Sports

On Len Dawson’s beautiful and moving funeral and the lesson of the Chiefs’ icon’s life

Death is entwined with life, we’re all too often reminded. And reconciling that, or at least managing it, is a never-ending challenge. Over the years, though, we might come to learn the potential power of funerals to provide soothing and celebration that lend comfort and meaning to those most intimately affected.

Sometimes, funerals can also move those of us merely remotely in the sphere of influence of those gone but not departed. Especially when it’s someone of the singularly iconic nature of Len Dawson, a man who helped transform Kansas City and has towered over it forever after …

And yet walked among us in a way befitting the bagpiping of “Amazing Grace” at the end of the service on Friday at Country Club Christian Church.

Appropriately enough, the service was open to the public and broadcast live on KMBC — where Dawson worked for decades — and on KSHB.

Dawson, the winsome face of the early Chiefs teams that played in two of the first four Super Bowls and the rare man honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as both a player and broadcaster, died last month at age 87.

But while his exploits on the field captivated a galaxy of fans and his national broadcasting work was on the cutting edge of the explosion of the popularity of pro football, the influence of his life extended well beyond those fine feats.

So much so that Dan Israel, his former colleague with the Chiefs Radio Network, was compelled to allude to Jackie Robinson’s quote about a life “not being important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Certainly, it would be hard to measure all the ripples from Dawson, the 1973 NFL Man of the Year for his commitment to philanthropy and community who somehow remained approachable and humble all through his healthy years.

Invoking the words of Dawson’s former broadcaster partner Mitch Holthus, Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt said Dawson “made us feel like we were standing in his huddle.”

Those he worked with weren’t alone in that sense of connective kinship in the choir huddle with the Ohio native who never left Kansas City after his playing days.

“These are the kind of stories,” Hunt added, “you will hear throughout Kansas City.”

Whether you were one of his teammates or ran into him in a grocery story or the press box or saw him speak in your school or church, etc.

He was “kind and gracious and generous and thoughtful; he was everything you wanted a friend to be… He was a gentleman. And a gentleman always knows when it’s time to go,” said the ever-eloquent Kevin Harlan, pausing to compose himself before adding, “But Len Dawson is a Hall of Famer, and he is a legend. Yes, he’s one of the biggest legends Kansas City has ever seen.

“And a legend lives forever. I know he does in my heart, and I know he does in yours as well. And how lucky and blessed are we?”

That was a recurring theme among the nine speakers on Friday who included Bobby Bell, flanked as he spoke by former teammates and fellow pallbearers Ed Budde, Mike Garrett, Willie Lanier and Jan Stenerud.

It’s been an excruciating time for the 82-year-old Bell, whose 57-year-old wife, Pam, died unexpectedly in June and is still grieving the death of former teammate Jim Lynch, 76, in July. “Rough,” I called it repeatedly.

But it was important to him to pay tribute to Dawson, whom he met “as strangers in a strange city” in 1963 when the Chiefs moved to Kansas City from Dallas and Bell was entering his rookie year.

Dawson came to feel like family, he said. And Bell, a North Carolina native, thought of all he had in common with Dawson despite the different worlds from which they came.

“We were great teammates and liked to win,” said Bell, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who also playfully noted that he scored exactly as many touchdowns, nine, as Dawson did. “We liked Kansas City, and we stayed here. Never left.”

As he finished speaking about “a great human being and a great friend,” Bell poignantly added, “He will be missed, and I will be joining him. We will be friends all over again later.”

While Bell got to know Dawson as a teammate, Hunt got to know him in a way many of us of a certain age might understand even if we weren’t as up-close as he was.

In fact, his first words about Dawson were about as relatable as it gets…albeit from a vantage point few could know as the son of Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt.

But the point resonated because the sentiment was both about Dawson and something more universal.

“Anyone who watches or follows sports can tell you there is a magical age, just when a young child reaches the age of reason, somewhere around 6 or 7, when your sports icon is Superman,” he said. “Where there’s nobody cooler on earth. For me, Superman was Len Dawson.”

In a variety of different ways he’d get to know him over the years, Hunt never saw him otherwise… even if he allowed as how Dawson’s candor covering the Chiefs sometimes made him wonder if it might be best to turn off the radio in the heat of a bad turn.

“Someone once said, ‘Don’t meet your heroes, because you’ll be disappointed,’ ” Hunt said. “Whoever said that never met Len Dawson.”

The essence of Dawson was on view through others, too, including Adrian Allison of the Pro Football Hall of Fame presenting Dawson’s widow, Linda, with the HOF flag that flew at half-staff upon Dawson’s death and a medallion bearing the words “Hall of Famer Forever.”

Israel spoke of Dawson’s “uncanny ability to connect with people,” from the huddle to the booth and anywhere in between. And he told of the sheer charisma perhaps best exemplified during the Super Bowl 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.

As dozens of other former Super Bowl MVPs were gathered to get organized, Israel recalled, a line of them began to form around Dawson, MVP of Super Bowl IV, to get pictures taken with him.

Harlan, who worked with Dawson for nine years, thought about another of the measures of greatness: Could you write the history of something without that person’s name?

When it comes to Super Bowls and NFL history, not to mention Big Ten and Purdue history, he said, “You couldn’t do it. Len Dawson’s name would have to be included every time.”

Meanwhile, closer to home…

“If you wrote the city of Kansas City’s story,” Harlan added, “you couldn’t write it without mentioning Len Dawson.”

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Methodist minister who was the final speaker, offered something else quite powerful that we might think about from the life of Dawson.

“Over the years I’ve come to believe that death is not really an adversary. In many ways, it is our friend,” he said. “I say that because life is so fleeting. Life is so short that it causes us to want to live as fully as we can.

“Because it’s terminal. I mean, none of us are going to get out of here alive. It’s just the way God made this universe.”

So in our time, he urged, be that child who “has a chance to go to Worlds of Fun and stay out there all day, from sunrise to sunset.”

Because, he added, “That’s the way life is. You go and get it. And, man, did Lenny Dawson go and get it.”

And give it to us all, too.

Even now, gone but not departed.

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