On August 24, 2019 I covered my first NFL game where the Kansas City Chiefs lost a pre-season game 27-17 to the San Fransisco 49ers, the team they would end up beating in the Super Bowl 5 ½ months later.
And it was also the moment I had the opportunity to meet Len Dawson.
Right before kick-off I glanced over and saw the former Chiefs quarterback sitting at a table alone. I knew it was now or never to go up and introduce myself.
The public address announcer started to speak just as I approached the table, and Dawson pointed to a chair and told me to take a seat.
I remember the first thing I did was thank him for shopping at my grandfather's grocery stores, and when I mentioned the name of the store, his face lit up. Dawson told me how the owner (my grandfather) would always step out and greet him. Those words gave me chills, almost as if my grandpa was right there with us.
He asked me a few times who I was and who I wrote for, and I gave him my business card. He read off the name of the paper I wrote for at the time and said Martin City had his favorite food in all of Kansas City.
We talked about football and I asked if he knew of a family friend by the name of Jerry Cornelison, who played on the offensive line for the Chiefs during the 1960’s. Dawson remembered his old teammate.
“I can’t remember what we used to call him, but he did a good job of protecting me,” Dawson said. “My whole line took care of me.”
Dawson then asked me if I thought it was important and I replied by agreeing that it was important to have a strong line on offense and defense.
Dawson replied by saying, “yeah, mine wasn’t too bad.”
I then asked Dawson if it was true that Hank Stram met him in Cleveland and told him if he gets cut, that he had a job on the Dallas Texans. Stram knew Dawson was the right man for the job after Stram spent time as a quarterbacks coach at Purdue University, where Dawson attended.
“He was kind of sitting on the bench in Cleveland, "said Stu Stram, Hank’s son. “And for some reason my father was in Cleveland and met with him and said if you ever get released, you can come play for me in Dallas.”
Dawson played one season for the Dallas Texans before they made the move to Kansas City the next year, and the rest was history.
“Lenny was as much a part of my life as my brothers and sisters,” Stram said. “He was always a part of our family, and he was always a part of the growth and development of the Chiefs, the League, and in those days, they were fighting for credibility.
“It really meant something more than it would have if it was just an NFL team,” he said. “It was an AFL team trying to prove themselves to a world that thought the NFL was that much better, and Lenny and that Chiefs team really took that personally.
“His leadership, and his calmness and his demeanor, all of those things were such a part of who he was,” Stram said. “It really became the makeup of the entire team.”
I asked if he thought the 2019 Chiefs team compared to the 1969 Super Bowl Champion team. Dawson said that he thought the Chiefs had what it took to win it all, and then reminded me that he was on some pretty good teams as well.
“He was a genuine human being, who never was too big for anybody,” said Bob Fescoe of 610 Sports Radio Kansas City. “He would take time to talk to everybody, and I think everybody in Kansas City was impacted one way or another by Len Dawson.”
Whether it was watching him play if you were old enough, or watching him on TV every night anchoring the sports for KMBC-9 News, bumping into him out on the town or listening to him on the Chiefs radio Broadcast, Dawson was a man of the people in Kansas City.
“I just think everybody in Kansas City has had some sort of connection to Len Dawson,” Fescoe said. “It’s going to be weird during the pre-season game Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers, it will be the first game in Chiefs history that Len Dawson won’t be around for.”