Len Dawson exuded an undeniable swagger and confidence that gave him the well-worn moniker “Lenny the Cool,” whether he was in the huddle during the early AFL seasons or behind the microphone as the NFL developed into the behemoth it is today.
As a quarterback who won a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs and later as a broadcaster who brought football to millions of homes on the venerable HBO program “Inside the NFL,” he is a member of the Hall of Fame.
Len was the first athlete I ever looked up to, and throughout his entire life, I respected and admired him, according to Chiefs owner Clark Hunt. It is impossible to overestimate the impact he has had on the Kansas City Chiefs and everyone who has worked there.
Dawson passed away on Wednesday at the age of 87, according to his family. Dawson had undergone surgery for a quadruple heart bypass and prostate cancer throughout the years, but no cause was offered. Since August 12 he had been receiving hospice care.
Hunt stated that the Chiefs planned to pay tribute to Dawson before their preseason game against Green Bay on Thursday night, though specifics were still being worked out. Other memorial services will be planned in accordance with his family’s preferences.
Len Dawson’s family released a statement through KMBC, the TV station where he worked as an anchor, saying, “With wife Linda at his side, it is with profound regret that we notify you of the demise of our dear Len Dawson.” Len was constantly appreciative of the various connections he made throughout his football and broadcasting professions and was frequently overcome by them.
When Dawson joined the fledgling Dallas-based AFL team owned by the Hunt family, his career was at a dead end. However, under Dawson and Hall of Fame head coach Hank Stram, the Chiefs won three AFL championships and two Super Bowls, losing to Green Bay in the first one before defeating Minnesota at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans three years later.
He set multiple team records after winning the game against the Vikings 23-7 in January 1970, only recently being surpassed by Patrick Mahomes. He was the MVP of that game. After being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987, Dawson was presented with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award in 2012.
In 2017, Dawson told The Associated Press, “I’ve been blessed for what I got the opportunity to do.” Without my teammates and coworkers, I could not have accomplished as much, and I am thankful for each of them.
Even as his health deteriorated and he reduced his public appearances, Dawson remained a beloved figure in Kansas City. He would go above and above to accommodate fans, whether it was for a picture or a signature. The latter was frequently written on a historic photograph taken at halftime of the first Super Bowl: the worn-out quarterback, his white uniform stained with grass, resting on a folding chair with a bottle of Fresca at his feet.
A period and location were nicely represented. And it captured “Lenny the Cool” to a tee.
Years later, Stram said, “He was always in control.” “Leonard, be sure you never let them see you sweat,” I once advised him. Coach, quarterbacks don’t sweat, he continued. “Quarterbacks sweat.”
Dawson was born on June 20, 1935, the ninth of James and Annie Dawson’s 11 children, in the manufacturing community of Alliance, Ohio. He was sophisticated yet fundamentally blue-collar. At Alliance High School, he excelled in three sports, setting records in basketball and football, but after receiving a scholarship at Purdue, he decided to concentrate on football.
Dawson played defense, kicked, and led the NCAA in passing efficiency as a sophomore. In a time when ground-and-pound football was the norm, he had thrown for more than 3,000 yards by the end of his college career.
Despite being selected by the Steelers in the first round of the 1957 draught, he spent his first season on the bench behind Earl Morrall and failed to unseat Bobby Layne for the starting position the following year. When the Browns acquired him in a trade with the Steelers, Dawson was unable to outperform Milt Plum and was promptly fired.
Dawson, who found himself suddenly free to play wherever he wanted, went to the fledgling AFL and the Texans, drawn in part by the chance to work with one of his former Purdue coaches. As the Texans went 11-3 in 1962 and won the first of three championships together, it was Stram who was able to recognize Dawson’s potential and assist him to develop into one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
The second occurred in 1966 when Dawson steered the Chiefs to an 11-2-1 record and a 31-7 thrashing of the Bills in the AFL championship game. That gave the Chiefs the opportunity to play the dominant Packers of coach Vince Lombardi in the first Super Bowl, in which they lost 35-10 despite Dawson’s 210 passing yards and a touchdown.
However, the most notable season in Dawson’s career turned out to be 1969. After missing the following five games due to a knee injury suffered against the Patriots in Week 2, he led the Chiefs to the final Super Bowl before the AFL-NFL merger by defeating the rival Raiders and reigning champion Jets.
After the win over Minnesota, Dawson remarked, “It was overpowering.” You know how you feel relieved once something is finished and a task is accomplished? That was my initial reaction after leaving the field.
In his six additional seasons in Kansas City, Dawson set numerous records that persisted until the arrival of Mahomes. Dawson was thrilled when the rookie quarterback led the Chiefs to their second Super Bowl win with a comeback victory over the 49ers in February 2020. The two quickly grew close.
On Wednesday, Mahomes tweeted “RIP to the legend Len Dawson,” along with images of the two of them. “Your contributions to Kansas City’s history and culture will endure forever.”
While many fans are familiar with Dawson from his playing days, others initially consider his broadcasting career. In order to gain local support for the team, then-Chiefs general manager Jack Steadman pulled off a publicity hoax in 1966. Dawson was persuaded by Steadman to host a nightly sports section on television, and he excelled at it thanks to his charisma and affable demeanor.
After his playing career came to an end, Dawson transitioned into broadcasting full-time, working in local TV as well as providing national game analysis for NBC. However, he is arguably best recognized for his innovative work on the HBO classic “Inside the NFL” with Nick Buoniconti, which helped the expanding league gain millions of followers.
Before retiring in 2018, Dawson worked for more than three decades as a member of the Chiefs’ radio broadcast staff.
At the time, Andy Reid, the head coach of the Chiefs, remarked, “I did all those postgames with him and I think the world of him. “It doesn’t matter the age difference or the amount of time since he was in the huddle; he has been there and done that. The man just gets it. That element is my favorite. In every manner, he qualifies for the Hall of Fame.
Dawson had two children, Lisa and Len Jr., with Jackie, his high school sweetheart, from 1954 until her death in 1978. As Dawson entered hospice care, his second wife, Linda, stayed by his side.
Len was actually Kansas City’s first significant sports celebrity, according to Hunt. He was the undeniable captain of the Chiefs team that won the Super Bowl, and I believe that not only myself but everyone else who supported the team during that time has a very particular bond and memory with him.