Lamar Hunt Trophy is tribute to KC Chiefs founder, and fans

Lamar Hunt, the son of an oil mogul, was a visionary who radiated charisma and was a “truly gentle gentleman,” as then-Patriots owner Billy Sullivan called him while introducing Hunt for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame 50 years ago this summer.

All of that speaks to how Hunt came to be a pioneering giant bestriding the game itself, among any number of his other endeavors.

His indelible impact on the game started with his role as the primary founder of the upstart American Football League in 1960 — along with seven other men who dubbed themselves the “Foolish Club” given the perception of their prospects in taking on the well-entrenched NFL.

In the next few years, the ever-innovative Hunt forever changed the landscape of Kansas City by moving the Dallas Texans here (never mind that he initially wanted to call them the Kansas City Texans) … and the trajectory of pro football.

Consider his emphasis on integration and hiring a fascinating coach (Hank Stram) whose offensive schemes were ahead of their time among many other enhancements of the game Hunt engaged.

And that his Chiefs played in two of the first four Super Bowls — the very name of which was inspired by Hunt seeing one of his children playing with a “Super Ball” — as Hunt was instrumental in the AFL merger with the NFL.

So that, and then some, is why Hunt was the first enshrinee of the AFL. And it’s why in 1984 the trophy that goes to the AFC Championship Game winner became adorned with his name.

All of which is why, to borrow from Southeastern Conference parlance, the trophy per se just means more in Kansas City, where Hunt’s son, Clark, is the chairman and CEO of the Chiefs.

And why, over time, its significance became more precious and conspicuous by its absence.

Because it had never so much as been on display here before the 2019 postseason, when the Chiefs played host to the AFC Championship Game for the first time.

That revealing point bears mention anew as the Chiefs prepare to hold this game for a fourth straight season, adding on to their NFL record set a year ago, when they play the Bengals on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

This all reflects the Mahomes Era, to be sure.

But it also entwines in a moving way to another time.

As Hunt’s biographer Michael MacCambridge put it in a phone conversation on Tuesday, the trophy coming home harkens to the Biblical parable of the prodigal son so long gone from before his welcome return.

And it also should reinvigorate interest and appreciation in Hunt, who may be just another name to latter-day fans:

“I think seeing the scenes around the Chiefs being presented with the Lamar Hunt Trophy these past two years — and seeing what that meant to not only the Hunt family but also the players and the whole organization — has given sports fans a clearer sense of who Lamar Hunt was,” MacCambridge said. “And why it’s such a big deal for the trophy to reside in Kansas City.”

Indeed, the trophy being so present now figures to have a clarifying and illuminating impact for a new generation of fans, who may even have wondered why Chiefs’ jerseys bear a memorial patch on the upper-left chest featuring the AFL logo and underscored by the initials “LH.”

So you can understand why winning the trophy the last two seasons holds such significance to Clark Hunt, as well as Lamar’s widow, Norma, among other family members.

In fact, after the Chiefs beat the Titans 35-24 in the AFC Championship Game in 2020 to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in half a century, Clark Hunt let on that even Norma had suggested it was past time for a return engagement.

“‘Clark, it sure would be nice if we could play in this game while I’m still able to go,’” he remembered her saying when she was being celebrated for having attended the first 50.

When Clark Hunt was asked that day in 2020 what the breakthrough meant to him personally, he deflected the question and the attention to his mother and spoke of how happy he’d been to see her get to kiss the trophy. Up on stage during the celebration, he recalled, she had said, “Dad always felt like the team really belonged to the fans, so what we are most excited about today is winning this trophy for our fans.”

True as that is, there was another dimension to this history. And it’s a poignant one:

Lamar Hunt never got to take possession of a Lamar Hunt Trophy before he died in 2006, after which Clark Hunt commissioned the jersey patches honoring him ever since.

For all that he had done to revolutionize the game, including presiding over a team that won Super Bowl IV, it gnawed at Lamar Hunt that his Chiefs never delivered an AFC Championship (they still were in the AFL when they went to their earlier Super Bowls) to those fans.

The only time they had a chance to compete for it was at Buffalo in 1994, when Joe Montana was knocked out with a concussion on the way to a 30-13 Chiefs loss that devastated Hunt.

Afterward, then-NFL president Neal Austrian presented the trophy to Bills owner Ralph Wilson as the mournful Hunt did what he usually did after games: Win or lose, former Chiefs cornerback Kevin Ross told MacCambridge, Hunt came to the locker room to speak to players.

“But this time I walked over to him, and I apologized and gave him a hug,” Ross said. “It was the only time I ever saw him cry.”

Hunt bestowed his namesake trophy a number of times. The last of those, Chiefs historian Bob Moore believes, was when Hunt presented it to longtime friend and fellow AFL driving force Bud Adams after Tennessee won it to advance to the Super Bowl in the 1999 season.

“It means a lot coming from you, Lamar,” Adams told Hunt that day.

It would have meant a lot going to him, too.

As former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil has said, “The only regret I have in my career was (that) I wasn’t able to hand the Lamar Hunt trophy to Lamar Hunt.” It’s a lament echoed by former Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson and surely felt by numerous others.

That doubtless includes coach Andy Reid, the seeds of whose presence here today were planted in January 1999, Reid said last year.

Soon after he was named head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid attended the NFL owners’ meetings — at which he knew few people other than the Eagles’ entourage and members of the Packers’ franchise with which he’d spent the previous seven seasons.

“Man, I don’t really know a soul here,” Reid thought to himself.

Right about then, Reid recalled, Lamar Hunt tapped him on the shoulder. “He says, ‘Welcome to the National Football League,’ ” Reid said. “ ‘I‘ve heard good things about you. I think you’re going to be good for this league.’ ”

Amiable as both men were, they spoke long enough for the discussion to turn to family and even the fact that Reid’s older brother, Reggie, was a geologist like Hunt. Over the next few years, they’d see each other in such settings as the NFL 101 Awards held annually in Kansas City.

As a student of football history and admirer of Hunt’s pivotal role in the evolution of the game, along with a certain sense of kinship with Hunt, Reid came to feel he might like to work for Hunt or the Chiefs if circumstances ever led to that possibility.

Which, of course, they did when Clark Hunt figuratively tapped Reid on the shoulder after the 2012 season.

While Reid instantly reinvigorated the Chiefs, he was 1-4 in the postseason before the Chiefs reached the AFC Championship Game of the 2018 season, played on January 20, 2019.

The contrast in context of the prize couldn’t have been greater than it was as the Chiefs prepared to play the Patriots, for whom winning the trophy had become so routine that coach Bill Belichick came to appear downright disdainful of it.

Here, well, it couldn’t have been more coveted.

With the trophy on display at Arrowhead in the days before the game, the ever-astute and self-possessed Mahomes understood its essence.

“So for us to bring it back home, in a sense, would be truly an honor for me and this team to bring to not only Clark but this whole community,” he said.

Mahomes being Mahomes, even at age 23 then, he noted that the Chiefs’ player development staff teaches team history, including by giving players tours of the Chiefs Hall of Honor at Arrowhead. Even so, his understanding of Lamar Hunt’s legacy was impressive.

Hunt “made the AFL pretty much from scratch and had this vision and made what is now the AFC (in this) beautiful league,” Mahomes said. “It truly is special to have somebody like that who has created your franchise. And you want to do whatever you can to kind of bring honor to him and that family.”

The Chiefs didn’t win it that time, losing 37-31 in overtime to the Patriots. But they’ve won the last two and are in position now to seize it for a third straight year.

Even if they do, you can bet it still won’t be taken for granted.

Because winning it will forever be a way to at once celebrate the moment, as a portal to the Super Bowl, and commemorate the endearing and enduring spirit of Lamar Hunt — which is why this all came to be in KC in the first place.

ChiefsTitans 2337F AFC 011920 TLL .jpg
The sign in the stadium proclaims the Lamar Hunt Trophy is finally home after the Chiefs captured the AFC Championship by defeating the Tennessee Titans, 35-24, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Tammy Ljungblad

This story was originally published January 30, 2022 5:00 AM.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.

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