The Early Years: 1969-1971
I am ten years old. I am in the fifth grade. I have been learning the game of football at school and following the pro and college games, as best as I can, for about a year. And now, in this fall of 1969, a thing nearly as wondrous and awe-inspiring as the recent moon landing has happened: I no longer have to go to church!
No one has explained exactly why this is; we just seem to be staying home on Sundays.
And I discover the full glory of the NFL. And the “other league,” the rival AFL, which will soon merge with the NFL.
And, specifically, I discover the Kansas City Chiefs.
I know from pictures I’ve seen in magazines in the school library that the Chiefs wear my favorite color, bright happy fire-engine, candy-apple red (I do not see this on television, which for us comes in only two colors, dark and light). They are good, although possibly not as good as their archrivals, the Oakland Raiders. They have the smallest player in the league, a 5-foot-6 kickoff return specialist named Noland Smith, with whom I can identify because I too am small. They quickly become my favorite team. What I don’t know is that this irrational childhood decision cannot be undone for the rest of my life. The concept of irrevocable decision is foreign to this ten-year-old, as it probably should be.
My friend Brad gives me a wonderful, thoughtful gift, a 1969 Len Dawson bubble gum card. Len is the star quarterback for the Chiefs who will soon lead them to glory and eventually be enshrined in the pro football Hall of Fame. Before he gives me the card, Brad helpfully colors in Len’s number 16 with blue ink, thus rendering the card forever worthless in the lucrative collectibles market. Thanks, Brad.
The playoffs arrive, and the Chiefs upset the Raiders 17-7, sending them on to something called Super Bowl IV. There the Chiefs upset the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 for the football championship of the known universe.
I am on top of the world, the envy of my schoolmates. I am King Of The Fifth Grade. I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan.
Christmas Day, 1971
The 1970 season brought a disappointing finish with no post-season games, but at my house it did see the arrival of the following poster, the coolest poster that could ever be, which still graces my wall in 2011:
The 1971 season also ended in disappointment, although unlike the previous year, that disappointment was dragged out in the most painful fashion possible. After putting up a 10-3-1 record in the regular season, the Chiefs hosted the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs. Many, many hours later, after what still stands as the longest game in professional football history, the Chiefs were defeated 27-24. The game went into double overtime, in “sudden death” format (the first team to score wins), and the teams wound up playing a total of 82 minutes and 40 seconds. A normal-length game is 60 minutes of play.
The Chiefs blew a first quarter 10-0 lead, and a fourth quarter lead of 24-17. Kicker Jan Stenerud, who roughly 20 years later would become the first pure kicker (he played no other position) to be elected to the pro football Hall of Fame, missed two potential game-winning field goals, one in the final minute of regulation play and one in overtime.
Of course, the irony of having your Hall-of-Fame kicker, the best kicker in NFL history up to that point, miss twice in the clutch to ensure defeat went completely over my twelve-year-old head. Then again, when it comes to football, I had no use for irony then as I have no use for it now. The very concept of irony is worthless to me. I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan.
Although I am disappointed, hope remains high. My team is good, season after season, and there’s always next year, right?
15 Years Later
I am 27 years old. I am watching the Kansas City Chiefs play their first meaningful game since that magical, painful Christmas Day in 1971. In the interim, I have passed through junior high and high school, moved from my hometown, gotten married, become a father, and gotten divorced. I am watching this game, which if won by the Chiefs will send them to the post-season for the first time in 15 years, with my six-year-old daughter. At one point, my team narrowly misses making a play that would have clinched victory. I jump off the couch with an exclamation. I am excited. This, of course, frightens my daughter, as she has never seen her father get excited over a football game before. This is something new. I try to explain, telling her that this is my team and that I get excited when they are doing well, as many football fans do.
Of course, the reason she has not seen this before is simple: her father is a Kansas City Chiefs fan. In her lifetime, there has never been reason for me to get excited.
Until now. Maybe. Or not. The Chiefs win the game and go to the playoffs, where they bow out in meek fashion to the New York Jets. They follow up this rare taste of success by firing their coach and becoming one of the worst teams in football over the next two years.
The Schottenheimer Years: Fond Memories Of Losing All Hope
I am now entering my thirties. It has now been twenty years since the Chiefs last won a post-season game, and cynicism is washing over me like a de-lousing bath. Expectations have fallen to a new low. My team is a joke at which I do not laugh. To counter this, the team’s ownership finally makes the big move: they hire an established coach with a winning record, one Marty Schottenheimer, formerly coach of the Cleveland Browns.
And, true to form, the next eight years brings a series of post-season disappointments, each more excruciating than the last.
In 1990, the Chiefs earn a playoff slot opposite the Miami Dolphins; leading 16-3 entering the fourth quarter, Kansas City proceeds to give up two touchdown drives to legendary quarterback Dan Marino (passed up by the Chiefs in the 1983 draft), followed by a missed Chiefs field goal in the waning seconds of what becomes a 17-16 loss. The 1991 season sees the Chiefs win their first playoff game since Super Bowl IV, only to be crushed by the Buffalo Bills the following week. In 1992 the Chiefs are shut out in the playoffs by San Diego, 17-0. In 1993, Kansas City brings in legendary four-time Super Bowl winner Joe Montana to play quarterback; he still can play, but has become slightly brittle with age and misses five games with injuries. When he leaves a game, my team instantly becomes ordinary again, like turning back into a pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight. But he stays healthy long enough to lead the team to two playoff wins, and they come within one victory of the Super Bowl. Only the Bills stand in their way.
A nice sweatshirt cross-stitched and given to me by a friend.
So far it has only caught on fire once.
Now, understand that despite all the frustration, this is possibly the most successful period in Chiefs history; they contend every year and play meaningful games late in the season, unlike most of the 1970’s and 80’s. They even dominate the hated Oakland Raiders. I should have fond memories of this period. The Chiefs are no longer the laughable losers; they have earned respect.
But each season, it gets a little harder to believe.
Two more years go by.
November 16, 1997
I am now 38 years old; more than a quarter century has passed since that Super Bowl victory. I am watching the Chiefs play a tight game against an old nemesis, the Denver Broncos. They are fighting for first place in their division and for the best record in their conference.
The Chiefs trail late in the game, but kicker Pete Stoyanovich boots them to victory with a 54-yard field goal on the last play of the game. It is a miracle. The Chiefs have won, 24-22, pulling them within a game of first place. They are celebrating wildly. Team members are carrying Stoyanovich off the field on their shoulders. Fans are flooding the field in ecstasy.
A thought occurs to me. Nearby, sitting on a table, is the remaining schedule for this NFL season. I take a look, do a quick calculation, and suddenly...
I know exactly how this season is going to end. Understand, there are still five games left in the regular season, and the playoffs are a month-and-a-half away. This does not matter. I know.
The Chiefs will win the rest of those regular season games; the Broncos will lose twice more. The Chiefs will win the division and have home-field advantage in the playoffs with a first-round bye. The Broncos will get a wild-card spot in those playoffs, and the way the schedule works, they will play a somewhat inferior team in the first round. They will beat that team easily. That will put them into the second round, which will send them to Kansas City.
And there they will beat the Chiefs, although Kansas City will certainly have a chance to win in the final minute. The Chiefs will fail, and they will lose. It will suck. I know this. Seven weeks ahead of time, I know this to be true.
On my television screen, the Chiefs’ players are still celebrating; kicker/hero Stoyanovich is still riding victoriously on his teammates’ shoulders while the home crowd cheers wildly. Everybody is happy.
But not me. I am depressed, for I have seen the future, and it looks remarkably like the past. Only the pitiful details change.
All hope is gone, probably forever.
Seven weeks later, the Broncos come to Kansas City and defeat the Chiefs 14-10 when a last-second Chiefs pass to the end zone falls incomplete. This would be painful were I not already entirely numb. I feel nothing. I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan.
It is 2003. The millennium has come and gone. I am now 44 years old. The Chiefs begin the season with nine consecutive victories. They have the best record in the NFL. I am not particularly excited.
The Chiefs have one of the best offenses I have ever seen; they can move the ball and score on anyone. They are all but unstoppable.
But there is a problem. A big one. Their defense is one of the worst I have ever seen. They cannot stop anybody. This takes much of the pleasure out the game, as it makes little sense to celebrate a score. Touchdown? Whatever. They’re just going to give it back in a few minutes. Why get excited?
They make the playoffs, where they lose to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in a wild, free-scoring 38-31 donnybrook. The Chiefs score four touchdowns, none of which brings me any pleasure whatsoever. They’re just going to give it back in a few minutes. Meh.
And I realize: even the simple joy of celebrating a touchdown has been taken from me. There is no point in celebrating a touchdown. There is no point in celebrating anything in football. I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan.
Fast Forward: Today.
I am now in my fifties; an incredible 42 years have passed since that wonderful day when I became King Of The Fifth Grade and all was right with the football world. Men stopped walking on the moon long ago. The guy who lived in the White House in 1970 and congratulated the Chiefs on their Super Bowl victory, Richard Nixon, has been dead for 17 years.
|A button now notable for being incredibly old.|
They opened this 2011 season by losing their first two games by a combined score of 89-10. The word “hapless” has again begun appearing in print alongside their name; eventually, I suspect it will become part of their logo. The Hapless Chiefs. Has a ring to it, doesn’t it? Of course I don't actually know what a hap is; I just know we don't have any.
I search for a bright spot in all this darkness, a silver lining to this oppressive cloud sitting directly over my head. And, lo and behold, I find one.
I still don’t have to go to church.
And I see no reason to. As long as I’m spending my Sundays pretending to believe in nonsense, that nonsense will be dressed in bright, happy fire-engine, candy apple red. I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan.