Chiefs’ ‘Man Of The Moment’ – Len Dawson: 1935-2022

The professional football world today is celebrating the life of Len Dawson, a champion with the Kansas City Chiefs and their predecessors, the Dallas Texans, and MVP of Super Bowl IV.

Dawson, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1987, has died at age 87, his family said in a statement released early Aug. 24. He had entered hospice care Aug. 12.

“Len grew up only a few miles from where the Pro Football Hall of Fame later was built, and fans in the area have always taken a special pride in seeing one of the greats from this region enshrined in Canton. Fans connected with Len’s story of perseverance, appreciating how he gave the game one more try after five nondescript seasons when many others would have quit,” Hall President Jim Porter said.

“The American Football League, and Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram, gave Len a true opportunity,” Porter continued, “and he made the most of it, building the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender, and eventually a world champion.”

Dawson saw his football career as a player come full circle, beginning and ending at the same stadium. 
A native of Alliance, Ohio, a blue-collar town about 20 miles northeast of Canton where his name now adorns his high school’s football field, Dawson first rose in status with a standout game as a sophomore at Fawcett Stadium (now Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium) against Ohio powerhouse Canton McKinley. Three and a half decades later, he delivered his enshrinement speech outside the stadium, recalling the rough start to his pro career and the two men who revived it.

Dawson’s excellence in three sports at Alliance drew the attention of several college scouts. Choosing football and facing a decision between Ohio State’s run-first offense and the more wide-open attack at Purdue University, he headed to West Lafayette, Ind., where the man who had recruited him, Stram, was an assistant coach.

Although modest by today’s standards, Dawson’s passing statistics were tops in the Big Ten over his three seasons as a starter. As a senior, he led the conference in completions, yards and touchdowns. He made the All-America Team.

The Steelers selected him in the first round (fifth overall) in the 1957 NFL Draft. To call his time in Pittsburgh underwhelming would be an understatement: three seasons, one start in 19 appearances and six completions in 17 attempts. A trade to Cleveland didn’t change his fortunes, but a decision two years later to sign with the Texans in the American Football League led to results Dawson himself couldn’t have predicted.

Reuniting with Stram was “my saving grace. Because to tell you the truth, I was awful after five years of not playing,” Dawson said at his Enshrinement, referring to joining Stram and owner Lamar Hunt, another future Hall of Famer, in Dallas. “The skills that I once had were gone.”

Not for long.

In his first season with the Texans, 1962, Dawson flourished. He started all 15 games, led the AFL in completion percentage and touchdowns (29), and guided the Texans to a 12-3 record that culminated in a double-overtime victory against the two-time defending champion Houston Oilers in the title game. The Sporting News named him the AFL’s Most Valuable Player.

The Texans relocated to Kansas City for the 1963 season, and Dawson again would lead the AFL in TD passes (26), although the team took a step back in the standings. In the first game as the Chiefs, Sept. 7, 1963 in Denver, Dawson completed 12 of 15 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 59-7 romp. 

In 1964, Dawson tossed 30 touchdown passes, a Chiefs team record that would stand until 2018, when Patrick Mahomes threw his 31st touchdown in 10 games on his way to 50 overall. Dawson still owns the Chiefs’ career records for passing yards, touchdowns and wins as a starting quarterback despite retiring in 1975 and playing in a system that often featured the run ahead of the pass.

He led the Chiefs to appearances in Super Bowl I, a loss to the powerhouse Green Bay Packers, and Super Bowl IV, where his MVP performance helped produce a 23-7 upset of the NFL-champion Minnesota Vikings. The result, in the final game before the merger of the two leagues, also spawned a new tradition: the congratulatory phone call from the president of the United States.

In the victorious locker room, a Chiefs equipment manager told Dawson, “The phone. It’s the president.”
“The president of what?” Dawson replied.

When his 19-year playing career was over, Dawson had led his league in completion percentage eight times, touchdowns four times and passer rating six times on his way to a pair of All-Pro teams and seven Pro Bowl appearances.

Long before taking his final snap, Dawson was carving out a second career — in broadcasting.

Beginning in 1966, the Chiefs’ quarterback doubled as sports director at KMBC-TV in Kansas City. He would remain associated with the station well into the 2000s, reporting on the Chiefs and occasionally filling in as an anchor.

From 1977 to 2001, Dawson became visible to a new generation of football fans, hosting HBO's “Inside the NFL.” He also worked as a TV analyst for NBC (1977-1982) and as an analyst on the Chiefs’ radio broadcast team (1985-2017). When he retired, the Chiefs named the television broadcasting booth at their stadium in his honor: the Len Dawson Television Broadcasting Booth at Arrowhead Stadium.

In 2012, Dawson received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, given annually by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in recognition of longtime exceptional contributions to broadcasting in professional football.

“This is an unbelievable award for me,” Dawson said at the time. “To be in the Hall of Fame as a player was the highlight of my playing career, but now to be recognized by the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, well, it’s just a great, great honor.”

Dawson was the 1973 NFL Man of the Year and winner of the Walter Camp Distinguished American Award in 2008. In addition to his Pro Football Hall of Fame status, he is a member of the Chiefs Hall of Fame and Purdue’s Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.

Teammates revered Dawson as a leader off the field as much as on it.

In 1964, he delivered a moving eulogy that brought the team together following the unexpected death of a teammate. Later that year, guard Ed Budde was savagely beaten in bar fight. Dawson and his wife cared for Budde’s three children while he recuperated.

The following year, tight end Fred Arbanas lost vision in an eye after he was attacked on a Kansas City street. Dawson worked extensively with Arbanas, helping him relearn how to catch a pass; he would play five more seasons in pro football.

Stram said Dawson would be remembered for his skills and for his character and leadership.

“When I think of Lenny I also think of honor, I think of class, I think of style, I think of grace and I think of dignity,” Stram said in presenting Dawson for Enshrinement. “When I think of Lenny, I think of winning because he played a dominant role in helping us become the winningest team in the history of the American League. … When I think of Lenny, I think of leadership because he was a natural leader. He was captain of his Alliance football team, Purdue, the Dallas Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

“He led by example,” Stram continued, “and the bigger the game, the better he played. He was our man of the moment.”

Dawson’s legacy and his many accomplishments on and off the field will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.