3. Willie Lanier
Willie Lanier was the first African-American star at middle linebacker, playing 11 seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. The man they called “Contact,” 6’1″ and 245 pounds with a body seemingly filled with concrete, Lanier was known for his thunderous hits. Yet his career is not merely defined by his bone crushing ability.
Lanier was also known both for his durability and his playmaking. Aside from missing the last four games of his rookie season, he only missed one more game in the next 10 seasons. In those seasons he would be one of the top playmakers at the linebacker position, hauling in 27 interceptions for 440 return yards while also scooping up 18 fumbles.
During his career he’d be at or near the top of NFL linebackers in these categories finishing tied for first in interceptions, first in return yards, and first in fumbles recovered. He currently holds the franchise’s all-time record for linebacker interceptions, is second in return yards, and second in fumbles recovered.
Lanier’s shining moment in Kansas City Chiefs lore came in 1969 in raucous Shea Stadium, against the New York Jets with a chance to play in the AFL Championship game. With less than 14 minutes remaining in the game, the Chiefs leading by a mere three points, the vaunted Chiefs defense stood with their backs a yard from their own end-zone.
After the defense committed an egregious pass interference penalty, they were in desperate need of a jolt. Lanier was known as a quiet leader, but this was his time to shine. He rallied the troops with a fiery speech in the huddle, and the Chiefs defense accomplished arguably one of the biggest feats in franchise history.
Through four plays the defense held the Jets to a field goal and the Chiefs offense responded with a backbreaking score the following drive. The Chiefs would ride this wave of adrenaline through the Oakland Raiders in the AFL Championship and eventually the Minnesota Vikings to claim the franchise’s first Super Bowl Championship.
The equivalent of an eight time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All Pro, Lanier was a key strand in the fabric of the 1960s Chiefs defense. His leadership in the unit’s darkest hour is a big reason that Chiefs era delivered a Super Bowl victory. The two-time AFL Champion and one-time Super Bowl Champion rightfully deserves his place among the top-three linebackers in team history.