Len Dawson on a K.C. Super Bowl: ‘It Needs to Happen Soon’
Len Dawson stands alone in Chiefs’ history, having quarterbacked the franchise’s only Super Bowl championship in 1970. Over the course of a 19-year career, including his final 13 seasons in Kansas City, he helped build the city’s rich tradition in football. And he also became one of just three people honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a broadcaster (Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf are the others). An ambassador for Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame traveling exhibition show that opens today at Union Station in Kansas City, Dawson talked to The MMQB about his beloved Chiefs, how badly he wants a Super Bowl in Kansas City (in more ways than one), and the one thing he knows nothing about: how much air should be in a quarterback’s football.
VRENTAS: How often do you still get asked about Super Bowl IV in Kansas City?
DAWSON: Well, there are a lot of people who weren’t alive when it was played. But I can tell you this: this town went crazy when that happened. The parade and all the things that transpired after we came back from New Orleans—but it has been too long since that has happened. It needs to happen soon now. They’ve got the Royals playing now. The Royals are playing excellent baseball. That wasn’t the case for a number of years. They went to the seventh game of the World Series last year, and they’re playing well this year. That would be a great thing for Kansas City sports if the Chiefs could come back, too, and find a way to win a championship. I think they have to solidify the offensive line, and they have to have some weapons. A wide receiver did not catch a touchdown pass last year. That can’t happen again. You have to have people who are threats. They went out and secured some people. I’ll wait until training camp gets underway to see how they are doing, but they should be better this year than they were last year.
VRENTAS: You started your career in Pittsburgh as a first-round pick, but it wasn’t until five years later when you really got to play, for the AFL’s Dallas Texans, who then became the Kansas City Chiefs. There isn’t much patience in pro football nowadays. Would you have been able to have the same career arc in today’s game?
DAWSON: Pittsburgh is where I tried to start. They let me start one game in how many years was it? Three years. But fortunately for me, there was a guy by the name of Lamar Hunt who wanted to get involved in professional football, and he started the American Football League. And he gave an opportunity to a lot of players. Back when I was at Purdue my senior year, when they had the draft, I was the fifth player selected. There were only 12 teams in pro football at that time. It was a much different era back in those days. I didn’t know the Steelers drafted me for a day or two, because there was no regular TV exposure for it. Things have changed a tad since that era, but I’m fortunate that Lamar Hunt founded the AFL and gave me an opportunity to play. There are so many more teams today. Quarterbacks have more opportunities to get a chance to play. After that, it depends on how well they play.
VRENTAS: You’re one of three people to be honored by the Hall of Fame for as a player and a broadcaster. What gave you the drive to stay involved with the team and pro football for decades after your playing career?
DAWSON: I’ve been very fortunate to play a game I really loved, and to play for a long time, 19 years, and to also get involved in broadcasting. It was interesting how I got involved in broadcasting. The Chiefs moved from Dallas, and football was new for Kansas City. For the first couple years there wasn’t much as far as attendance and the things they have now, which I like to call Chiefs Kingdom. They had three TV stations, and two of them didn’t have sports at 10 o’clock in the evening. The GM, Jack Steadman, was trying to get some season tickets bought by the fans. They went to the ABC affiliate and said, “Listen, you don’t have sports at 10 o’clock, and this is the time when everybody is home from work and watching. We need to have sports on the news at 10 o’clock.” He wanted to get some tickets sold. They said, “Well, we don’t have anybody to do sports.” Jack Steadman said, “Well, I do. Our quarterback, Len Dawson.” They asked, “What kind of experience does he have?” Jack said, “Don’t worry about that, he can handle it.” And that’s how I got started in broadcasting. I’d get through practice at 5 o’clock, hurry up and shower, and get down to the studio and get involved in the 6 o’clock news. Then I’d go home, have dinner with my family, come back and do the 10 o’clock news. The thing was, we didn’t make much money back in those days. Now the team wouldn’t permit it, but back in those days, that could happen. And it’s lasted from 1966 to today. I’m still doing radio and TV.
VRENTAS: While broadcasting the Chiefs’ games, you’ve had an up-close view of the franchise through the decades. How early on could you tell that Will Shields, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, would join you in Canton?
DAWSON: Very quick in his career here. He was a tremendous football player. Not just a football player, a tremendous athlete. I can still visualize when Priest Holmes was the running back, and they’d run a sweep to the right side or left side, and here comes Will Shields pulling with the idea of blocking somebody, and the guy rarely missed because he was such a great athlete. I knew it. As a quarterback you always look at your protection, if you are passing or if you are running and, boy, he was good. He was just a terrific athlete for a big guy who could move. He was a very intelligent individual. Every team wants guys like him. He came from Nebraska, which is known for having good football players, and he is probably the best of all of them.
VRENTAS: Speaking of Hall of Fame careers, what was your reaction to the punishment Tom Brady received for Deflategate and the potential impact on his legacy?
DAWSON: What’s been thrown at him, losing four games, and the team is fined a million dollars, that is really pretty heavy. Somebody is always looking for the edge. I don’t care what sport you are playing, you are looking for the edge to give you a better chance to win. With the punishment, the NFL is sending a message. I bet you it won’t happen again.
VRENTAS: When you played, did you pay any attention to the inflation level of the footballs that you used? Did you try to “break them in” in any way?
DAWSON: I had no control over the football on game day. I don’t know if each team had their own football they used, or if both teams used the same football. I was more concerned about those big palookas who were chasing me as opposed to how much air was in the football. I had no idea how much air was supposed to be in the football.
VRENTAS: Being around the Chiefs as much as you are, what is your relationship with Alex Smith like?
DAWSON: It’s been good. I don’t tell him what to do. He’s got enough people talking to him. I just give him encouragement. He’s a good quarterback. And if they give him some help—can you imagine playing the whole season and not one wide receiver catches a pass for a touchdown? I’ve never heard of that. But he’s a good player, and the thing is, his teammates believe in him. That’s the first thing that has to happen.
VRENTAS: You talked about the football tradition in Kansas City. We just saw the draft in Chicago, and it looks to be a traveling road show now. There has also been a push from local leaders about the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs ceded a home game this season to meet the requirement that Super Bowl hosts must first host a game in London. Do you think a big NFL event would do well in Kansas City?
DAWSON: Sure I do. And the Chiefs are behind this. They have been lobbying for [the Super Bowl] and trying to do what they possibly can … Coaches today have this routine during a season and they don’t want to disrupt it, and going to London to play during the season is a disruption to the routine. But Clark Hunt did that, I think, with the idea or the promise they’re going to get an opportunity to have the Super Bowl in Kansas City.
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