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Chiefs legend Len Dawson has died

Dawson was the team’s quarterback before the team arrived in Kansas City — and was MVP of Super Bowl IV.

Kansas City Chiefs vs New York Jets, 1969 AFL Divisional Playoffs
Dawson huddles with his offensive teammates during the 1969 Divisional round playoff against the New York Jets.

Former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson has died at the age of 87. Through KMBC-TV, the Dawson family issued a statement.

“With wife Linda at his side, it is with much sadness that we inform you of the passing of our beloved Len Dawson. He was a wonderful husband, father, brother and friend. Len was always grateful and many times overwhelmed by the countless bonds he made during his football and broadcast careers.

“He loved Kansas City and no matter where his travels took him, he could not wait to return home.”

On August 12, we learned that Dawson had begun hospice care.

Thanks to a long career in sports journalism, Dawson was the person most readily associated with the franchise for decades after he retired from football in 1976, ending a 19-year playing career in which he threw for 28,711 passing yards, 239 passing touchdowns and 183 interceptions.

By today’s standards, those counting stats may not sound impressive. But to put Dawson’s career into the proper perspective, he threw a touchdown pass on 6.4% of his attempts. That’s a higher rate than modern-day passers such as Peyton Manning (5.7%), Tom Brady (5.5%) and Drew Brees (5.4%).

In fact, only one other pro quarterback has ever exceeded Dawson’s career touchdown percentage. It might be that you’ve never heard of Frank Ryan, who posted a 7% figure from 1958 to 1970 while playing for three different teams. But you’re likely to be familiar with the player who is tied with Dawson at 6.4%: Patrick Mahomes.

It is important to remember, however, that Dawson played in an era in which passing the ball was hard; defensive backs had far fewer restrictions placed on them. In 2021, the NFL’s average pass completion percentage was 64.8. Over his career, Dawson’s was just 57.1. So what these numbers show is that when it counted, “Lenny the Cool” could deliver.

And that’s why in 1987, this humble man from Alliance, Ohio — who liked to refer to himself as “the seventh son of a seventh son “— was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Still... without Lamar Hunt and his “Foolish Club,” Dawson’s name might be lost to history.

In August of 1959, the Texas oilman had recruited seven other wealthy men — some of whom, like himself, had been refused the opportunity to own an NFL team — to form the American Football League. Hunt’s franchise would be the Dallas Texans.

Dawson on the sidelines with legendary Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown in 1960.

At the time, Dawson was riding the bench for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, which had selected him out of Purdue in the first round (fifth overall) of the 1957 draft. But then, the team had acquired All-Pro quarterback Bobby Layne.

At the end of the year, the Steelers traded Dawson to the Cleveland Browns. There, he spent two more seasons on the bench behind Milt Plum, who had been selected out of Penn State a dozen picks after Dawson in 1957. The Browns released Dawson after the 1961 season.

Dawson was then 26 years old. In a five-year NFL career, he had appeared in 28 games (starting two), completing 21 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. At that moment, he could easily have decided to simply begin the broadcasting career he had always foreseen for himself. But in Dallas, Texans head coach Hank Stram — with whom Dawson had formed a strong bond when both were at Purdue from 1953 to 1955 — had a different idea.

In his first season with the Texans in 1962, Dawson completed 61% of his passes for 2,759 yards, 29 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, leading the team to the first of three league championships during his 14-year career with the franchise. The Sporting News named him the AFL’s Most Valuable Player.

The following season, the team moved to Kansas City, becoming the Chiefs. Dawson and his teammates won their next championship in 1966. That sent the Chiefs to the first AFL-NFL Championship Game, which we now call Super Bowl I. The third championship in 1969 put the Chiefs into Super Bowl IV. In the final game ever played by an AFL team, Dawson was named Most Valuable Player, leading the Chiefs to a dominating (and improbable) 23-7 victory over the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings. The next season, the Chiefs (and 11 other AFL teams) became part of the NFL.

Vikings vs. Chiefs Super Bowl IV
Dawson passes against the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted “Purple People Eater” defensive line in Super Bowl IV.
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Now — and likely for all time — Dawson is the only player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame with such an unimpressive early career; no other Hall of Fame player has ever started just two games during their first five years as a pro. The unusual circumstances that allowed Dawson to step directly from the shadows into the limelight are not likely to occur again — although Kurt Warner’s story (entering the league at 27 and being named league MVP prior to winning the Super Bowl the following season) came close.

But for Dawson, his background informed every moment of his post-football career. Unlike so many players who traded superstar pro football careers for media jobs, he knew what it was like to fail. Unlike so many of his peers, he had paid his dues — not only on the field, but also in front of the camera.

Becoming a professional football player in an era where side jobs were needed to pay the bills, Dawson began his post-football broadcasting career early, becoming sports director at Kansas City’s KMBC-TV in 1966. He would remain there for 44 years. Each night during the season, he would rush from Chiefs football practice (then at the team’s practice facility in Swope Park) straight to the downtown television studio — often appearing in filmed on-field interviews in which both he and his teammate interviewee were wearing filthy practice uniforms.

Not for nothing, during his first year at KMBC, Dawson turned in the best season of his football career, leading the AFL in completion percentage, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and passer rating — and garnering his second Associated Press All-Pro selection.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Dawson beats the drum at Arrowhead Stadium prior to a Chiefs game in 2017.
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

All of this made him not only one of the greatest to ever play the game, but also one of the greatest to ever cover it. Following his retirement, he gained national acclaim as the co-host of HBO’s groundbreaking “Inside The NFL” series, where his spot-on analyses kept viewers informed for 25 seasons. In 1985, he began a 33-year career as the analyst for Chiefs radio broadcasts, in which listeners always knew when Kevin Harlan (or later, Mitch Holthus) was about to describe an amazing play — because Dawson would see it coming, uttering a “Whoa!” under his breath.

His background also made him a genuine, likable person. During the 17 years that I covered the team’s postgame locker rooms, Dawson was always present. A friendly, kind and engaging man, he was always willing to speak about that day’s game — or his own career. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about interactions Dawson had with teammates, coaches, reporters and fans. I’ve never heard a single one that didn’t characterize him the same way.

I am certain that over the years I knew him, Dawson never learned my name. But he never failed to treat me as a friend. I can think of no higher compliment to give him.

Farewell, Leonard.

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