Growing up as a kid in Pittsburgh during the 1970s, it was hard not to become an NFL fan. I got to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in a six-year stretch from 1974-1979, winning Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV.
But I also became a fan of the entire league. And even though the Steelers were my childhood team, when I moved to the Midwest to attend school in the early 1980s, I ended up as a diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan.
When I think about it, I realize that I have had the privilege of seeing many great players go from their college years to an NFL career — and then see them don their gold jackets at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. While watching the latest generation of NFL players, I am sometimes reminded of other players from a different era.
I had one such moment during the final minutes of the Chiefs’ 34-28 victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 14. With 2:21 left on the clock, all the Chiefs had to do was pick up one more first down. On the previous play, the Broncos had used their final timeout to stop the clock. On first down, Jerrick McKinnon carried the ball for no gain, taking the game to the two-minute warning.
As usual, there was a knot in my stomach.
Then on second-and-10, Kansas City handed the ball to rookie running back Isiah Pacheco, who rushed for 11 yards to pick up the first down — and seal the Chiefs’ 14th consecutive win over the Broncos.
For the first time in a while, I jumped out of my seat.
It wasn’t because Pacheco had just put the game away. Instead, it was how he did it. Blasting through the initial hole, he was first contacted by Broncos safety Kareem Jackson. Pacheco just trucked him. Then Denver safety Justin Simmons took him on. But Pacheco didn’t go down until cornerback K’Waun Williams came in to help.
But what got me most excited was how he ran. He didn’t run away from the defenders. Instead, he ran at them. Rather than take hits from defenders, he lowered his head and delivered them.
It instantly reminded me of another player who ran like that: Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton.
A Hall of Fame back who spent all of his 13 seasons in Chicago, Payton played his college ball at Jackson State. In 1975, he was selected in the first round (fourth overall) of the NFL Draft. When he retired after the 1987 season, he was the NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 16,726 yards. He held that record until October 27, 2002, when Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith broke it in a game against the Seattle Seahawks. Smith is still the league’s all-time rushing leader with 18,355 yards.
Like Pacheco, Payton was known for initiating contact — and preferring always to never take an easy out by running out of bounds to avoid a hit. His motto was, “Never die easy.”
This is not to say that I believe Pacheco is another Walter Payton. But that kind of running — where a back prefers to initiate contact — is not common. Even though he is still a rookie, we have seen enough of Pacheco to know that his style works for him. Clearly, the Chiefs got themselves a real gem in the seventh round of the 2022 draft.
Back in October, I told my wife that before the season’s end, I believed Pacheco would supplant Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the Chiefs’ starting running back. She usually forgets my predictions — but for some reason, she remembers this one. And now it has come to pass.
What began the season as a position group with many question marks has blossomed into a pleasant surprise. Pacheco — and the veteran McKinnon — are doing some great things for Kansas City. If they can stay healthy, I think we are going to see this one-two punch become a big factor in the playoffs.