Len Dawson is sitting at the dining room table in his home decorated in the impeccable taste of his wife, Linda, nearly laughing about his fate and fortune.
Notwithstanding quadruple bypass heart surgery and a battle with prostate cancer a few years ago and a more recent episode of shingles and some memory lapses, the 82-year-old Dawson is correctly confident that most people would opt in if you asked whether they’d like to have led his life.
“Maybe that’s the seventh son of the seventh son,” he said, invoking one of his trademark adages. “I keep saying that, and I’m going to continue to do it.”
This is a winking and winning perspective that has served Dawson remarkably well in a largely charmed life that also has included dark moments, such as the death of his first wife, Jackie, in 1978.
It’s an outlook that explains why the impending end of the era of his regular presence on the Kansas City airwaves, announced earlier this week, is not a cause for sorrow, but appreciation.
“It’s time,” he said. “It’s time.”
Dawson doesn’t linger on this point, but only a few weeks ago he believed the time would be up before this one final season.
He had been told by a Chiefs Radio Network official there was no money to pay him this year, he said when The Star called a few weeks ago and visited on Thursday.
So after more than 50 years in broadcasting, including when he was playing and as a host on “Inside The NFL” and 33 years with the Chiefs Radio Network, he figured that was suddenly that.
Only for there to be a late reversal and discovery of funds.
“I don’t know whether the Chiefs got involved with it or not,” he said. “I don’t know why it turned around in a heartbeat.”
It was coincidence that Dawson used the term “heartbeat,” but it’s also true that he is acutely conscious of the pulse of his life and preciousness of his days as he considers his last season in the booth.
He knows this of its own merits, but it’s also amplified by his awareness of what has happened to so many of his peers.
His favorite receiver with the Chiefs, Otis Taylor, has been bedridden for years. Super Bowl I quarterback counterpart Bart Starr has suffered a series of wrenching and debilitating health issues.
Starr’s Green Bay teammate, Willie Wood, made a key interception of Dawson in that game that Wood can’t remember — along with ever even being on an NFL roster.
Then there’s former Miami linebacker and Dawson’s co-host on “Inside The NFL” Nick Buoniconti, who feels “lost” and “like a child.”
As he does at the mention of Gale Sayers, who is battling dementia, Dawson winces or sighs and even looks away as he considers the plights players he never spent a moment worrying about back then.
He thinks again of how lucky he is, how even if he can’t magically return to his immortal 20s, he is healthy enough to walk regularly in Loose Park and maybe get back to golf, and look forward to adventures with wife Linda and the rest of the next chapter in his life after broadcasting.
“We’re talking about a couple of people who went through the things that I went through and they’re not in good health,” he said, wistfully. “They’re just existing. I’m living.”
If not for Lamar Hunt hiring Hank Stram, who had recruited and coached Dawson at Purdue, Dawson’s life would have played out in an entirely different way.
You never even would have heard his name, he figures.
Despite being drafted No. 5 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957, Dawson received a $2,000 signing bonus to go with his $12,000 salary and languished for three years with the Steelers and two in Cleveland.
He had thrown 45 passes in five NFL seasons.
So as a young father, he was being nudged by his family back home in Alliance, Ohio, to work harder at offseason jobs like selling insurance and soft water because maybe this football thing wasn’t going to take.
But his football career was resuscitated after a chance reunion with Stram, who was in the area for a coaches’ convention after becoming the head coach of the Dallas Texans in the AFL.
Told “if you ever get free, let me know,” Dawson liberated himself by asking to be put on waivers by the Browns.
He promptly led the Texans to the 1962 AFL title — the first of three for the franchise, culminating in Dawson becoming MVP of the 23-7 Super Bowl IV victory over Minnesota.
Even as he flourished with the Texans and, as of a year later, the Chiefs, Dawson like others of his era sought outside work knowing any football future could be fleeting. Even the best pro football income was a fraction of what it is today.
So he was all for it when general manager Jack Steadman went to KMBC in 1966 and suggested an idea for a sports anchor who could help ratings … (not to mention perhaps boost Chiefs’ ticket sales).
As Dawson understands it, Steadman was asked what sort of broadcasting experience Dawson had.
“‘Don’t worry about it,’” Steadman evidently said. “‘He can handle it.’”
Turned out he could, in a role that would seem preposterous today.
Picture Alex Smith scrambling from Chiefs practice to a studio with his hair perhaps still wet from the shower, donning a sports coat and anchoring the sports segments at 6 and 10 p.m.
The Chiefs went to the Super Bowl that season, so it wasn’t seen as a disruption. But when they fell short the next couple years, Dawson heard complaints that the quarterback was spending too much time on TV.
“‘First of all, I don’t produce it. I (only) present it,’” he’d tell people. “‘And at least you know where I am at 10 o’clock at night.’”
Even if the notion of “cable” TV puzzled him, that work ultimately led to him being noticed by HBO for its new football show, which he hosted from 1977 to 2001 to become one of the nation’s most credible analysts.
That was part of a profile that made for a remarkable distinction in his life: In the very county where he grew up, Dawson is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame both as a player (1987) and a broadcaster (2008).
“My teachers back in grade school must have been shaking their heads about that,” said Dawson, who is grateful to football and broadcast teammates for his success.
When the Texans made their move to Kansas City after the 1962 season, Dawson had no idea what to expect.
He thought of the area as a cow town with livestock running wild in the streets and didn’t know there was a difference between Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas.
But it not only became home, but also a place where he became part of the landscape and culture as one of its most enduring and endearing sports figures.
Not merely by luck, of course.
But because of a force of will and cool temperament and uncanny feel for the moment that he displayed as a player and broadcaster, and now remains evident in his dignity as he gets ready to enjoy another phase of his abundant life.
“I stopped playing football a long time ago,” he said. “I’m not going to stop living.”