

Less known is that around the time Lombardi said that, reporters parted ways for a boy being ushered in by former Packer and Dallas Texan Ben Agajanian, who had stayed friends with Hank Stram.

Agajanian had been the first to console Hank Stram as he came off the field, and upon seeing the young Dale Stram thought he might want to get autographs in the Packers’ locker room.

As Agajanian made the rounds, suddenly he saw Lombardi and zoomed toward him with Dale Stram, who got his autograph on a game program and remembers Lombardi saying his dad was a great coach.

Her father-in-law, Janet Stram says, smiling, always loved that story.

But much of the heartache of that first Super Bowl was trumped by winning Super Bowl IV.

“I don’t know if getting in heaven could be much more enjoyable,” Phyllis said.

The game is perhaps best remembered for Kansas City’s suffocating defense and, of course, the microphoned Stram chattering such memorable lines as “just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys” and “65 Toss Power Trap” that “might pop wide open.”

Subtly tucked in that video of the showman, though, is a different sort of telling snippet.

Amid a celebration of Garrett’s touchdown on 65 Toss Power Trap, Stu Stram, then 12, ran to his father and kissed him.

“In our family, it was always important to show affection,” he said, smiling. “It came from my parents, the importance of friends and people you love and telling them and showing them you loved them.”

Any way and all the time.

When Hank Stram last saw his Chiefs, it was the fall of 2003 at Arrowhead for a presentation of his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring.

For his frail mentor, guard Ed Budde cleared ground to get him to Lamar Hunt’s suite for the game.

There, Stram later was joined by Otis Taylor, the player to whom Stram considered himself closest after giving so much counsel over the years.

Taylor was in the early stages of Parkinson’s and required a walker, Dale Stram’s sister, Julia, reminded him, and when he sat by Stram neither could much talk.

Instead, they just sat close and silently leaned their heads against each other for long minutes — the first of many powerful goodbyes from the ever-enduring Hank Stram.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian