Hank Stram (left) and Len Dawson (right) pose with Stram's bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony in 2003.
Andy Reid wanted to meet Len Dawson upon arriving in Kansas City, one of a few Chiefs there since the franchise’s birth.
Reid, a 15-year NFL head coach in his first season with the Chiefs, is the man shouldering the challenge of getting the team back to the successes Dawson and Company set the precedent for in the 1960s and early ‘70s.
Dawson sits in the booth as a broadcaster watching it all.
Dawson is Kansas City’s all-time leading passer, tossing for 28,507 yards in 14 seasons with the Chiefs.
Talent is a common denominator between Dawson and today’s star NFL quarterbacks. Money is an exponent separating the fame Dawson experienced with what the Tom Bradys of the world experience, which Dawson says is unparalleled.
“When money gets involved, and it gets to be a lot of money and a lot of money, then it changes things. The priority is changing. Just ask yourself, ‘how much do I pay for a ticket to go to see these guys play?’”
Fans only had to pay $8 to $10 to come see Dawson’s Chiefs play, and the cost to attend the Super Bowl was marginally higher.
“I think the first four [Super Bowls] were probably around $15,” Dawson said. “I remember down in New Orleans, the cab drivers would have tickets all over their hats wanting to sell those things.
“Now, if you go to a Super Bowl game today, you’re talking hundreds of dollars just to get in and get a seat.”
The 1969 Chiefs won Super Bowl IV. A priceless victory in the eyes of Kansas City as it is the city’s only Super Bowl victory in franchise history—aside from AFL Championships in 1962 as the Dallas Texans and ’66 after the franchise’s move to Kansas City—led by a collaborative effort from Dawson and his head coach, the late Hank Stram.
Stram is the winningest head coach in Chiefs franchise history with 124 career wins in 15 years.
Dawson knew Stram from their days together at Purdue University.
Stram was the assistant coach. Dawson was the quarterback. It was a foreshadowing of the unmitigated success they would experience at the next level.
Dawson remembers Stram as a competitor in every sense of the word. Stram wanted to win and wanted players that shared in that desire to win.
“Henry Stram told me, he said, ‘Leonard, if I send a play in and you think you have a better one, you go ahead and run your play. But it had better work,’" Dawson said. “And it was that, ‘it had better work.’ I got the message. Rarely did I go against Hank Stram.”
And why would he?
Moving the franchise from Dallas to Kansas City in 1963 meant building a new fanbase. Dawson helped create a winning culture off of the field as much as he did on it.
Dawson would finish football practice at 5 o’clock and then go do the 6 o’clock news.
For 10 years during his NFL career, Dawson had a radio show four times a day, five days a week. Each show was around two minutes long, but the importance of the job was infinite.
Jack Steadman, Chiefs general manager at the time, recommended his quarterback for a job at KMBC-TV—one of three news stations in Kansas City at the time—which Dawson still thanks Steadman for to this day. There was only 15 minutes of news on the 10 o’clock news, which did not include any type of sports news and did not bode well for the popularity of an upstart franchise.
“We had to have sports,” Dawson said. "We were a new football team in town and we had to have people know that we were there and we were there to sell some tickets.
“And so, consequently, knowing that if the quarterback is on television he’s not going to be bad-mouthing the team that he plays for—at least and survive."
Other Chiefs, though, didn’t embrace other jobs off the gridiron.
“A lot of [my teammates] never worked,” Dawson said. “They just lived off of the money they made playing football, and in those days, you didn’t make that kind of money.”
Dawson says players bonded a lot closer in his particular era than they do in the NFL now with money wedging itself into relationships.
“I’m reading the papers now about how the NFL is so concerned about all the arrests of professional football players during the season and particularly in the offseason and trying to do something about it,” Dawson said. “A lot of these guys are not planning for the future.
“They should be. They’re in a position where they are making a lot of money now.”
These Chiefs in 2013 have promise, and Dawson respects them.
These players and coaches respect Dawson, and that’s all he asks from them. Kansas City fans, though, are asking for more.
“People, unfortunately, now, for Kansas City, [the Chiefs] have not done well,” Dawson said. “What [fans] talk about are the people that I played with. And you’re going back a long time back to the end of the ‘60s.”
Dawson’s playing days gave him as many thrills as his success brought Chiefs fans. As a broadcaster for the last 30 years, Dawson has watched the quarterback position evolve.
No quarterback would ever object to slinging the ball around 40 or 50 times a game, Dawson says. He would love to play quarterback in today’s pass-happy NFL, in the spread formation most of the time, but only if it meant he was in his 20s again.
“I like the responsibility of calling the plays,” Dawson said. “In today’s game, most of [the plays] are sent in because [quarterbacks] have got a radio in their ear and [the plays] are coming from something, but that wasn’t the case [for me].
“Mine, Henry was yelling at me, I’d just tell him when I got to the sideline, I couldn’t hear what you were saying out there the crowd noise was just so loud, so that’s why I called the play that I did.”
As a 78-year old man, Dawson is content to watch and hope that raucous crowd noise that frequently forced him to improvise which play he called back then returns to Arrowhead in the near future.
“You know, when we came to Kansas City in ’63 from Dallas what still amazes me is the fact that business people throughout the Kansas City area got involved in trying to make this a successful move for Lamar Hunt and his football team,” Dawson said. “They would sell tickets.”
Business people in Kansas City got together every Friday after work, Dawson remembers, to chart progress from that particular week. Now, those people stand in red coats by the tunnel before games as the team runs out.
The Red Coaters have never left Arrowhead.
“The only thing [fans] are going to get is joy from watching professional football in Kansas City [and] entertainment,” Dawson said. "But it told me something about the people of the Kansas City area. That if there was an objective that they felt was going to be good for this community, they’ll get involved in it.
“They got involved big time. That was 1963, and they’re still doing it.”
All quotes were obtained by the reporter. You can follow Megan on Twitter at @meganKarmstrong.