KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs season-ticket holder Eric Granell remembers his first NFL game down to the smallest detail.
It was Dec. 27, 1992, and Granell and his father were among the 76,240 crammed into Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs’ 42-20 win over Denver in a winner-take-all game for an AFC wild-card playoff berth.
Derrick Thomas sacked John Elway three times and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, and after the game, Granell’s father took him to the players’ exit, where Christian Okoye autographed a rookie card for the then wide-eyed 12-year-old.
“That game solidified it for me,” said Granell, 32. “I’ve been a loyal, die-hard ever since.”
Granell’s passion for the Chiefs runs so deep that, as this season spiraled out of control, he joined forces with another life-long Chiefs fan, Marty McDonald, and created an organization called Save Our Chiefs, which is demanding the dismissal of general manager Scott Pioli, among other changes.
And it could get a little ugly Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium when the Chiefs, 1-8, face the Cincinnati Bengals, 4-5, in the first game of in a three-game homestand that could mirror fans’ frustrations with the downward direction of the franchise under Pioli.
For the third straight home game, Save Our Chiefs has hired an aircraft to fly a banner over Arrowhead. This one, like the banner that flew Oct. 28 during the Chiefs’ game against Oakland, will read “Restore Hope … Fire Pioli … Save Our Chiefs.com.” The grassroots organization also has organized what it is calling a “blackout” and is encouraging fans to wear black instead of Chiefs red.
They also plan to brandish signs with the words Fire Pioli on one side and statistics from his three-and-a-half years as general manager on the reverse side.
“We chose black specifically, because it’s the color of mourning,” said Granell, who works in tech support for Cox Communications in Wichita. “That’s how we feel about the team right now. It’s not what it was, and if you go to Arrowhead, it feels like a graveyard … thousands of empty seats and no life in the stands because there’s not a whole lot to cheer about.”
Granell and McDonald, a former Kansas City-area resident now living in Phoenix, are not sure how many fans will show up in black.
“Honestly I don’t know how many …Granell said. “Anything … 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 … anything is a win as long as it comes out in full effect. As long as they’re wearing black, we’ll be happy. We have our own blackout branded shirts, available at SportsNutz right next to the stadium, but it doesn’t have to be ours, it could be black sweatshirts, it can be black, Chiefs branded gear. It makes no difference.
“I think it’s going to be very visible. Put black shirts along with empty red seats, and it should be a pretty visual thing.”
Indeed, there could be swaths of empty seats at Arrowhead on Sunday and for the Dec. 2 game against the Carolina Panthers. Though Sunday’s game is not a sellout, the required number of non-premium tickets were purchased to allow the game to be locally televised under NFL rules.
But tickets were going for as low as $5 for Sunday’s game and the Dec. 2 game against Carolina on StubHub and other after-market websites.
“If (the Chiefs) weren’t getting the message before, I don’t know how many more empty seats it can take to deliver a message that the fan base isn’t happy,” said Granell, who sits in section 305 in the upper reaches of Arrowhead. “People would rather take a loss on their tickets than pay for the parking and watch the show they put on.”
The Chiefs declined comment on the Save Our Chiefs activities, but said enough tickets for next Sunday’s game against Denver have been sold for it to be shown on local television.
The Chiefs have not had a game blacked out on local television since 1991, but crowds have fallen short of the listed capacity of 76,416 for every game since the stadium renovations were completed in 2009. The announced season-high this season was 71,180 for the season opener against Atlanta.
It’s not how Granell remembers Arrowhead during the 1990s when the Chiefs led the NFL in average attendance for six straight years, 1994-99, and had the league’s best home record, 65-15, for an .813 winning percentage.
“One game, my wife was on the concourse, and the Chiefs scored a touchdown,” he recalled, “and she said, ‘Man, it sounded like a bomb went off.’ … 118 decibels … you better believe it.”
The current Chiefs are 0-4 at home and have been outscored 112-66.
McDonald, from his home in Phoenix, had just finished watching the Chiefs turn the ball over six times and lose 37-20 to San Diego when the idea hit him. He wondered how many other fervent Chiefs fans were mad as heck and wanted to do something about it.
So he started a Facebook page and went on Twitter to see if there were other like-minded fans who were tired of the direction of the team.
“From there, it blew up,” McDonald said. “It took off. It was super-crazy how fast it went. Other people shared the same idea, and like wildfire, it grew.”
SaveOurChiefs.com has about 70,000 followers on Twitter and 13,000 on Facebook lending their support. About 125 people have contributed financially to the $750 cost for an hour of flying the banners before games against Baltimore, Oakland and Cincinnati
The first banner — “We Deserve Better … Fire Pioli … Bench Cassel” — flew over Arrowhead before the Oct. 7 game against Baltimore. One donation was for $17.76, representing the revolution Save Our Chiefs is championing.
“People tripped over themselves to fund the thing,” said McDonald, 36. “We’ve had one guy donate $1,000, some throw in $50 here or $20 there, $10 here. To date, we raised about $4,500 to do all this. When the season is done and over with, any money left over from our campaign is going to be donated to the Boys and Girls Club of Kansas City.”
Had the Chiefs been playing any other team besides Oakland, they would have chosen the Oct. 28 game for the blackout, but those colors are associated with the Raiders. So the Bengals game was the next one up.
They realize Sunday also has been designated as Military Appreciation Day, but the Save Our Chiefs members say their message has nothing to do with the military or even the Chiefs players themselves. It’s directed squarely at Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt.
“We’re going to keep plugging away until ownership and Mr. Hunt realize that Scott Pioli is not the right man for the job,” said McDonald, a digital media consultant who bought $90 tickets online for $40 for Sunday’s game.
“We’re not turning our back on the team, we’re not turning our back on the players … (except for) Cassel … We have a lot of people talking about it, people who normally might not have gone to the game are picking up tickets really cheap … they want to go and support the players but also want to send a message to ownership that this has reached a ridiculous level of epic failure.”
The Chiefs loss Monday at Pittsburgh dropped the Chiefs’ record under Pioli to 22-35 for a winning percentage of .386, making him, McDonald said, “sole owner of the worst record under a general manager in Kansas City …” compared to Jim Schaaf’s 71-108-1 record and .397 winning percentage during 1977-88.
“Ideally we’d like to see the Patriot Way gone …” McDonald said, referring to Pioli’s former employer, the New England Patriots. “Let this show find another home, and at least as far as we can tell, a large majority of the Patriot Way involved stumbling over Tom Brady in the draft.”
The Chiefs players are not oblivious to the unrest in the stands and the vitriol on the Internet. So how will they respond to sections of fans wearing black and to the banners in the sky?
“For us, you go out there and do your job,” said quarterback Matt Cassel, who Pioli acquired from the Patriots as one of his first moves in Kansas City and the most visible player targeted by the fans’ anger. “We’re frustrated, everybody is frustrated here. None of us envisioned this, and none of us want to be 1-8, and the fans are frustrated as well.
“At the same time, we have a job to do, and we’re going to do our job to the best of our ability and hopefully that results in a win and we can change the atmosphere and the environment around here.”
One win, or even winning all three games on this homestand may not be enough to satisfy the fuming fan base. Many are already looking to next year.
“This season is over, and it makes it hard to follow the rest of the NFL, because when your team doesn’t even compete, and you have no hope for the future, what difference does it make who wins the Super Bowl or the division?” said Jerome Hatlewick, a former Olathe resident who still follows the Chiefs from Des Moines, where he moved in 2009.
“There is no evidence that if Pioli and (coach Romeo) Crennel are retained, anything will change or improve with the Chiefs. I’m spending the rest of this season watching other teams to determine where a better general manager could be or where a new coach could come from.
“I’m also watching the college quarterbacks to see which one might be drafted by hopefully the new general manager as a fresh start in Kansas City.”