It’s Super Bowl week again, and with it comes the renewal of a tradition, now into its fifth decade, which we Kansas City Chiefs fans resignedly look forward to every year: watching highlights of Super Bowl IV.
In some ways, it is indeed reassuring to know that every winter, I can turn on the TV and witness the Chiefs playing in the Super Bowl—the same Super Bowl—even if it’s only for 22 minutes plus commercials, and only on ESPN Classic or the NFL Network at odd hours like 2:30 a.m. (wedged in between highlights of Super Bowl III and Super Bowl V).
I found it again this weekend (or, rather, the DVR did). It is some kind of wonderful to be transported to that time that I don’t remember: The ‘70s fanfare, with the funky pop version of “Everything’s Up To Date In Kansas City”…the chipped, dented, tin-like helmets…the (legal) clothesline tackles…the linemen with gap-toothed smiles…the Chiefs’ cheerleaders dressed like a band of blond Pocohantases.
The star of the show was Head Coach Hank Stram, he of the greased helmet hair and homemade Chiefs lapel emblem. Stram was the first coach to be wired (in all senses of the term) for a Super Bowl, and he played it for all it was worth. We see the game almost entirely from his perspective: “Leonard, it’s like stealin’—we gotta do more of it! They can’t cover that stuff in a million years.” One minute: “Mr. Official, how could all six of you miss a play like that?” And then the next: “You did good, you marked it good. Those officials are doing a hell of a job.”
And when Stram calls “65 Toss Power Trap—it might pop wide open,” there’s still a split second of anticipation before it does, and Mike Garrett charges into the end zone. Stram hops out onto the field like a giddy little kid. Minutes later, Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp rolls on the turf in pain. The Minnesota cheerleaders start to cry. And with his “voice of God,” NFL Films’ John Facienda delivers the final decree: “On January 11, 1970, victory belonged to Hank Stram and his Kansas City Chiefs, the world champions of professional football.”
When Chiefs fans talk about getting back to the promised land, this is the specific metaphorical real estate we are talking about. Super Bowl IV is the myth on which those of us too young to remember it personally were raised: The 51 G-O Reverse. The 65 Toss Power Trap. “Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys. Keep negotiating that ball right down the field!”
My earliest Chiefs memory is of the object I always called “Mom’s football.” Encased in Lucite, it perched on the brick ledge of the fireplace in our living room, next to the chipped-aquarium home of my hermit crab, Herman (and later his successors, Herman II and Herman III). The football was half brown and half white, stitched together from four elliptical leather panels. It was larger than what I then understood a normal football to be, and the surface was perfectly smooth. This ball was not made to be gripped or thrown, but signed and then set aside in a place of honor, such as the brick ledge of the fireplace in our living room.
Sometimes, when my mother was not home, I would remove the ball from its plastic case, and study the writing on the ball for the hundredth time, the odd, scrawled names that I had long since memorized. I imagined the importance they must hold to others, or possibly to myself, distant relatives whose story I had not yet learned, as if the names I traced with my finger collectively formed the town register of some lost settlement: Mike Garrett… Ed Podolak… Otis Taylor… Len Dawson… Buck Buchanan… Bobby Bell… Willie Lanier… Jan Stenerud… Hank Stram… The football was like any ritual object — to someone who did not understand the larger narrative of the tradition it represented, it would have no meaning.
On the ledge next to the ball sat a plaque imprinted with the front page of the Kansas City Times (yes, Times) from January 12, 1970: “CHIEFS CHAMPS OF THE WORLD.” This, too, had about as much meaning to me as an old headline from World War II. It was history.
But today, now, seeing that ball—or watching that NFL Films recap one more time—takes me on a sentimental journey, as my life as a Chiefs fan flashes before my mind’s eye: My first-ever game at Arrowhead in the ‘80s, in which I had the chance to witness Todd Blackledge throw a record 14 interceptions (or at least that’s how I remember it). Next come the glory days of my youth and those seemingly invincible (in the regular season) teams of the mid-‘90s: Beating Denver with an Elway-fumble-returned-for-a-touchdown in the final minutes, or pummeling Steve Young’s league-leading 49ers by the score 44-9 (which made for the simple, elegant, and awesome Kansas City Star headline: “44-9ers!”). In those days, the next Chiefs Super Bowl always seemed just a couple January wins away, and it wasn’t only Chiefs fans who thought so.
But then come the ups-and-downs-and-downs of the 2000s that bottomed out in the worst three-year stretch in Chiefs history. I realize now this is what the ‘70s must have been like when the glow from Super Bowl IV quickly faded—that dark period that Chiefs fans of my parents’ generation simply didn’t speak to their children about.
And, now, in 2010-11, a glimpse of hope.
The very ’70s underscoring of “Everything’s Up To Date In Kansas City” seems more sadly ironic each year. And the ink on my mother’s football—which now sits above the fireplace in my own house—is beginning to fade. Some of the names, especially those signed by the linebackers, were always a little difficult to decipher and are now pretty much illegible.
Super Bowl IV keeps slipping further and further away. I have now been alive for XXXVI years and am yet to watch my team participate in an NFL championship game as it is happening. In the world I know, the Chiefs’ only Super Bowl win is rendered in a half-hour of the same highlights and Hank Stram quotes, and the outcome is never in doubt. And while the closing moments, when the Chiefs are world champions, still gives the tiniest thrill, it is time for this tradition to resume its rightful context—as part of history.
On Sunday, I turned my attention to the Pro Bowl, which, of course, was a waste except for one two-minute stretch that I choose to think of as a glimpse of the Chiefs’ future: that perfect second-quarter drive when Matt Cassel handed off to Jamaal Charles, handed off to Charles, handed off to Charles, completed to Dwayne Bowe, handed off to Charles, and handed off to Charles for the touchdown. The distinguished commentators Brian Billick and Terry Bradshaw, of course, failed to comment on the fact that every yard of the AFC’s first scoring drive came from members of the same team. But they did break down the play on which Charles swept right around the line and into the end zone, almost untouched. Apparently, it was called something like “Right 2.”
But to me, it looked just a little bit like 65 Toss Power Trap.