Lenny the Cool
Here, in the moments after losing my friend, I could tell you a hundred stories about Len Dawson. I could tell you about the time he got locked in a stadium with Howard Cosell. I could tell you about the time in college, at Purdue, when he was playing defensive back, and he tried to tackle Ohio State’s bruising running back Bobby Watkins, and he woke up a little while later thinking that defense wasn’t for him.
I could tell you they called him Lenny the Cool, but they called him the Golden Boy back at Purdue, before anyone gave that nickname to Paul Hornung. I could tell you about the time in 1948 when he stood outside a bar in Alliance, Ohio, and watched Cleveland’s Satchel Paige pitch in the World Series on the only black-and-white television in town, and how he cherished that memory as much as he cherished the victory in Super Bowl IV. I could tell you about the psychic who said his stars were aligned before Super Bowl IV. And they were.
I could tell you that he was the seventh son of a seventh son, and he took that seriously. “It all comes down to that,” he would say. “I’ve been blessed.”
I could tell you that he wanted to be a baseball player, not a football player; he loved talking about how he might have been a major league second baseman if things had played out differently. I could tell you that he was the first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers and was, for a time, a backup to a very old Bobby Layne.
“He had to be at least 73,” Lenny said. “I didn’t learn much about football from Bobby. But I picked up every one of his bad habits.”
I could tell you that the Steelers gave up on him, and he went to Cleveland to play for his hero, Paul Brown. Well, no, he didn’t actually play. In his first five seasons with Pittsburgh and Cleveland, he started two games. The Browns released him. I could tell you that the odds of a 27-year-old NFL washout becoming a Hall of Famer and a football icon are much closer to none than slim.
“Ah,” Lenny would say then, “but I’m the seventh son of a seventh son.”
I could tell you how he joined the Dallas Texans of the brand-new American Football League — he only got the chance because the Texans’ coach was Hank Stram, Dawson’s favorite assistant coach at Purdue — and how over the next few years Dawson and Stram helped reinvent the quarterback position.
In a time of mad bombers, Dawson played quarterback with the precision of a watchmaker. He led the AFL in completion percentage pretty much every year. He led the AFL in touchdown percentage pretty much every year. He led the AFL in quarterback rating pretty much every year. He led the Chiefs to Super Bowls I and IV, with them winning IV when his stars were aligned.
For much of that time, he was also a sports broadcaster in Kansas City. On Dec. 25, 1971, the Kansas City Chiefs lost a soul-crushing, double-overtime playoff game to the Miami Dolphins — it remains the longest game in NFL history. Dawson was the Chiefs’ quarterback in that game. And when it ended, he put on a suit and did the sports report for KMBC television in Kansas City. “One of the toughest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “But I didn’t stutter.”
Yes, I could tell you about Lenny’s football pet peeves — quarterbacks who throw into double-coverage, teams that waste timeouts, quarterbacks who take a sack rather than throwing the ball away. And I could tell you about football things that impressed him — running backs who fearlessly hit the hole, quarterbacks who look off the safety and, mostly, players who so clearly love playing the game.
Most of all I could tell you how cool he was, always, the coolest guy in the room. It’s a coolness that crosses the years. I mean, just look at this photograph:
Has there ever been a cooler huddle than the Chiefs’ choir huddle? Has there ever been a cooler quarterback in the middle of it, all eyes on him? He just had that something, that aura, that flair, that spirit …
“Seventh son of a seventh son,” he’d remind you.
But, if you’ll permit me, on this sad day as we remember the great Len Dawson, who died today at 87, I’d like to tell a personal story.
As a rule, I am firmly against April Fools’ Day gags. They are mostly terrible, often cruel, and frankly it feels like every day is April Fools’ in our current world. But I did come up with one April Fools’ Day column that I really wanted to write. It was 2001 in Kansas City. The Chiefs were coming off a dismal season. They fired the coach. Their quarterback, Elvis Grbac, had a 20 percent approval rating in town at best, and soon he left for Baltimore. It was looking pretty bleak.
And so I called Lenny with an idea. What would he think if I wrote an April Fools’ Day column about him making a comeback at age 65?
“Let’s do it,” he said without hesitation.
And so we did it — on April 1, 2001, I wrote a column breaking the news that Len Dawson would come to training camp in River Falls, Wisc., with the intention of winning the starting quarterback job.
“These days, with the new rules,” Dawson told me, “all you need to do is be an accurate thrower. I could always do that.”
“There aren’t that many quarterbacks around,” he continued. “They’re looking at who? Trent Dilfer? Tony Banks? They are just looking for a warm body.”
“Hey if Michael Jordan can think about coming back,” he added, “well, why not me?”
“And hey,” he concluded, “I’ve had fewer concussions than Troy Aikman.”
And he just kept on going. He said that part of the deal he’d made with the Chiefs was that he would call his own plays. He talked about how much he was looking forward to throwing to Tony Gonzalez. It was incredible. It was hilarious. Our star photographer, John Sleezer, got a photo of Lenny with a single-bar helmet. The headline was, “Here Comes Len Dawson to the Rescue.” It ended up being one of the most beloved columns I wrote in Kansas City; people still mention it to me now and then.
“I’m telling you,” Lenny said, “it just comes down to throwing accurate passes. If you can throw accurate, you put up a lot of numbers … I’ve always wanted to see what I could do with these new rules.”
For years after that, Lenny and I would laugh about that column. He said a couple of friends didn’t make it to the end—for the big reveal—and called to ask if he was serious about coming back. I got a couple of letters along those lines, too.
“You know,” he said to me one day, “I really do think I could have been a good quarterback with all the new rules. I mean, why not? Better protection. More receivers. All you have to be able to do is make quick decisions and throw accurately. That was my whole game.”
“Do you think you would have preferred playing today?” I asked. He thought about it.
“Nah,” he said. “I mean, the money’s better. But I think we had more fun.”