Fifty years ago today, the Kansas City Chiefs defense, loaded with legends of the red and gold, carried the team in one of the most pivotal moments in franchise history.
In an era when the Kansas City Chiefs are mostly known for their offense, with the NFL’s best offensive coach, its most dynamic quarterback, and one of the best receiving corps in recent memory, it’s easy to forget that the great Chiefs teams of yesteryear were largely predicated on the defensive side of the ball.
A lot of credit for the Chiefs only Super Bowl victory, at the end of the 1969 season, in today’s revisionist history goes to Len Dawson. This is not in any way a shot at Dawson, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest and most important Chiefs of all time. Dawson was an extraordinarily successful passer in a time where most teams’ offenses ran the ball. Without him, the Chiefs don’t have the decade they had in the 1960s.
However, what is talked about far less are the host of Hall of Famers on the defensive side of the ball that carried the team in pivotal moments of its history. Willie Lanier, Junious “Buck” Buchanan, Bobby Bell, and Johnny Robinson, just to name a few, are some of the most iconic names in team history. Due to their exploits, their busts now line the hallowed halls of Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and hearken back to a time when the Chiefs’ red and gold was synonymous with championship football.
Without these players, and so many more from that era on the defensive side of the ball, the Kansas City Chiefs would be among teams like the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and several others with great histories but no Super Bowl championships to their name.
There’s one instance in particular, 50 years ago today, in which the Chiefs defense loaded with franchise legends and Hall of Famers stood its tallest in history. This is the story of Hank Stram and the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, the Divisional Playoff game against the New York Jets at Shea Stadium, and a goal line stand for the ages.
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1969 was an interesting year for the Kansas City Chiefs. There were high expectations for the team entering its 10th season of play and it’s seventh in Kansas City, playing out of Municipal Stadium which it shared with the Kansas City Royals.
The year prior, the Chiefs had gone 12-2 finishing tied for first with the Oakland Raiders in the AFL West, which necessitated a tie-breaker playoff game to decide who would play for the AFL Championship. The Chiefs were thoroughly embarrassed by the Raiders, losing that game by a score of 41-6. Needless to say, this talented team had a bad taste in its mouth and a vision for the 1969 season to be different.
The season started with a bang, with two decisive road wins against the San Diego Chargers, with the score of 27-6, and the Boston Patriots, with the score of 31-0. As quickly as optimism had skyrocketed for this team and their prospects, it hurtled back to earth even more swiftly. In football, health is usually key to a great season and this Chiefs team suffered major setbacks in this area.
During the 31-0 demolition of the Patriots, Dawson sustained a significant knee injury that looked to sideline him for several weeks. As if that weren’t bad enough, the following week the Chiefs backup quarterback, Jacky Lee, would sustain his own injury. Lee suffered a broken foot against the Cincinnati Bengals in a 24-19 loss, and suddenly this consistently dominant franchise found itself in dire straits.
Luckily for a Chiefs Kingdom early in its existence, the Chiefs front office had the foresight to draft quarterback and SMU product Mike Livingston in the prior year’s draft. After taking only five snaps in his rookie season of 1968, following Dawson’s and Lee’s injuries, Livingston would lead the team on a dominant five-game winning streak in which the Chiefs would outscore opponents by a total of 138-62.
Dawson would eventually recover and returned to the starting lineup for the rematch against the Chargers. Despite a few losses to end the season, the Chiefs still finished second in the AFL West division with an 11-3 record. In prior years, this would have left them on the outside looking in. Instead, because of the AFL’s expansion to a four team playoff, they would be facing the New York Jets for a chance to play in the AFL Championship Game.
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As the frosty wind swirled at Shea Stadium, with thousands upon thousands of green-and-white-clad fans cheering at the top of their lungs, the Chiefs defense stood with their backs against the wall on their own 1-yard line.
Only 46 minutes earlier, as the game clock ticks, the Chiefs strode confidently onto the field against an obviously inferior opponent. After all, they had easily handled the defending Super Bowl champions back in week 10 of the regular season by a score of 34-16. Shea Stadium was not an inviting place to play, but this had not phased this Chiefs team in the past.
Yet the game had not gone their way. After scoring with ease against the Jets in the first meeting, through three quarters the Chiefs second-ranked offense had only mustered 6 points on two Jan Stenerud field goals. While the Chiefs defense had successfully stalled the Jets, only allowing three points themselves in the first three quarters, a devastating pass interference penalty gave the Jets nearly perfect field position at the Chiefs 1-yard line.
With less than 14 minutes left to go in the game, and a trip to the AFL Championship Game on the line, the Chiefs had a seemingly insurmountable task before them. In contrast, the Jets now presumably felt invincible with a second straight trip to the AFL Championship Game nearly guaranteed. The next few moments would be defining ones for both franchises.
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With a first down looming and only 1 yard to gain for the go-ahead touchdown, anyone could guess what type of play Jets coach and Hall of Famer Weeb Ewbank would choose to call. The Jets huddled at the 10-yard line, with a weathered Joe Namath looking to add to the glory from the year prior with a backbreaking score and victory over the Chiefs. With multiple Pro Bowlers and All-Pros on the Jets formidable offense, there was likely no doubt the Jets knew who the ball was going to and where it was going.
Willie Lanier, one of the greatest linebackers in Chiefs history, had other intentions. With the Chiefs vaunted defense needing a jolt, he fired at his teammates in the huddle before first down. With uncharacteristic zeal, he rallied them together with declarations that the Jets offense would in no way cross the threshold of the goal line. The Chiefs defense would give everything they had to prevent that from happening.
So, with 13:49 remaining in the game and the ball what seemed like six inches from the goal line, the Jets offense broke the huddle and the chess match of the season against the Chiefs defense began. With their first play, the Jets ran a dive to All-Pro Matt Snell who ran with purpose behind the team’s right guard. Perennial All-Pro and Hall of Famer Johnny Robinson shed multiple blockers and body slammed Snell before he could cross the goal line. One third of the Chiefs task was complete, but there was no rest for the weary.
“There’s a running play to Matt Snell behind the right guard! Matt Snell behind the right guard is hit at the goal line by Johnny Robinson. Good tackling by Johnny, he had to make the play along with Lanier and Jerry Mays!”
Deterred but not defeated, the Jets again huddled at the 10-yard line to strategize the upcoming second down. Namath and company were no strangers to overcoming challenges, having defeated a heavily favored Baltimore Colts team just a year prior to win the AFL’s first Super Bowl trophy. The Chiefs had shown great fight on first down and may have won a battle, but there was no doubt in most players’ and fans’ minds who would win the war.
With the crowd thundering all around them, Namath and the Jets broke the huddle for the second time. In what was likely an attempt at misdirection, Joe Namath motioned his tight end Wayne Stuart out wide. Once again, the Jets showed their full trust in the running game, this time sending Bill Mathis behind the left guard into the middle of the fray. Yet again, the impenetrable wall of the Chiefs defense held with Lanier, Buchanan, and Curley Culp making the heroic stop. The tide was beginning to turn and both sides of the ball knew it.
“Joe Namath now sends his tight end wide, that’s Wayne Stuart. Left end is outside the left tackle. Running play coming off to Mathis! Mathis behind his left guard, he’s stopped at the goal line!”
With 13:13 remaining, both the Jets and the Chiefs had reached a pivotal moment in the game. For the Jets, failing to score a touchdown would leave them only the opportunity to tie the game. With little time remaining and a sleeping giant in the Chiefs offense mere feet away on the sideline, this was an important play. If the Jets were going to win this game and have a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions, they had to make it count.
For the Chiefs, they had uncharacteristically struggled to score to this point in the game. Yes, they had a great offense. In fact, it was one of the best in the league. Yet, today had not been there day. Still, history doesn’t remember excuses. It was the responsibility of this great defense to answer the call.
“Third down and one. A seat squirmer at Shea Stadium. 13:13 remaining. Two running plays straight ahead have not gotten the Jets over yet. Good goal line defense by Kansas City, but now the pressure’s really on!”
With those sentiments playing over and over in their minds, the Chiefs and Jets lined up for one last time with the AFL football world hanging in the balance. There was no longer certainty of what to expect, as the Jets had run the ball and failed twice before. With half a foot to gain, Ewbank would dig deep for a play that would assuredly send them to the AFL Championship Game.
Joe Namath approached the line with backs split to either side of him in the backfield, the All-Pro Snell on one side and the veteran Mathis on the other. With the snap, Namath faked the hand off and rolled out to his right.
This was the type of play designed to draw the Chiefs linebackers towards Namath, leaving his intended receiver Matt Snell wide open for the touchdown. Instead, in what was one of the defining plays of his career, Hall of Famer Bobby Bell didn’t take the bait and instead followed Snell into the end zone. With nowhere to go, and linebacker Jim Lynch and safety Jim Kearney flying toward him, Namath had run out of options. He threw the ball away as both players crashed into him at the 7-yard line.
The backs are split, Bill Mathis a running back and Matt Snell. Joe Namath awaits the snap from his center. A running play, it’s a fake now! He’s rolling to his right, he’s scrambling, he’s going to the right side. He dumps the ball and he’s tackled near the seven yard line!
To the horror of Jets fans and jubilation of Chiefs Kingdom, the Chiefs defense had won. With their backs against the wall, they proved why so many in their unit would one day be immortalized in the halls of the NFL Hall of Fame. Lanier’s atypically passionate leadership along with numerous plays from Hall of Famers and role players alike had kept the chances of a Chiefs victory alive. With that momentum, this team of destiny would thrive.
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“The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all”
In life, there is so very little that we actually control. We are just one of billions of humans who inhabit one of billions of planets and stars in a seemingly endless and expanding universe. Yet there are rare moments here and there where we can seize control of a situation and project our will and determination upon it. In this way we, in a sense, control our destiny. This was the moment for the 1969 Chiefs defense, when as a collective whole, they grabbed hold of the fabric of time and for a brief moment took control of their destiny.
With a stand of such impact, without question the defining series of the game, Broadway Joe and the Jets would never recover. The Chiefs offense would respond with a back-breaking score on the following drive, only needing two plays to gain 80 yards. They would ultimately win the game 13-6 on their way to their third AFL Championship game in franchise history, where destiny had seen fit to schedule a rematch with the Oakland Raiders.
The Chiefs would seek and find revenge for their loss in 1968’s AFL Championship game, coming from behind to beat the Raiders by a score of 17-7. It was a fitting end to the AFL as a standalone league, the Chiefs defeating their hated rival for the right to represent the AFL in the Super Bowl.
While few outside the Chiefs locker room believed they could defeat the NFL powerhouse Minnesota Vikings, the Chiefs being 14-point underdogs in the game, the aforementioned fabric of time was still in red and gold hands.
The Chiefs would leave no doubt that they were the best team in both leagues, soundly beating the Vikings by a score of 23-7. Kansas City would celebrate its championship, with thousands upon thousands of people lining the streets of downtown. It was clear then that the NFL as a combined league had a bright future. The AFL and NFL would both equally compete for championships for years to come.
Respectfully, for a franchise whose fans have not tasted ultimate victory in so many decades, here’s to a group of legends who overcame a great deal. With their backs against the wall, the darkness of defeat and the NFL offseason staring them in the face, they did not go gently into that good night. Instead, they overcame adversity and delivered a championship to Kansas City and that will not soon be forgotten.