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Hunt's game won't be same

January 21, 2007|Sam Blair | Special to The Times

From the time I began covering Lamar Hunt and his brainchild American Football League in 1959 until we last met in 2006, I never heard this modest, soft-spoken man raise his voice. But I missed that dinner party at Antoine's in New Orleans' French Quarter one night in January 1970, before Lamar's Kansas City Chiefs played the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Table talk turned to the oddsmakers making the Vikings 13-point favorites, and the elegant old dining room grew warmer.

"Everyone was all fired up after reading and hearing all week how the poor Chiefs didn't have a chance against the mighty Vikings," said Jack Steadman, longtime general manager for Lamar's football club in Dallas and Kansas City. "Lamar began talking about how the Minnesota owners had double-crossed him and the other AFL owners in November 1959 by pulling out and accepting an NFL franchise. He wound up pounding the table and yelling, 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' "

Veteran Chiefs broadcaster Bill Grigsby wondered whether the chandelier might shatter.

"The crowd in Antoine's was shocked," he said.

But no more shocked than most of America the next day when the Chiefs whipped the Vikings, 23-7, on a bright, cold afternoon at old Tulane Stadium. This was the last time the AFL competed against the NFL before it merged with the older league the next September, and the Chiefs closed the AFL's 10 seasons with a bang.

In the locker room, I congratulated Hunt, and he shook my hand. He had a frozen expression on his face, like a little boy on Christmas morning who had gotten everything he wanted. Some people had written off the Jets' beating the Colts in Super Bowl III as a fluke. But now the Chiefs had physically and strategically dominated the Vikings. It was obvious the AFL had really grown up, and this quiet, bespectacled man beamed like a proud father.

It showed the passion he felt for the league and team he founded when he was 27 years old. Sure, he got a kick out of founding World Championship Tennis, helping start two professional soccer leagues and remaining an original investor in the Chicago Bulls. But all of that came later.

"Of all Lamar's loves in sports," Steadman said, "his first were the Texans-Chiefs and the AFL."

His love, and his leadership, will be saluted again today when another AFC champion receives the Lamar Hunt Trophy and heads for the Super Bowl, a game he named and helped create. Hunt, sadly, will not be there for the celebration. He died in Dallas on Dec. 13 after an 8 1/2 -year battle with prostate cancer.

Hunt always will be remembered as the father of the modern NFL. Today it's the most successful league in professional sports, with 32 teams reaping the rewards of his vision, determination and loyalty. That's a far cry from what it was in 1959.

That's when Hunt, son of legendary Texas oilman H.L. Hunt and once an unlettered third-string end at Southern Methodist, tried unsuccessfully to buy the Chicago Cardinals and move them to Dallas. Chicago Bears owner-coach George Halas, chairman of the NFL expansion committee, told him the 12-team NFL had no plans to expand.

So he did what any young fellow with a love for football and a personal fortune of $50 million might do. He started a league.

On Aug. 15, 1959, Lamar and seven owners he recruited announced that their eight-team American Football League would kick off in September 1960.

Then the NFL reversed its field. It would expand to 13 teams, adding a team in Dallas. The owner would be 36-year-old Clint Murchison Jr., son of another legendary Texas oilman.

Suddenly, Dallas was a city with two pro football teams, Hunt's Texans and Murchison's Cowboys.

Murchison approached Hunt about a partnership, saying he would sell him half-interest in the Cowboys if plans for the AFL were scrapped.

"But by then commitments had been made," Hunt said later. "I had gone out and sought these men. We didn't have any binding legal instrument until several months later, but I didn't feel I should back out."

Because he honored his commitment to other AFL owners, including the ones in Minnesota, Hunt was the key to launching a decade of tremendous change in pro football. In 1966, with what used to be his Texans prospering as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cowboys booming in Dallas, he and Cowboys President Tex Schramm worked out a merger of the leagues with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. That led to an NFL-AFL world championship game that season and an expanded NFL in 1970.

Hunt and the other original owners, who each paid a $25,000 membership fee, laughingly called themselves "The Foolish Club" in the early years when they lost millions and the NFL belittled them and tried to run them out of business.

"Lamar was quiet, but my early impression was he had a fire inside him," said Len Dawson, a quarterback who joined the Texans in 1962 after playing little for five years in the NFL and, for the Chiefs, became the most valuable player of Super Bowl IV. "He took on the NFL and didn't back down. You can always wonder what the NFL would be today if Halas had told him, 'Just wait. We'll expand in a year or two.'

"Instead, he slammed the door in Lamar's face."

Leaving a creative visionary to open another door and make history.

*

Sam Blair was a writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News for 41 years. He first crossed paths with Lamar Hunt in 1945, when they were 13-year-old eighth-graders at J.L. Long Junior High School in East Dallas.

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