KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Lamar Hunt, the soft-spoken son of a Texas oil tycoon whose vision gave birth to the modern NFL, is being remembered as a man who changed the face of pro football.
"Lamar Hunt was one of the most influential owners in professional football over the past 40-plus years," Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said Thursday as plans were being made for burial of the 74-year-old sports pioneer.
"He was instrumental in the formation of the American Football League and in the AFL-NFL merger, which helped the National Football League grow into America's passion."
Hunt, who founded the American Football League in 1960 after the NFL refused to sell him a team, died Wednesday night in a Dallas hospital after a long battle with prostate cancer.
He moved his Dallas Texans to Kansas City in 1963 and renamed them the Chiefs.
"In creating the AFL, he likely did more to change the NFL over the last half-century than any other single person," said New York Jets CEO Woody Johnson. "Without Lamar Hunt, there would be no Super Bowl, a term he originally coined, and there would not be a New York Jets franchise."
Hunt entered the hospital for the last time Nov. 22, only 24 hours before his beloved Chiefs hosted Denver in a Thanksgiving night game, something he sought for 37 years. While treating him for a partially collapsed lung, doctors discovered the cancer had spread.
"He wanted people to love the sports like he did," his wife, Norma, said. "He loved sports so much, he was so passionate about them and he wanted others to share the joy."
Said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: "His vision transformed pro football and helped turn a regional sport into a national passion. Lamar created a model franchise in the Kansas City Chiefs, but he was always equally devoted to the best interests of the league and the game."
The son of Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, Lamar Hunt grew up in Dallas and attended a private boys' prep school in Pennsylvania, serving as captain of the football team in his senior year. His love of sports led to his nickname, "Games."
He played football at SMU, a third-string end, but spent his life promoting professional sports, including basketball, baseball, tennis, soccer and bowling.
In 1972, Hunt became the first AFL figure to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and each year the Lamar Hunt Trophy goes to the winner of the NFL's American conference.
"He was a founder. He was the energy, really, that put together half of the league, and then he was the key person in merging the two leagues together," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody that's made a bigger contribution [to the NFL] than Lamar Hunt."
Carl Peterson, the Chiefs' president and general manager, called Hunt "arguably the greatest sportsman of this last half-century, although he never sought fame or recognition for the improvements and changes he brought to the world's sports institutions."
"His was a creative, constructive and loving life not nearly long enough and we will likely never see one like it again," Peterson said.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody that's made a bigger contribution [to the NFL] than Lamar Hunt."
-- Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones
Hunt finally realized his dream of becoming an NFL owner after the two leagues reached a merger deal in 1966.
In 1967, the Chiefs lost the first AFL-NFL championship -- it was then called the World Championship Game. Three years later, the Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings for the title.
By then, the championship game had been christened the Super Bowl, a name Hunt came up with while watching his children at play.
"But I was smart enough to understand," he once said with characteristic humor, "that it was a corny term that would never catch on with the public."
Many also credit Hunt with aiding the civil rights movement,
which was just beginning to accelerate in the early '60s when
Hunt's upstart AFL created more opportunities for black players.
Unlike many established NFL teams, the AFL sent scouts into the
historically black colleges such as Grambling. As the AFL grew more
successful, the NFL began signing more black players as well.
"There is no question the AFL helped expand opportunities for
minority athletes in this country, and Lamar founded the AFL,"
Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said.
"He turned his back to the crowd many times. That's what great
Hunt's efforts to aid black athletes was one of the things
Peterson talked to the Chiefs players about in a meeting Thursday
"Lamar said, 'I don't care who you are or what color you are,
it's all about what you can do on the field,' said Tony Gonzalez,
the Chiefs' Pro Bowl tight end. "Of all the different things he's
done in his life, that was definitely one that was eye-opening."
For several years, Hunt also owned the minor-league baseball Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, but his 1964 effort to bring major league baseball to the Dallas area failed. Eight years later, the Washington franchise moved to suburban Arlington and became the Texas Rangers.
"I knew Lamar for close to 50 years, he was a friend, a business associate, a family man, a visionary -- one of the finest men I have every known," said Tennessee Titans owner K.S. "Bud" Adams Jr., one of Hunt's original investors in the AFL.
"Our league will miss him, but more importantly, those who he touched over a lifetime of giving will miss him."
Hunt is survived by his wife, children Lamar Jr., Sharron Munson, Clark and Daniel; and 13 grandchildren.