Humble Hunt never afraid to think big

Updated: December 14, 2006, 9:55 AM ET
By Frank Luksa | Special to ESPN.com

Among the large footprints that dot the NFL landscape is a Gulliver-size set that left a historic trail from Dallas to Kansas City to Canton, Ohio. They belong to Lamar Hunt.

A gentle giant, Hunt shook and shaped the NFL as we know it today. His influence on the future of pro football began in Dallas when, at 28, he had the vision and resources of a multimillionaire to found a new league in 1960. Dallas thus became headquarters of "The Foolish Club," the whimsical nickname for eight original franchise owners that Hunt, Pied Piper-style, wooed into forming the American Football League.

Hunt's legacy expanded over the next 40-odd years to include multiple milestones. His hometown Texans won the AFL championship in '62 over Houston in the longest game played to that point -- an overtime thriller that lasted 77 minutes, 54 seconds. As the transplanted Kansas City Chiefs, Hunt's team played in the first AFL vs. NFL World Championship Game, as it was then known. Three years later, the Chiefs became the first AFL team to win the aptly titled Super Bowl, a fitting tribute to Hunt since he helped name the event at mention of his daughter's toy SuperBall.

By then, Hunt, who died Wednesday night at 74, had been in the forefront of an NFL-AFL merger to end a war of financial attrition for players and meld the competing leagues under a common umbrella. Hunt and former rival Tex Schramm, president-general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, were major figures in negotiating the truce. To protect their secret sessions, they met as two faces in a crowd beneath a statue of a Texas Ranger at the Dallas Love Field terminal.

Hunt's personal touch on these issues was of such magnitude that he received rare recognition for one lately arrived on the scene. He was inducted with the Class of 1972 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, the sport's ultimate honor. The significance lay in the fact that this former third-string end at SMU had been involved in pro football only 13 years.

Lamar would have been involved sooner, but his late 1950s bid to buy the Chicago Cardinals from the Wolfner family and move them to Dallas begat an offer for only 20 percent ownership with no move. Hunt declined, and was further discouraged from landing an NFL expansion team. George Halas, the NFL icon who headed the expansion committee, told Hunt that his league had no plans to welcome new members in the foreseeable future.

Yet, Hunt's conversation with the Wolfners lingered. He heard of many suitors angling to buy the Cardinals and move them. Houston and Minneapolis were mentioned as potential sites. The idea of launching a new league now sounded reasonable.

"I guess it was January of 1959," Hunt reflected years later, "when I concluded, 'My gosh, if so many people are interested in getting a team, there might be a need for another league.'"

To those who recognized Hunt only by a name linked with these dramatic ventures, he summoned the perception of a dynamic, flamboyant character. Instead his manner was cloned from mild-mannered, bespectacled Clark Kent, Superman in disguise. Hunt's persona was quiet-spoken, polite and humble, as flashy as a quarterback sneak.

In fact, his personal tastes were frugal for a man of immense wealth. His clothes and cars were plain. He flew coach on airlines. Lamar's idea of reckless behavior was to order ice cream for dessert.

His only extravagance was investing in sports, and the longest odds he faced were during those start-up years in Dallas.

When Hunt announced an AFL team would play in Dallas in 1960, it stunned the NFL, which now planned to expand there a year later. The NFL responded by planting a hurry-up franchise to compete with Hunt. Fellow millionaire Clint Murchison Jr., bought the franchise and for the next three years his Cowboys and the Texans bled red ink.

"We'll flip a coin," Murchison once joked. "The winner gets to leave town."

It was suggested to billionaire H. L. Hunt that he must be worried about son Lamar's pro football losses, which surely amounted to $1 million a year.

"Oh, I am, I am," the elder Hunt exclaimed. "At that rate he will be broke in 200 years."

Hunt transferred his Texans in 1963 to Kansas City, which he correctly envisioned as a city that would embrace pro football. From there he saw the Chiefs lose to Green Bay, 35-10, in the first AFL-NFL playoff for pro football supremacy in 1967, and hear his league mocked as inferior. Revenge arrived during Super Bowl IV when Kansas City dominated Minnesota, 23-7, for a second straight title game victory by a former AFL team and to continue what would be a string of three consecutive victories by AFL-AFC teams.

Hunt never stopped campaigning to invigorate the way the game was played. He long pleaded to add suspense to the repetitively successful extra point by adopting a two-point conversion, one of the AFL's original rules. His persistent voice finally met with approval when the NFL adopted the two-point option in 1994.

Hunt also lobbied for decades to bring a Thanksgiving Day game to Arrowhead Stadium. His wish was granted this season, when the Chiefs played host to Denver for a prime-time kickoff. Ironically, Hunt was confined to a hospital in Dallas and kept track of the game via telephone updates. Players graciously dedicated their victory over the Broncos to the absent owner.

Every history of the NFL will devote chapters to the contributions of modest Lamar Hunt. How to gauge his legacy to pro football? It is everlasting.

Frank Luksa is a freelance writer based in Plano, Texas. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Dallas Times-Herald and Dallas Morning News.