My father was a Marine. He fought behind the lines on some of those pacific islands during World War II. He enlisted young and was promoted to sergeant right before his 19th birthday. Think about that. A marine sergeant at age 18… he was one tough sob…
Unfortunately, fighting that war left a lot of scars and he carried a lot of baggage – so much so that I never really knew him until he (more or less) got his act together when I was 15 years old. Being reunited left us with a lot of catching up to do and I was always fascinated by his descriptions of a different world – a different time. His reminisces about growing up, then life in the 1950s… He was smart, and he wasn't anti-progress (far from it) but, there were things he missed, and there were a few things he was nostalgic for…
I’m not as tough as my dad, and I pray I never have to go through what he went through, but in some ways I am very much like him. There are some things that I too feel we’re moving on too quickly from. You see, I feel there’s still room in the NFL for tough defenses, tough minded QBs, and tough sobs.
Today’s progressive NFL is seemingly all about passing yardage, spectacular plays, and strong-armed gun-slinging QBs that can (occasionally) light up the score board. I understand the allure. I get that when you’re fighting for ratings there had better be some excitement in every five-minute segment of airtime. I also know that the generations younger than me seem to go through life at a faster pace. Scenes in movies now go by so quickly that I’m not really sure of what I saw – and asking my niece what just happened doesn't help, she doesn't know either (but she doesn't seem to be bothered by it).
Combine all this with the (relatively) new insatiable desire for statistics and the until recently unimaginable ease the internet gives us to obtain them, and you have a world-view of fandom that is as foreign to me as long hair and smoking pot were to my father.
But is it better? And are we maybe missing some of the greatness of the game?
I’m not much of a stat guy, but here’s one to think about… the NFL is now so popular that over 75% of the people that consider themselves fans have never strapped on shoulder pads. Now I’m not trying to say that you have to have played the game to enjoy, appreciate, or understand it… but I do think that spitting out your bloody mouthpiece, heaving lungfuls of air, staring at the guy that just got the best of you, and knowing that you've got 50 other guys counting on you to turn the tables on him in the next 40 seconds does give you a certain perspective.
I grew up watching the 49ers because my uncle who fought in Korea (that’s another story) was a big fan. Back then, we were lucky to have their games aired in Kansas more than a handful of times every year. Fortunately, they were in the playoffs a lot so we got our annual fix. I started watching when the QB was John Brodie, who led the League in passing yardage, passing touchdowns, least sacks, and lowest percentage of passes intercepted. He retired as the third greatest career passer in NFL history, having been named the 1970 League MVP and a two-time Pro Bowler. Soon after he retired, a young quiet guy took over at QB and managed that team to historic achievements – many consider the 1980s to be a golden era of football and if so, Joe Montana was its symbol.
I moved to KC and bought season tickets in 1989. I wasn't really a Chiefs fan, and the team hadn't really been any good, but it was the first time I had lived in a city with a pro football team and by golly I wanted to go to a game every week. I heard that this new high-powered GM named Peterson had just hired this hard-nosed coach named Schottenheimer and I pretty much had my pick of seats anywhere in the stadium so I figured, ‘Why not?’
I never dreamed I could enjoy anything as much as I did those tickets over that next decade or so. All I hear about today are the playoff losses; but the wins, the camaraderie, the memory of Lamar swiftly walking through my tailgate without saying a word, just checking things out, and the knowing glance we shared… what infected the entire city wasn't just the results of a scoreboard. It was the irrepressible will of a people – fans and players alike – to overcome. It was Steve DeBerg playing with a pin sticking through the cast of his demolished thumb. It was Neil Smith swinging for the fences and Marty kissing James Hasty on the forehead. It was being just as excited to see your defense take the field as it was to watch Marcus Allen make another defender miss.
You see, I’m not a Chiefs fan because we've won a lot of championships; I’m a Chiefs fan because I believe in beating the odds. I don’t care that the odds were against Lamar Hunt competing with the NFL, and thank God neither did he. Joe Montana didn't care that his team said he wasn't good enough anymore and my dad didn't care when they said he wasn't old enough or tough enough to be a marine. I went back at that guy across the line from me and the next play I hit him hard… and the next play I hit him again, and again...
There’s something that happens to you when you don’t quit. Win or lose you know you can do something many others can’t or won’t. Maybe this is why certain teams through history had no ‘right’ to achieve like they did; maybe this is what they mean when they talk about character; maybe this is what is so hard to measure, but is as real as Montana mounting a comeback drive (after John Elway just mounted his own comeback drive) to beat Denver in Denver – and everyone in the stadium knew that Joe was going to do it.
They say you can’t measure someone’s heart. Then how can you measure the hearts of 53 players, the staff that supports them, and the city that believes in them?
There were a lot of people telling Andy Reid that he’d lost ‘it.’ There are still a lot of people telling Alex Smith that he’s not good enough. In today’s world we've got everybody and their brother using statistics to ‘prove’ that we can’t keep winning; that our QB isn't good enough, that our schedule hasn't been strong enough, that our players can’t endure enough – it’s the same echoes we've been hearing all our lives. What the statisticians around the league don’t comprehend (maybe because they’re too caught-up in their fast-paced world) is that we can’t add; we can’t compute the odds against us and we don’t care. We won’t quit, we won’t bow, and we won’t let each other down. We’re Kansas City. We overcome.