Uncle John drove stock cars on dirt tracks in the 50s. The medium size towns of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were his stomping grounds. His rambunctious nature wasn’t appreciated in a blue-collar family built on hard work and the good book. It was tolerated because he shared his father’s love of cars. Dad and the brothers worked for GM. They were building those cars. Johnny was driving them.At family gatherings everyone was expected to bring a hot plate for the feast. Johnny never brought anything but his stories. His contribution was more than enough. The food was always great, but the stories were the main event. He was one of those men who lead one of those lives. The kind of life that men with buttoned up shirts and 9 to 5 grinds secretly dream of living. A life filled with too much drink, too many women and the occasional near death experience.
He spoke of days spent swapping paint with men named “AJ” and “Lee” and “Beauchamp” and nights spent trading punches with the locals who didn’t like the attention they got from women. He’d speak in passing about illegal poker games in smoke filled back rooms with “Sailor” and “Dolly”. Where he’d lose the meager purse he’d only just won on some shitty track in front of a sparse crowd. He was a legend in my young mind.
As I grew older, I began to view the stories through a more cynical eye. Never quite knowing which of them were true. But it never mattered much because we shared a new love. The Chiefs became the glue that held our family together. The lessons Johnny would teach me about the game would stick with me forever.
He wasn’t a rich man but he would speak of the land he owned in the panhandle that oil speculators wanted to buy. He’d say that the money was tempting but that land was just too beautiful to become a junkyard for metal rigs. I doubted that land even existed until after he passed. That’s when I got a call from an oil man who had heard that John was gone and wanted to know who now controlled the rights. It seems the stories were true all along.
Johnny was a Dallas Texans fan. When the team moved to his beloved Kansas City, like many in my family, he rushed to buy his tickets. He cheered for Chiefs stars long forgotten in this town. He knew more about football than anyone I have ever known. My childhood memories are filled with him explaining the game to me. He preached that blocking was in the feet and not the hands. He’d motion to Matt Herkenhoff and point out the flaws in his technique. Then he’d make me watch the great Jack Rudnay to see the right way to play.
I remember him sharing that of all the things a QB needed to be able to do, the ability to handle pressure was the most important. He’d have me watch Dan Fouts to see how it’s supposed to be done. “When the rush is closing in,” he’d say “the average QB begins looking for where to go. The great QB keeps looking for where to throw.” He’d often use the other team’s players as the example because those Chiefs teams of the 70s and 80s were often terrible. The stadium was empty. To show support for the team was an invitation to ridicule.
I remember all of those lessons vividly. I remember rushing through the tailgate meal so we’d have time to throw the ball around before heading to our seats. I remember the excitement of getting an autograph from a player leaving the stadium. I remember the day mom took me down on the field to ride Warpaint. Well, it was more like sitting on Warpaint, but I sure as hell felt like the 7th Cavalry charging into battle. I remember the rides home in the van. The sky was often dark because the post-game tailgate had lasted until they kicked us out of the parking lot. Family and friends laughing and joking on those drives sharing a love for each other and our team.
You know what I don’t really remember? The games. Sure, I remember players and plays. Great moments and tragic ones. Don’t get me wrong, I cared deeply about the outcome of every one of those games. We all did. We were always elated in victory and disappointed in defeat. But those feelings fade. And what I’m left with is the eternal knowledge that it was all just a vehicle to make me feel part of something. As many of the people I went to those games with grow old and some of them pass from this world, they are forever frozen in my memory as young smiling faces. I can still see them decked out in red, each with their own personal spot to inhabit. Their own part in the Sunday play. I can still remember thinking, “I can’t sit there, that’s Pat’s seat.”
I’m not writing all of this in an attempt to tell anyone how to feel after another embarrassing loss this week. You’re entitled to those feelings. You’ve damn well earned them. It’s just a reminder of why I think we do all of this. Why we care so much. Why we spend time that we don’t really have. Years from now, I won’t remember that the evil Bills beat the heroic Chiefs. I’ll remember that Uncle John taught me how to see what Ryan Lilja is doing wrong. I’ll remember he taught me what to look for when Cassel drops back to pass. And I’ll remember the call I got from my niece to ask me to teach her some of those same lessons. She was sad about another disappointing Chiefs loss but excited at the prospect of her very first fantasy football victory. A team I helped her draft. A moment I get to cherish forever.
You can hate Pioli or Romeo or Clark or Cassel or Copper or shitty ass Belcher or whomever. But know this: when they are long gone, we will still be here. We’ll be sharing Sundays with the ones we love. Win or lose we’re part of something. If you stop watching or caring you aren’t cheating anyone but yourself. Maybe you’ll find something to replace it. I sincerely hope you do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. You see, being a fan of the Chiefs isn’t the property of a mediocre 70s running back named Tony Reed. It belongs to Uncle John who drove stock cars on dirt tracks in the 50s.