They began arriving in the parking lot outside Arrowhead Stadium at 7 o’clock in the morning because, let’s face it, when you’ve spent your entire life as a sports fan waiting for a day like this, you want that day to begin as soon as possible. It was sunny and it was freezing and it didn’t matter to any of them.
“I would’ve camped out here on Tuesday if they would’ve let me,” Patrick Flannery said over a tenuous cell-phone connection about an hour before kickoff, his voice already landscaped by four full hours of tailgating. Flannery was raised in Overland Park, out in the Kansas suburbs. He was born two months after the Chiefs beat the Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV, on Jan. 11, 1970.
“I’ve literally waited my whole life for this,” Flannery said.
The older ones, they had waited 50 full years. This AFC Championship game would mark 800 games since Super Bowl IV. Nice, round numbers like this guarantee nothing. Still, it was hard to believe the Tennessee Titans, the ’85 Bears, or anyone football team ever assembled would have had a chance on this Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes, even the most star-crossed franchises find a way to dance on those stars in the end.
“Chiefs Kingdom,” the team’s chairman and CEO, Clark Hunt, bellowed at the faithful masses a few minutes after the Chiefs had made so many dreams come true Sunday with a decisive 35-24 win over Tennessee’s tenacious Titans, “we’re going back to the Super Bowl!”
In his hands, the 54-year-old scion of the Hunt family held the trophy named for his father, Lamar, who 60 years ago founded the AFL, who a few years after that moved this franchise from his native Dallas and changed everything in Kansas City, an erstwhile cow town.
To fully understand the civic jamboree that took place Sunday afternoon, dawn to dusk, opening kickoff to final gun and beyond, you need to know just how much the Chiefs still mean to Kansas City. Before Lamar Hunt, Kansas City was known for barbecue, jazz and serving as a Triple-A feeder system for the Yankees. More NCAA Tournament games were played within Kansas City’s borders between 1940 and 1960 than any other.
The Chiefs made it a pro town. They made Kansas City big time. In the 50 years since Super Bowl IV, the Royals have won two World Series. The NBA Kings arrived from Cincinnati, stayed 14 years, left for Sacramento. The NHL Scouts were born, tripped on ice rinks all across North America for two years, left for Denver, now live in New Jersey.
The Chiefs have been the constant. Mostly, that’s meant being a constant source of January angst, powerful teams unable to win the big one, even as so many of those games were played at Arrowhead. In 1995, the Chiefs were 13-3, No. 1 seed in the AFC, and lost a gut punch of a playoff game to the Colts, 10-7.
The mayor at the time, Emmanuel Cleaver, sat frozen in his seat for a good 30 minutes after that game, he once told me.
“I thought if I stayed there some more, sat out there in the cold, sat long enough, something would change. After a while, you realize the game is over and the season is over, and you have to go back home, go back to your life. Back to the world.”
Two years later, again 13-3, again No. 1 in the AFC, the Chiefs lost another gut punch, at Arrowhead, to Denver, 14-10. After that one I saw Lamar Hunt himself, a half-smile still clinging to his face.
“We’ll get this right,” he said. “One of these years will be our year.”
That year arrived 22 years later, 13 years after Lamar’s death, a year after one more heart-stomping loss, in overtime to New England in the AFC title game. That’s the baggage everyone brought to Arrowhead Stadium, starting with a coach named Andy Reid and a quarterback named Patrick Mahomes, so disconsolate a year ago, so brilliant this day.
Reid joins Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil, Dan Reeves, Mike Holmgren and John Fox as coaches who have brought two different franchises to the Super Bowl. Mahomes, who may well be the most-fun athlete in all of American team sports, had a tour-de-force performance Sunday: 23-for-35, 294 yards, three touchdown passes and one forever TD run, a snaking 27-yarder just before the half that gave the Chiefs a 21-17 lead they’d never surrender.
“There’s no words to describe what my teammates and I are feeling right here, in this city, in this place,” Mahomes said. “We brought the Lamar Hunt Trophy back home.”
Mahomes is the star Kansas City has sought since Len Dawson, since Otis Taylor, since Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier. Fifty years later, 800 games later, in possession of the trophy named after their founder, the team and the city embraced. And won’t be letting go of each other any time soon.