Lamar Hunt a gentle giant: Lamar Hunt is a towering figure in the history of pro football, but he remains remarkably humble and grounded

Lamar Hunt a gentle giant: Lamar Hunt is a towering figure in the history of pro football, but he remains remarkably humble and grounded

Rick Dean

THE GUY WAS ALL OF 27 AT THE time. He probably had more dollars than sense.

He originally had this good idea about securing an NFL expansion franchise for Dallas. But when George Halas nixed that, favoring Clint Murchison instead, he developed this other pie-in-the-sky scheme: a start-up league.

Ralph Wilson had never met the young dreamer. But Wilson, a Detroit businessman, also was interested in obtaining a football team, for Miami. What the heck, he figured. The guy was the son of oilman H.L. Hunt, “who at that time was what Warren Buffett is today,” Wilson remembers. What did he have to lose, other than his shirt?

And so Wilson called Lamar Hunt in 1959 and asked for a meeting to discuss his participation in something Hunt would call the American Football League. Hunt invited Wilson to his Dallas office.

“It was the size of a phone booth,” Wilson recalls. “A very unpretentious office for a very unpretentious guy, not some big shot at all. I thought it was very refreshing.”

Some 42 years later, Ralph Wilson blesses the day he decided to ante in with Lamar Hunt, the sports-loving geology major from Southern Methodist University with the dark glasses and big dreams.

They called themselves The Foolish Club: eight men who dared to challenge the supremacy of the NFL, their leader a bookworm-looking wisp of a man who stepped away from his father’s lucrative business to take a chance on the sports and entertainment world. Today, at the age of 69, Hunt considers the 10-year success of the old AFL and its ultimate 1970 merger with the NFL to be the crown jewel in a career that saw the founding of several sports ventures–some successful, some not.

The AFC championship trophy bears his name, and his contributions have been immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as in similar shrines to American soccer and tennis. Seeing his team, the Kansas City Chiefs, play against the Green Bay Packers in the first AFL–NFL title game after the 1966 season was a tremendous high. Watching his Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings in the last pre-merger Super Bowl–a name credited to Hunt, who thought of it while watching his son play with something called a “Super Ball”–was an even greater thrill.

“The survival of all eight original teams is something I’m very proud of,” says Hunt, who in 1972 became the first AFL representative to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame in Canton. “A lot of other [football] leagues have been started, but they either went out of business or only a few teams survived. But all eight of our teams are still contributors to the sport today.”

That survival didn’t come without hard times, though. Hunt’s Dallas Texans didn’t make a profit, despite winning the 1962 AFL title, until moving to Kansas City in 1963 and becoming the Chiefs. It was a move Hunt made at the urging of Jack Steadman, the man H.L. Hunt picked to be his son’s right-hand man.

“We made $35,000, and we thought that was utopia after losing about $2.5 million in the first years,” remembers Steadman, who still manages Hunt’s mining, real estate, and entertainment interests in Kansas City.

There is little question in anyone’s mind, however, that the AFL could not have survived without Hunt’s continual support and cheerleading. “It was a long shot, off the board in terms of making it,” recalls Wilson, who ultimately established his franchise in Buffalo after failing to secure Miami’s Orange Bowl. “Starting another football league against the NFL was like starting an automobile company against GM!”

Adds Steadman: “There were times in the early years when we’d go to league meetings, and the word was that this would be the last one. But Lamar would come in with a detailed plan, lay out the things we had to do. By the time the meeting was over, everyone was pumped up and ready to go out and lose another million dollars!

“Lamar’s always been creative. He’s got an idea a minute–not all of them are good, but a lot are. He always stayed positive and was a real stabilizing force for the other owners when things weren’t going well. His belief in the growth of the business was so strong, he convinced the other investors to stay with it. And he was proved right.”

What also survived over 42 years of starts and stops in ventures such as the North American Soccer League, World Championship Tennis, and now Major League Soccer is the unpretentious nature of the smallish man who dared to dream big from his phone booth-like office in Dallas.

“He is totally unpretentious, sometimes to a fault,” Steadman says. “There have been times when I’ve seen him rent a car and drive on unfamiliar free-ways when it really wouldn’t cost that much to hire a car and driver. I’ve seen him get embarrassed when someone invites him to ride in their limo to a game or restaurant. That’s just Lamar: a down-to-earth, good, caring person.”

In an age of egomaniacal NFL owners–with people like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder as anxious to be involved on the field as off–Hunt remains a throwback to the days of the silent owner. “Lamar calls up from Dallas, not everyday but a couple times a week, just to ask how we’re doing and how can he help,” says Carl Peterson, the Chiefs president since 1989. “I can’t think of one time he said no to something I wanted to do to help this organization.”

This is a man, mind you, who still flies coach on flights under two hours, still carries his own bags, still rents his own cars. Those who know the Hunt family history suggest that such qualities probably came from a father who believed wealth was not something to be flaunted.

“My dad was certainly not a pretentious person,” Hunt says. “He was always willing to roll up his sleeves and work, and I think everyone needs to do that. That’s no big deal. Too many people are looking for someone to do something for them, trying to find an easy way to have something done. I’ve always found that if you want something done, it’s best to go ahead and work hard on doing it yourself.”

The AFL grew out of that very attitude. “Nobody was going to come to us and say, `We want to put football into eight new cities.’ We had to make that happen,” Hunt says. “My part was to put the people together to make that happen, and I was lucky to find some good people.”

We have one final Hunt anecdote, just in case you haven’t already gotten the picture. People forget that Hunt was an original investor in the Chicago Bulls and still owns a 12% interest. As such, he invited Peterson and his wife to join him, wife Norma, and son Daniel in Chicago for a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals in 1991.

“It was so typical of Lamar,” Peterson remembers with a smile. “He flies up from Dallas, we fly up from Kansas City, and we meet at the Hertz counter where Lamar is renting a car. They don’t have a car immediately available, and while we’re waiting, limos are coming and going all around us, much to the exasperation of Norma.”

Eventually, Hunt and his guests reached the old Chicago Stadium and headed for a parking spot in the VIP lot. But before they got there, a Ferrari whipped in and the Bulls’ best-loved player, Michael Jordan, jumped out. “You know,” Peterson remembers Hunt saying, “someday I’d really like to meet Michael Jordan.”

Once inside, Hunt discovered that only four of his five tickets were together. Peterson insisted that Hunt sit with his family. Hunt, however, wouldn’t hear of it. He took the single, but agreed to switch seats with Peterson in the second half.

By the third quarter, Hunt remained a no-show, and Peterson set off in search of the Bulls minority investor. “He was sitting in a Bob Uecker seat, literally one of the last-row seats,” Peterson remembers. “He’d taken his coat off and rolled up his sleeves and was a fan sitting in the rafters!

“Here was Lamar Hunt, a founding owner of the Bulls–and I guarantee you, he was enjoying himself as the consummate fan.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group