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Recent Sports History: Lamar Hunt and Football

December 15, 2006

Growing up near Kansas City, I heard Lamar Hunt’s name hundreds of times. To me, however, he was just the owner of the National Football League (NFL) team, the Chiefs. My ignorance continued until this morning.

In reading a commentary on Hunt’s life by the Kansas City Star‘s Jason Whitlock, I learned that Hunt was a leader in bringing African Americans to professional football. Whitlock’s an insightful, humorous writer, and here are some excerpts from his piece – which includes snippets from former Chiefs players:

– “Lamar Hunt knocked down doors for black football players. He was a different kind of Branch Rickey. Without Hunt and his idea of a rebel professional football league, the NFL may never have embraced the idea of a Mike Singletary at middle linebacker, a Warren Moon at quarterback, a Herm Edwards as head coach and a mediocre MAC football player as a brash-talking sports columnist.”
– “‘I tell guys all the time that the best thing that ever happened to black football players is Lamar Hunt starting the AFL,’ former Chiefs great Bobby Bell.”
– “Lamar was the kind of guy who started eight black players on his defense in the 1960s — when some NFL teams didn’t have eight black players on their entire roster. ‘You didn’t see that in college, and I think we were the only ones doing that in professional football,’ [former Chiefs middle linebacker and NFL Hall of Famer] Willie Lanier said.
– “Hunt, Hank Stram and trusted scout Lloyd Wells specialized in scouting players from historically black colleges and signing them to the Chiefs. Lanier, Otis Taylor and Buck Buchanan all hailed from HBCs. Hunt’s AFL quickly caught up to the NFL because of the junior league’s embrace of black players.”
– “It’s no surprise that Herm Edwards is the head coach here. Hunt and Carl Peterson planted the coaching seeds in Edwards, enrolling him in the league’s minority development program after his playing career. Edwards blossomed as an assistant coach in Tampa. He had a strong five-year run in New York as a head coach, and then Hunt and Peterson treated Edwards like family when things in New York turned sour.”

Here are some more excerpts from The Dallas Morning News‘ obituary:

– “It occurred occurred to Mr. Hunt that since baseball had a National League and an American League, so could football. So in 1959, at age 26, he rounded up fellow millionaires such as Bud Adams, Barron Hilton and Ralph Wilson and formed the American Football League. The eight original owners whimsically called themselves ‘The Foolish Club.’ Suddenly threatened, the NFL hastily offered Mr. Hunt and Mr. Adams expansion franchises in Dallas and Houston, respectively, but they declined, reasoning that they didn’t want to desert fellow AFL owners.”
– “Before Before the 1963 season, Mr. Hunt moved his team to Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs. . . . Tom Hunt said the move to Kansas City was influenced by a weekend baseball series there between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Athletics in the late 1950s. ‘That Friday night game went to 1:30 [a.m.], and when he [Lamar] went to move the football team, he remembered that fans did not leave there in Kansas City,’ Tom Hunt said. That influenced him to think Kansas City would be a great sports town.'”
– “Mr. Hunt’s Chiefs lost the inaugural Super Bowl to Green Bay, but in 1970’s Super Bowl IV, they defeated Minnesota in the final game played by an AFL team. The next year, the AFL became the American Football Conference.”

Hunt oddities:

– “In 1969, he tried to buy Alcatraz island for $2 million and turn it into a $4 million tourist park, landscaped with a shopping area that resembled San Francisco in the 1930s. That idea fell to local opposition. In late 1979 and early 1980, Mr. Hunt invested in futures contracts for delivery of 9 million ounces of silver. The investment ultimately was a costly one for him. News in 1980 that his brothers, Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, had accumulated 60 million ounces of silver contributed to the collapse of world silver prices and allegations that the Hunts had tried to corner the market.”

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What’s my point in all of this? Although I knew of Hunt from my childhood, I didn’t realize he was a kind of civil rights pioneer in terms of football, and that such an interesting historical figure – the son of a rich oil tycoon, H.L. Hunt – was right under my nose as a former Kansas Citian. – TL

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