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Hall of Famer Willie Lanier discusses end of the Chiefs’ 50-year Super Bowl drought

In an exclusive interview, Lanier recalled some great moments of his Chiefs career.

Super Bowl IV - Minnesota Vikings v Kansas City Chiefs

On Wednesday, I had to opportunity to speak with Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier — a lynchpin of the 1969 Chiefs team that won Super Bowl IV.

In an exclusive interview, Lanier spoke about Concordance Academy of Leadership, a St. Louis-based non-profit working to reduce reincarceration rates for recently-released felons through personalized support for substance abuse — along with mental health treatment, education, job readiness for employment, housing and legal services. About 77% of those released from prison are rearrested within five years — and 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration during their childhood. As co-chair of the Academy’s recently announced “First Chance” campaign. Lanier is helping to raise $50 million to expand the program to 11 cities. You can learn more at ConcordanceAcademy.org.


We talked some football, too.

I asked the six-time Pro Bowler if the Chiefs winning Super Bowl LIV in February had changed things for veterans of the 1969 team — whether it meant they no longer had to carry so much of the load for the team’s long-suffering fans.

“It’s not really a load for those who played,” said Lanier. “It’s a hope that you — seriously — live long enough to see it again.”

Lanier — who turned 75 in August — said that at the time, he and his teammates had no idea that it would take so long for the Chiefs to get back.

“To think that it might take 50 years for the next thing to happen — in anything that any of us do? 50 years? Half a century?” he asked incredulously.

Once it had taken that long, Lanier — referring to former Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford’s offsides penalty in the 2018 AFC championship game — said that there’s always the worry that such a mistake might be the beginning of another 50-year drought.

“You don’t know whether you’re going to get back that quickly — so that penalty that took you out of play could have been another 50 years; I don’t know. But fortunately, as things occurred, that took one away from you — but then you were able to have the opportunity, and fortunately it all came together.”

Lanier, of course, had lived through another such moment — Garo Yepremian’s field goal that ended the longest game ever played: the Chiefs’ Christmas Day loss to the Miami Dolphins in 1971.

“I know as I watched it arc from the time [Yepremian] struck it from 37 yards away and watched it sail through the air, I was hoping someone might have been having target practice and it would go ‘boom’ before it got there,” Lanier recalled. “But of course, that wasn’t the case.”

It would be 15 years before the Chiefs made the playoffs again — and 20 before they won a playoff game. It was a crushing disappointment for the Chiefs, who had put a very good team on the field in the two seasons following their Super Bowl win.

NFL: FEB 04 NFL Honors Red Carpet Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It probably was our best team,” said Lanier. “I sometimes go back and forth to the 1970 team, where I think we tied with the Raiders and then missed out on the playoffs. But the team in the Christmas Day game — the longest one ever played — was such that you had a good blend of veterans, maturing players and younger guys who had come on board. So I think that the experience level on average was the best blend of old and young that you could have put together.”

Like many of his era, Lanier recognizes that while the modern game is more exciting than it was during his career; it’s just a lot more difficult for defensive players to master.

“Being able to cover someone today is almost impossible,” he said. “You have to know the route. You have to know the space on the defense where the hole is. You have to be like a chess master, because you’re playing against the offensive coordinator trying to find the hole in your defense — and you have to find it before they find it.”

Finally, we talked about one of Lanier’s most famous moments as a Chief: the fourth-quarter goal-line stand in the 1969 Divisional round game against Joe Namath and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Jets. Lanier was quick to point out that the Chiefs found themselves in that position through a grievous mistake by a fellow Chiefs Hall of Famer.

“Mitch Holthus does a great job reviewing that play because of what it did in Chiefs history,” noted Lanier, “but the reality was that was a 40-yard interference penalty on Emmitt Thomas; he was covering George Sauer.”

While the Chiefs’ ability to hold the Jets in that series has often been attributed to Lanier’s emotional leadership — which he didn’t deny — he said that the team was taking a calculated risk. At the one-yard line, the Jets couldn’t afford to risk a long count that might have resulted in a false-start penalty that would move them back five yards. But the Chiefs had realized an offsides penalty carried little risk for them; the Jets would simply move half a yard closer to the goal. So the team got their extra edge on that series of plays by realizing they could afford to try to jump the snap.

Lanier said that success in such moments comes from drawing on your own life experience.

“There comes a unique circumstance that you attempt to use all of you knowledge as an individual and your background as to who you are — not just from playing a sport, but from whatever you’ve done in your life, trying to achieve outcomes, trying to deal with critical moments of decision, trying to think through something that makes sense to you at that moment.”