CATCHING FIRE WITH A BLISTERING DEFEAT OF THE 49ERS, THE CHIEFS MOVED FROM AN UNDERDOG TO A FAVORITE IN THE AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE

December 08, 1997

The spread was enormous. That much was obvious. The Kansas City
Chiefs had not yet digested their most resounding victory of the
'90s, and now there were Portobello mushrooms, carved rump
roasts, pumpkin cheesecake slices and countless other offerings
at their disposal in a private club on the north side of
Arrowhead Stadium. Two hours after Kansas City's stunning 44-9
victory over the San Francisco 49ers, while players, coaches and
relatives scarfed with abandon, three mavericks sat at a table
in the middle of the lounge with empty plates and solemn stares.
Noting the union of coach Marty Schottenheimer, wideout Andre
Rison and linebacker Derrick Thomas--the ultimate K.C. power
lunch--one Chief remarked, "Check it out: a meeting of the minds."

More accurately, it was a meeting of the hearts. For
Schottenheimer, Rison and Thomas, three of pro football's most
emotional men, Sunday's demolition of the 49ers served as the
latest validation of their ardent faith in a dream--winning a
Super Bowl. To appreciate where they are today, consider that
nine months ago Schottenheimer was a coach under fire, Rison a
thrice-discarded nomad and Thomas a frustrated free agent who
was blasting the Kansas City front office. Now they are the
leaders of a 10-3 team that has improbably emerged as a Super
Bowl contender, one that ended San Francisco's 11-game winning
streak and dealt the Niners (11-2) their worst defeat in more
than a decade.

"Who could have called it?" Rison asked in the aftermath of
Sunday's game, in which he burned the 49ers for 117 receiving
yards and a pair of touchdowns. His message was clear: The
Chiefs are more comfortable in the role of underdog than
Harrison Ford. Kansas City played five games in November and was
favored in none of them, yet the Chiefs went 4-1, losing only to
the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Nov. 9 after quarterback Elvis
Grbac had gone down the previous week with a broken collarbone.
Kansas City has trailed in 10 of 13 games, and six of its
victories have not been secured until the final seconds.

Before Sunday the Chiefs weren't taken seriously; now, though
they remain a game behind the Denver Broncos in the AFC West,
their bandwagon is more crowded than Boogie Nights protagonist
Dirk Diggler's drawers. "All our critics can decide what this
victory meant," said Thomas, who sacked Steve Young once and
spent much of the game in the 49ers' backfield. "All I know is,
if we play together like we're capable of playing, there's
nobody we can't beat."

It helps that the Chiefs play together off the field as well.
"Forget about the scores," says 37-year-old running back Marcus
Allen, who ran for a touchdown and threw for another to tight
end Ted Popson. "What I love about this team is the people.
There's a family feeling--guys who love each other and are
fighting for the same cause." Allen says the '95 Chiefs, who
went 13-3 before being stunned by the Indianapolis Colts in the
division playoffs, were similarly close-knit. However, he
believes last year's team, which went 9-7 and missed the
playoffs, "had a fractured chemistry, some people with their own
agendas. This year that's gone, and we're being rewarded. I like
to think that the human spirit prevails."

Spirits were flowing on the Monday before the game when, on the
heels of the Chiefs' 19-14 victory at Seattle, nearly a dozen
players congregated at a bar in the Westport section of Kansas
City before separating into smaller groups. One dinner party
included Rison, Thomas, rookie quarterback Pat Barnes and
veteran cornerback Mark McMillian. Thomas is as commanding a
social presence as any NFL player, but he was somewhat muted in
the company of Rison, who routinely puts his varied and often
conflicting emotions--joy, rage, loyalty, impudence, vexation
and neediness, for starters--on display.

Riding with Rison is the closest thing in the sports world to
living inside a hard-core rap track. First, meet Rison's
companion, a hip-hop producer and designated cell-phone-answerer
named 5. Then watch Rison take the phone from 5 and talk to his
former fiancee, singer-rapper Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes of TLC,
while accepting a Spiderman Pez dispenser from a Chiefs fan.
(Spiderman is Rison's latest nom de gridiron.) Now listen to
Rison describe a recent off day during which he traveled to New
York City to cut a single with young hip-hop diva Foxy Brown: "I
was at the Rihga Royal [hotel], and you'll never believe who was
in the elevator. Muhammad Ali. It was just me, him and his wife,
and I was going crazy. Everything about me as an athlete--the
cockiness, the showboating, the guaranteed victories--came from
Ali. I couldn't believe it, but he knew who I was. He asked me
up to his room, and we sat there for an hour. He talked, and his
wife helped translate. We talked about football, boxing, life,
but it didn't really matter what was said. It was Ali, man. I
was like a little kid."

Finally, step with Rison into McMillian's sports-utility vehicle
and experience Tupac Shakur's All Eyez on Me CD, played at a
sternum-shaking volume. Rison identifies with the slain rapper
and is particularly fond of the song Heartz of Men, a point he
drove home by restarting the tune at least a dozen times during
the trip to a north Kansas City club. Rison rapped along with
Shakur--"No longer livin' in fear, my pistol close in hand.
Convinced that this is my year, like I'm the chosen man"--and
drew connections between his life and Tupac's. Shakur spent
eight months in jail for sexual assault, but not before
releasing a CD that made him one of the hottest rappers in the
industry.

Rison flourished with the Atlanta Falcons in the early '90s, but
then he suffered during disastrous stints with the Cleveland
Browns, in '95, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who cut him in
November '96. He was signed by the Green Bay Packers and scored
the first touchdown in the Pack's 35-21 Super Bowl victory over
the New England Patriots last January. "That touchdown got me
out of jail," Rison yelled. "Now I'm the chosen man."

Rison was happy in Green Bay, but coach Mike Holmgren was
committed to Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman as his starting
wideouts. Figuring that Rison would be disruptive as a backup,
Holmgren released him in the off-season. "That hurt my
feelings," Rison says, "because he was telling me that I wasn't
better than the other guys. I like Mike, but he could have at
least let me go to training camp and compete." Rison turned down
bargain-basement offers from the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland
Raiders before the Chiefs came up with $1.8 million over two
years.

Not only has Rison provided K.C. with its most potent receiving
threat since--who, Otis Taylor?--he has also shed his image as a
malcontent and become a locker room leader. When Rison met with
Chiefs president Carl Peterson to sign his contract, he told his
new boss, "I don't want to be Bad Moon anymore; I want to be
Spiderman, a positive character." Replied Peterson, "You can be
anything you want."

Rison won over teammates with a fierce work ethic and reckless
optimism. "Everyone was talking down about this team, and he
came in preaching Super Bowl," says McMillian, who scored the
Chiefs' final touchdown against the Niners on a 12-yard
interception return. In response to Rison's Spiderman nickname,
the 5'7" McMillian anointed himself Mighty Mouse and poses as
the cartoon hero after big plays. "It's been so conservative
here in the past, but now guys are posing and having fun,"
seventh-year fullback Kimble Anders says. "Andre brought an
attitude that wasn't there before, the type of attitude I've
seen on teams that win championships. It's like when Deion
Sanders went to the 49ers in '94--all of a sudden he had Jerry
Rice out there dancing."

It was Rison who gave the Chiefs their first reason to strut in
'97. After opening with a loss in Denver, Kansas City headed to
Oakland to play the Raiders in a Monday-nighter. The Chiefs were
underdogs, naturally, and trailed 27-21 in the final seconds,
but they had the ball on the Oakland 32. Rison ran a
bench-takeoff route, luring cornerback Terry McDaniel outside
with a four-step break to the left sideline and then cutting
back inside before free safety Eric Turner could close on him.
Grbac threw a perfect pass that Rison caught in the back of the
end zone. "That play was a testament to Andre's precision,"
Chiefs receivers coach Al Saunders says. "In the past he
probably would have improvised and just beaten the corner with a
stutter step. But if he had done that, the safety wouldn't have
waited."

Rison, with 65 catches for 947 yards and seven touchdowns,
appears headed for his fifth Pro Bowl. "He's like an artist,"
Saunders says. "You have to let his creativity flourish. But
then you have to rein him in like a racehorse."

As for the man cracking the whip, Schottenheimer remains an
intriguing paradox--a slave driver who is also one of football's
most notorious locker room weepers. He has mellowed slightly
this year, allowing the Chiefs to lift weights on their own time
on the Mondays following victories and on occasion reducing
workouts in pads to half a practice per week. In training camp
he startled his players when, while reflecting on '96 (only his
second nonplayoff campaign in 12 full seasons as an NFL coach),
he began sobbing. But that emotional scene was mild compared
with what took place following K.C.'s win in Seattle after
tackle Jeff Criswell was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct
while quarterback Rich Gannon was kneeling to kill the clock.

In the locker room Schottenheimer expressed extreme displeasure
with Criswell's loss of composure, blaming himself for not
better preparing the Chiefs for the situation. Then the coach
began bawling, telling his players, "I failed you." Recalls
wideout Lake Dawson, "It was like a child crying, not being able
to stop." Schottenheimer carried on for 10 minutes. When he
finally stopped sobbing, there was silence--for about five
seconds. Then Thomas stood up and said, "O.K., now remember,
we've got turkeys to give out in the hood on Monday."

Thomas's timing was bizarre--"I had a tear in my eye, and it
dried up immediately," says defensive end Vaughn Booker--but
he's the one Chief who could have gotten away with it. He had a
rough off-season in which he ripped the front office for not
making a more sincere effort to re-sign his good friend,
free-agent defensive end Neil Smith, who ended up in Denver. The
linebacker's anger has since vanished. After missing four games
with a torn triceps, Thomas is fortifying a defense that in its
last eight games has allowed no touchdowns (and only eight field
goals) after halftime. He has adjusted to defensive coordinator
Gunther Cunningham's new "Pirate" scheme, in which he lines up
in several locations, and to the presence of Rison, whom he
affectionately addresses as Fool.

"We ride each other hard, but it's so great having him here,"
said Thomas--an eight-time Pro Bowl player who signed a
seven-year, $27 million extension in March--before joining Rison
and Schottenheimer at the Arrowhead Club. "He was very
supportive when I was injured, and we're both trying to get to
the Super Bowl. I just have a feeling we're going to get it this
year."

A minute later Spiderman's arms were draped around the shoulders
of Thomas's mother, Edith Morgan, and this much was obvious: If
the Chiefs don't make it to the Super Bowl, it won't be for lack
of heart.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER BIG BACK ATTACK In spine-tingling action during the Chiefs' 44-9 rout of the 49ers, quarterback Steve Young fumbles upon being hit by K.C. linebacker Anthony Davis (page 56). [T of C] PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Rison set up the Chiefs' fourth score when he burned Rod Woodson for a 45-yard gain late in the first half. [Rod Woodson and Andre Rison in game] PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Thomas, who had one of five sacks against Young, has adjusted nicely to K.C.'s new defensive scheme. [Steve Young and Derrick Thomas in game] PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Linebacker Anthony Davis (50) led the Arrowhead celebration of a fourth-quarter safety. [Anthony Davis and others celebrating]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)