KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Three years ago, when Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the franchise and the American Football League that his father had founded, he decided to keep something in reserve.
A celebration just for Kansas City.
And on Tuesday at Union Station, Hunt announced several plans and initiatives that will celebrate the 50th year of the franchise that Lamar Hunt moved to Kansas City from Dallas on May 22, 1963.
“To tell the truth, we were thinking about this when we were celebrating the 50th year of the franchise,” Hunt said. “It was important that we celebrated, along with the rest of the AFL… the Chiefs franchise was in Dallas at that point and were the Texans.
“But as we were doing it, we felt a tug for what we would do three years hence, because we really wanted to celebrate our history in Kansas City as the Chiefs. The celebration today is about 50 years in Kansas City. It’s not about the team or the league. It’s about Kansas City.
“My father knew there was something special about this place, and he was right,” Hunt said of Lamar Hunt, who died in December 2006. “Over the last five decades, the Kansas City community has rallied around the Chiefs, and in celebration of our 50th year in Kansas City, we want to say thank you to the best fans in the NFL and show the tremendous gratitude to the community that has given us so much.”
The Chiefs’ launched their first initiative last month when the club announced all season ticket account holders would receive a complimentary, personalized Nike Chiefs jersey with a name and uniform number of their choice.
Other plans announced Tuesday included:
The Chiefs will pay tribute to 50 Kansas Citians who have shaped the Kansas City area. Ten of these 50 fans will be celebrated individually at each Chiefs home game during the 2012 season.
As part of its community outreach programs, 15 members of the Chiefs organization will return to Joplin, Mo., and perform a day of service in the city that is recovering from last year’s devastating tornado. The club will provide resources, time and finances to build a 3,500 square-foot Chiefs-themed playground at Emerson Elementary School in Joplin
A Chiefs Fan Tour to other locations in the region, including St. Joseph, Wichita and Springfield, will begin in June. Former Chiefs Hall of Famers, including Bobby Bell and Len Dawson, will visit with fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures with the Super Bowl IV Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Chiefs will introduce a new ticketing technology in which season ticket holders will receive a membership card for each seat on their account. The cards will serve as their game tickets and provide season ticket holders a 15 percent discount on merchandise as well as a discount on select concession items.
In conjunction with leading members of the Kansas City art community, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Chiefs will assemble in select spaces at Arrowhead Stadium a permanent collection of artwork produced by artists from the surrounding region.
Ten original season-ticket holders from 1963, who have maintained their seats for 50 years, attended Tuesday’s announcement.
“In the early years, we went to all the games and wore a coat and tie,” said John Saper, 77, of Leawood. “And we went if the snow was 6 feet deep. You brushed it off, you sat down and watched the entire game. You didn’t leave early.
“The most memorable game was the Miami game that lasted for three years,” he said with a laugh of the double-overtime playoff loss in 1971, the last game played at Municipal Stadium.
The franchise was not an immediate success in Kansas City. The first appearance of the defending AFL champion Chiefs at Municipal Stadium attracted just 5,721 fans for a 17-13 preseason victory over Buffalo. The Chiefs opened the regular season at home against Denver, and a crowd of 21,115 on a Saturday night watched Kansas City win 59-7 — which is still the highest-scoring performance in franchise history.
“At that point, Kansas City was a baseball town,” said Jack Steadman, who was Hunt’s right-hand man as president/general manager of the Chiefs for 30 years.
In 1965, Lamar Hunt was still concerned with attendance figures — the club drew fewer than 20,000 for three of its seven home games — and launched an aggressive season-ticket campaign in 1966 to prove the market was viable for an impending merger with the rival NFL. It resulted in a sales spike of 13,025 season tickets, and a crowd of 43,885 attended the 1966 home opener against Buffalo.
From that point on, there was little question about the franchise’s viability in Kansas City.
“The fans were fabulous,” Steadman said. “The people who got behind us, the Red Coaters, everything started developing the way we wanted.”
The Chiefs would go on to win the AFL title and play in Super Bowl I, which led to Jackson County voters approving a $43 million bond issue for the construction of the Truman Sports Complex, including 78,000-seat Arrowhead Stadium, which opened in 1972.
Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel was a high school junior in Ft. Knox, Ky., when pro football came to Kansas City. He didn’t know much about Kansas City, but he knew all about the Chiefs.
“You watched football and kept up with some of the names like Bobby Bell or Buck Buchanan,” Crennel reminisced. “Being a defensive lineman, Buck Buchanan … that name was familiar. I always enjoyed watching those guys. Being part of the Chiefs today, and I see Otis Taylor doing what he did and Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell … they bring back good memories, but it also says a lot about the foundation that this franchise was built on.”
“When you think about an upstart league that was able to be successful, end up forcing the merger to make the NFL what it is today, that was something special. There have been upstarts that fell flat on their face. But this upstart was able to get teams and start a new league and grow and develop and help make the NFL what it is today.”
Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said it’s incumbent on the organization make sure the current players understand the rich tradition of the franchise. Last weekend, the club brought in several of its Hall of Famers to have lunch with the players attending the rookie minicamp just for that purpose.
“It takes me back sometimes when I see players who don’t know the history or respect the history,” said Pioli, who was especially upset with a draft prospect from Morgan State who did not know who Lanier was. “Those of us who are in the game have an obligation to teach them.
“When you think about the history of the Kansas City Chiefs, not just the Chiefs of the ’60s, but the Chiefs of the ’90s … players who come through here need to know what this franchise is about. If you’re going to be part of this, you need to know your history.”