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Chiefs owner was an NFL icon

Sports pioneer, who was integral in creating the Super Bowl, suffered from prostate cancer.

December 14, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Lamar Hunt, a pioneering sports entrepreneur who set in motion the events that led to the creation of the Super Bowl and gave the annual National Football League championship game its hyperbolic name, died Wednesday night of complications from prostate cancer. He was 74.

The longtime owner of the Kansas City Chiefs had battled cancer for several years and was hospitalized the day before Thanksgiving with a partially collapsed lung. Doctors discovered that the cancer had spread, and Hunt had been under heavy sedation since last week in Dallas.

Hunt, who was a son of billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt and the younger brother of tycoon Nelson Bunker Hunt, hatched the idea for the American Football League, which was an upstart challenger to the NFL. He was one of the founders of the North American Soccer League, World Championship Tennis and Major League Soccer.

He was an original investor in the Chicago Bulls and still owned a minor stake in the NBA team at the time of his death.

The trophy awarded to the American Football Conference champion each year bears his name, and his contributions to the sport led to his induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has been similarly honored in soccer and tennis.

In an era of meddling, heavy-handed sports owners, -- from George Steinbrenner of the Yankees to Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, Hunt was a throwback to a time when owners faded into the background. He was a bookish, unassuming man with little pretense but whose ideas were outsized, bold and brash.

He considered the success of the AFL, which operated from 1960 to 1969, and its subsequent merger with the NFL in 1970 to be the signature achievement of his long career in sports.

His Chiefs played the Green Bay Packers in the inaugural NFL-AFL championship game at the Coliseum in January 1967 and defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the last championship game before the rival leagues merged.

The game became known as the Super Bowl, a move credited to Hunt, who jokingly suggested the name after watching his children play with a bouncy SuperBall.

"You'd never have had that game without us," Hunt told The Times in 1984. "There isn't much sex appeal in what they used to call 'the NFL championship game.' It is the Super Bowl that brought the excitement, the glamour, the mystique. And the NFL had to play the AFL to get it."

Born Aug. 2, 1932, in Eldorado, Ark., Hunt was the son of a one-time wildcatter who reportedly won a rig in a poker game, borrowed $50 to sink his first oil well and built a multibillion-dollar fortune.

A geology major and seldom-utilized football player at Southern Methodist University, Hunt was 27 in 1959 when he was rejected by the NFL in an effort to secure an expansion franchise for Dallas, his home.

Undeterred, he cranked up the idea of forming a rival league.

Longtime Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, in a 2002 interview with Football Digest, recalled his first meeting with the young Hunt in Hunt's Dallas office: "It was the size of a phone booth. A very unpretentious office for a very unpretentious guy, not some big shot at all. I thought it was very refreshing."

Despite his vast fortune, Hunt was known to fly coach on flights of less than two hours, carry his own bags and secure his own rental cars. His father, family friends noted, had ingrained it in him not to flaunt his wealth.

"My dad was certainly not a pretentious person," Hunt told an interviewer in 2002. "He was always willing to roll up his sleeves and work, and I think everyone needs to do that. That's no big deal. Too many people are looking for someone to do something for them, trying to find an easy way to have something done."

Hunt preferred a do-it-yourself approach, and his steely determination fueled the AFL's rise to respectability. The league's eight original teams survived and were merged into the NFL, he proudly noted, and Hunt was the first AFL representative to be inducted in the National Football League's Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

The American Football League also helped raise professional football's profile nationally.

"The NFL in 1959 was a provincial league," Hunt told The Times in 1984. He said that 10 of the 12 teams -- all but the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams -- "were crammed into northeast America."

The AFL brought pro football to Denver, Boston, Buffalo, Houston, Kansas City, Miami and other cities, including Dallas and Minneapolis, where the AFL threat prompted the NFL to expand. Many of them "became major league cities overnight because of us," Hunt said.

But Hunt's Dallas Texans, forced to compete for attention against the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL, never turned a profit, despite winning the AFL championship in 1962. In 1963, Hunt moved the team, where it prospered as the Kansas City Chiefs.

Speaking of his various sports teams in 1970, Hunt said, "These are not mere playthings with me. I like sports. I am the first to admit I have been bitten by the sports and show business bug. I recognize their great value and appeal....

"But make no mistake about it: I enter these ventures to make a profit. I am a fan. I also am a businessman."

Hunt is survived by wife Norma, children Lamar Jr., Sharron Munson, Clark and Daniel; and 13 grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

jerry.crowe@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Career highlights

Key events in Lamar Hunt's professional career:

Founder of the American Football League, which existed from 1960 to '69.

* Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.

* Credited with coming up with the term "Super Bowl."

* The AFC championship trophy is named in his honor.

Source: Associated Press

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