Kansas City Chiefs

The ballad of the Chiefs’ home, Arrowhead Stadium and the people who love it

Chiefs DT Derrick Nnadi: ‘You play at Arrowhead it’s a whole different story’

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi talks about the advantage of the defense playing in front of the home crowd at Arrowhead Stadium on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018.
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Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi talks about the advantage of the defense playing in front of the home crowd at Arrowhead Stadium on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018.

The little Chiefs fan is all grown up now, so what used to be the biggest playground in the Midwest is now his place of work.

Xavier Williams stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 309 pounds. He plays defensive tackle for the team he worshiped as a kid. But when he drives his blue Ford F-150 through Gate 5 at Arrowhead Stadium and past the hot grills and footballs tossed from sisters to brothers early on game days, he feels a little like that 6-year-old boy again.

That was him. That was his family.

Dad packed a grill and burgers and footballs and set it all up with his friends. They brought a big radio for music and a small TV for football. Sometimes they didn’t even go inside. They stayed in the parking lot, listened to the noise from the crowd, and after a few hours the people started coming back out and the party would start again.

“The environment,” Williams said. “It’s not really matched, anywhere.”

Williams has done the full circle of life for a Chiefs fan at Arrowhead Stadium, which will host — by far — the biggest game in its 47-year history with the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots on Sunday.

This is Arrowhead’s grandest moment. Lifelong friendships and even marriages have begun there between strangers. Visitors from coast to coast have called it their favorite stadium, speaking with pride about the grill smoke and deference about certain moments so loud it felt like eardrums and lungs were bursting.

But the block of cement with the corkscrew ramps and broad swooping lines has always specialized in emotional connection and been short on tangible success.

No stadium or arena in major American professional sports has existed longer without hosting a conference or league championship. Gillette Stadium, which opened 30 years after Arrowhead and is home to the Patriots, has hosted seven.

That changes now with Arrowhead’s turn on the national stage — a Super Bowl is on the line, finally. Williams said he choked up a little bit the first time he drove through that lot as a player for the team he used to root for. He figures that’ll happen again on Sunday.

“It catches me,” he said. “Just reminiscing. You see the people just partying. That’s when you realize, ‘Damn, I play for the Kansas City Chiefs.’”

This is the story of an old building, of loud fans who’ve given more than they’ve received, and the connection between them all that transcends even the city’s biggest football moment in nearly half a century.

‘The heart of Kansas City’

They installed more parking than anywhere else in the league and more seats than a market the size of Kansas City should’ve had in a stadium specifically designed to trap noise, and for nearly two decades that felt like a cruel joke.

Five Hall of Famers played on Arrowhead’s first team in 1972, but it would all crumble so quickly. By the last game of 1974, empty seats outnumbered tickets sold, and legendary coach Hank Stram was fired.

When NFL Films came, the cameramen were instructed to keep their shots tight and low, to avoid empty seats in the background. Sometimes, as few as 11,000 fans showed up in a stadium with seven times that capacity.

In Arrowhead’s first 17 years, the Chiefs fired five coaches and appeared in just one playoff game. When Carl Peterson was hired as general manager and Marty Schottenheimer as coach in 1989, the Chiefs had sold just 23,000 season tickets. That year, a local TV station chose to air a baseball playoff game — one in which the Kansas City Royals weren’t involved — instead of a Chiefs game.

“We had to do something,” Peterson said. “Fans, at that point, frankly didn’t care.”

That changed quickly. Peterson and Schottenheimer spoke to every community group that would have them that first offseason. The Chiefs encouraged tailgating, even selling tents and food and charcoal in the parking lot.

“My favorite place to do a game anywhere in the NFL,” said Dan Dierdorf, the Hall of Famer who played the first game at Arrowhead and later broadcast games there. “The best-smelling place in the NFL. These people, they’ve got crystal candelabras on their tables, they’re roasting whole pigs. It’s unbelievable.”

Schottenheimer won right away — a winning record in his first season, and then six straight postseasons for a franchise that had only been that far twice in two decades. The next year, the undefeated and defending AFC champion Bills came for Arrowhead’s first Monday Night Football game in eight years.

Frank Reich, the Bills’ backup quarterback that year, said it was louder during warmups than most stadiums are during the game. Tony Dungy, then an assistant coach for the Chiefs, said it was the loudest stadium he’d heard before or since.

“That was sort of the coming out-party for the stadium,” said Bob Moore, then the Chiefs’ head PR man.

“I remember that game very, very, well, with the barbecue smoke wafting through the parking lot,” said broadcaster Al Michaels, who did play by play that night.

“That was the ‘90s version of the Chiefs and everything that was great about that decade,” said Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt.

That decade was a blur. Derrick Thomas’ seven sacks, and the eighth he didn’t get. James Hasty’s game-winning pick-6, then a kiss from Schottenheimer. Dante Hall’s return against the Broncos. Tamarick Vanover’s punt return for a touchdown, which Dierdorf said elicited a cheer that remains the loudest he’s ever heard a stadium.

Once, in December 1990, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway backed away from his center and motioned to the head referee that he couldn’t hear. Official Gordon McCarter, who had a reputation for being particular about rules, addressed the crowd with a warning that they needed to quiet down or the Chiefs would be penalized a timeout.

Technically, McCarter was following a since-revoked procedure. But the crowd, of course, only grew louder.

“Never saw that before or since,” said Ken Bradshaw, who worked the chain gang back then.

Dozens of men who played at Arrowhead, particularly in the early days, reference being awestruck the first time they saw two standalone one-sport stadiums rising out of the asphalt parking lots at Truman Sports Complex. This was part of a national stadium boom — most of them multipurpose — but Kansas City’s are something like the last two cowboys left.

Foxboro, Riverfront, Three Rivers, Texas Stadium, Veterans Stadium, the Silverdome, Candlestick, the Astrodome and the Kingdome were all built within five years of Arrowhead, and are all no longer in use.

Arrowhead is unique. For years a tradition existed of a few Chiefs players hijacking some four-wheelers and driving a few beers through a tunnel that connects Arrowhead and Kauffman for batting practice.

There’s a jail — they call it a security holding area — in the southeast corner of the plaza level. The cell is said to be small and clean. Some have made it in and back out in time to catch the end of the game.

George Toma, the longtime groundskeeper, remembers chewing out then-Chargers coach Tommy Prothro for leaving 33 cigarette burns on the turf.

Dan Fouts, who was surprised to hear he won more games at Arrowhead than any other visiting quarterback, said the Chargers used to joke that they’d kill Warpaint — the Chiefs’ mascot horse — on days the defense stunk.

You hear these words a lot when you ask people about Arrowhead: loudest I’ve ever heard. That was, literally, by design. The stadium included no cut-outs, with relatively small walkways from the concourse to inside. The noise is trapped inside. The seats slope up at a higher angle than most stadiums, and the rows are an inch tighter than is now allowed.

Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs’ founder and Clark’s father, was involved in designs for the renovation but passed away before the remodeled stadium opened in 2010. His direction was simple: preserve the ramps, seating bowl, football-shape scoreboard and everything else people loved about the place while adding wider concourses and basic amenities that fans had come to expect.

Brady Spencer, who led the Populous architectural team on the Arrowhead renovation, said Lamar would have loved everything about the facelift — except for the statue that’s been added in his likeness.

“That is well said,” Clark said.

There’s some symbolism here, if you want, because Chiefs fans have generally loved everything about Arrowhead — except for the end result. Hearts have broken in those seats, from the freezing cold and missed field goals after the 1995 season to the gorgeous day and no punts after 2003.

They say what binds family is that you can truly be yourself, and call each other out, and Chiefs fans have done plenty of that — most famously with an airplane flying banners calling for a new quarterback and general manager in 2012. Harry McLear, a World War II veteran and original season ticket-holder, remembers being so fed up with Stram that he refused a picture at a fan gathering after a game.

The Chiefs have been the best version of themselves in that stadium, and the worst, and when you think about it you can’t truly have one without the other.

Tim Grunhard arrived at Arrowhead for the first time as a rookie in 1990. He started on the Chiefs’ offensive line for 11 years, and has made his home here ever since. His route to the stadium is the same as a fan that he used as a player.

There is a point on that drive where you turn a corner and Arrowhead just sort of appears from behind a treeline. The view gives him butterflies — not quite the same as when he played, but butterflies all the same.

At some point, he came to think of Arrowhead like a person. The swooping corners are the shoulder. The lights are the eyes. The tailgating the body.

“Then, when I came out of the tunnel, the field was like the heart of that person,” Grunhard said. “To this day, whenever I see the field, I think it’s the heart of Kansas City.”

‘That is my home’

Rachel McCaslin is the kind of the Chiefs fan who misses so few games she can remember why — college graduation, a reunion, the swine flu. She was there, always, with her dad. The Chiefs might win, the Chiefs might lose, but Rachel was there. Not just with her dad, but with thousands of others who somehow felt like family.

They had an extra parking pass in 2009, which they took to handing to a random car on the way in — sort of an atta boy to fellow football masochists for sticking through that 4-12 season that followed that 2-14 season. Before the Broncos game, the car with the gifted pass followed Rachel and her dad to park and say thank you.

They hit it off so well that Rachel and her dad decided they were worthy of the next game’s pass. Rachel put one of the guys in her phone as “Jeff Chiefs.” A year later, the Chiefs were in the playoffs, and Rachel was engaged to Mr. Chiefs.

“What more proof do you need that it pays to be a loyal fan?” she said.

These stories are everywhere, all around Arrowhead. Last Saturday, in section 301, a middle school principal slipped on some ice. He threw his right arm out to catch balance, but it somehow became stuck in an awkward position in the gap between a folding seat and seatback.

The pain burned like hell, and he showed up for school on Monday with his arm in a sling. He did not consider leaving the game.

“Didn’t even cross my mind,” Jim Barton said. “I think adrenaline took over at some point.”

Susie Boyer is a 62-year-old preschool teacher from Savannah, but Chiefs players and security guards know her as The Cookie Lady. On radio broadcaster Mitch Holthus’ show, she goes by Susie Bling Bling. She’s been tailgating at G28 for so long that a few former preschool students have stopped by with their own children.

For noon games, she’s out the door and in her Ford pickup by 5 a.m. They pack a tent, grill, heaters, a generator and even their own port-a-potty. They might cook 50 or 60 steaks in one day. Hot dogs, brats, chili, soup, barbecue. You never know.

Once, Boyer had a cancer scare. Doctors had to operate on her scalp. Current Chiefs safety Eric Berry heard and made it a point to check up on her in training camp — Are you drinking enough water? Are you resting?

Family. Boyer uses that word, too. It can be cliche with coaches who might be fired and players who might be cut, but fans like Boyer last through all of that. The word feels real to them, especially when they’re at weddings and birthdays and swim parties in the summer with people they know from that parking lot.

“I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I tell everybody anyway,” she said. “When I get cremated, just spread my ashes on the field or pavement. That is my home.”

Stadiums have a way of becoming neighborhoods. Derek Van Rensselaer has been going to games in section 118, row 21, since 2010. That means he has yelled and hugged and cried with the people around him for nearly a decade.

Last summer, he bumped into his friend Jim from row 22. Jim told him he was going to give up the tickets. He was diagnosed with cancer, and even as it’s in remission, treatments and his oldest son being in college have made it harder to go. Van Rensselaer saw on Jim’s face this wasn’t what he wanted, so he offered to buy two of the four tickets if it meant Jim kept going to games.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Van Rensselaer said. “It’s a stupid thing. All we do is sit by each other three hours eight times a year, but it’s a real friendship. I love the guy.”

Jim’s son Jack is a junior at Baylor, but he flew up for the last playoff game. They’ve been going to games for 15 years, cooking breakfast and then lunch in the parking lot before games. They prep together most of Saturdays, then throw the football around on Sundays, with Jim joking, How else can you get a teenager to talk to his parents?

He kept his tickets this year, because of his friend Van Rensselaer’s help, and bought a flight for Jack for the AFC Championship Game three months ago.

“One of the highest moments of my life was at that game last Saturday with Jack,” Jim said. “I can’t even explain to you the emotional connection between us at those games.”

Before we forget, one last thing about Rachel and Jeff Chiefs. Their son Harrison will turn 3 on Super Bowl Sunday. Jeff’s job is taking the family to Omaha this spring, a move Rachel agreed to only after a promise that they would keep their Chiefs tickets.

Harrison will be raised the same as his parents.

‘This is what he lived for’

Mitch Holthus already knows what he’ll say late Sunday night when the clock finally hits 0:00 if the Chiefs become AFC champions. He won’t tell anyone — superstition and all that — but it will reference the history from 1972 to now in a few sentences.

The call came to him in the middle of the night, shortly after the last regular-season game. Holthus keeps a pen and small pad of sticky notes by the side of his bed for these occasions, his small part in what would be the greatest moment the franchise has had in 49 years.

“It’s the one place political combatants can high-five each other and get along,” Holthus said. “Arrowhead Stadium becomes the gathering place of this unity.”

Michaels said the NFL only has two college atmospheres left — Green Bay and Kansas City. That’s fitting, too, because in some ways Arrowhead is Lambau Field without the championships.

They have similar stories up there, of friendships and marriages and vacation plans beginning in the parking lot. But they also have four Super Bowl championships, which will always be the ultimate measurement of NFL organizations, and by extension the stadiums they play in.

Nobody wears that anvil quite like Clark Hunt, the son who inherited the family business from an entrepreneurial genius whose name is on the trophy at stake in Sunday’s game.

Hunt remembers the first game at Arrowhead in late summer 1972. He would spend the night in the family suite at the stadium before games, and then spend the next morning kicking field goals with his dad as the holder. Sometimes, then-Chiefs placekicker Jan Stenerud came by to give him pointers.

The place in which Clark slept as a boy is now called the Founder’s Suite, and he spends 50 to 60 nights a year there. It’s a gorgeous space, with a fireplace and kitchen and of course the view, but Clark said his favorite part of the stadium is the parking lot on game days.

That’s the same answer his dad used to give, and this week the connection is hard to get away from. The Chiefs never won the trophy with their founder’s name on it, though he did present it to others a few times. Peterson, the former GM, and former coach Dick Vermeil are among those who’ve said their greatest professional disappointment was not being able to win that trophy for their old boss.

This is the best chance the team has ever had, in the building Lamar helped design, the place that’s become the most famous part of Kansas City.

“He would just have the biggest smile on his face,” Clark said. “This is what he lived for. He lived for the Chiefs having success, for our fans being as excited as they are now, for big games at Arrowhead, for the chance to play in the Super Bowl. This game has it all.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.

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