We knew it was coming when we learned last week that Len Dawson had been placed in hospice care, so I had time to brace myself. Still, when word came Wednesday morning that Len had passed, I first tried to celebrate his life, but quickly found myself mourning another chapter of my youth and innocence.
Lenny The Cool was just that. He was also Lenny The Leader, Lenny The Kind and Lenny The Very Good Man. He seasoned Midwestern values with a dash of Hollywood Hot Sauce. Len Dawson was a star.
Starting in the mid-to-late 60s, there were two pro football teams who were already trying to take the game into the 21st Century—the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Innovation. Imagination. Vision. Flash. The parallels were striking, starting with their respective origins. Don’t forget that the Chiefs were first the Dallas Texans. Big D proved not big enough for both of them.
Hank Stram was in many ways Tom Landry with a marketing degree. And there were some matinee idol similarities between the Chiefs’ number 16, Dawson, and the Cowboys’ number 17, Don Meredith.
The Chiefs and the Cowboys had “brands” that went beyond brawn. The Chiefs had that wonderful reverse-choir offensive huddle and Stram’s “Stack I” formation in which not two but three backs—the fullback, tailback and tight end—were lined up directly behind Dawson.
Part of it was pure glitz. But it was as sexy as it was successful.
There’s that picture of Dawson sitting in a locker room chair and sucking on a heater with a bottle of Fresca on the floor between his feet at halftime of the first Super Bowl. I’ll think of that image and smile tonight when the Chiefs and Packers meet in a preseason game.
Lenny lost that one. But let’s get this straight. Dawson was the best quarterback in the AFL’s history. Yes, better than Namath, in fact much better than Namath if you look at pretty much any metric.
Together, Namath and Dawson not only pulled the AFL even with the NFL, but beyond it with their back-to-back Super Bowl wins over the Colts and Vikings, respectively. Those games changed history, and forced the 1970 merger that marks the start of the current structure of professional football.
But let’s be honest. There was an element of voodoo and even flukiness in Namath’s “guaranteed” win over Baltimore. But a year later Dawson and his Chiefs just physically kicked the bejesus out of the mighty Vikings. Dawson to Taylor. Magic.
Dawson later made himself into a superb broadcaster and became a television icon in his role as the first host of “Inside the NFL.” That was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.
OK, it was the second coolest thing I’d ever seen. Football at its best captures the imagination—literally. When I was 14 my buddy Charles Kimbrough and I would practice the Stack I in my front yard.
Yes, there was a math problem. There were two of us. The Stack I backfield requires four players.
We imagined the other two. And it worked.
We imagined as Lenny inspired. So long to Lenny The Cool.