“People with pride and character grow in the face of adversity.”
The Chiefs began the final season of the American Football League still stinging from the 41-6 divisional playoff loss to Oakland that ended their 1968 season. Hank Stram wrote a letter to the players following that game and reminded them that “people with pride and character grow in the face of adversity.” The team would face more than its share over the next year in its march to a world championship.
In late July, the Chiefs reported for the 1969 season’s training camp at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., to find the purposeful Stram particularly intent. He handed down a dictum that there would be no long hair, facial hair or goatees on the team, and in his opening speech to the players he reminded the team of its’ goal in the 1969 season—to return to the Super Bowl and win it.
After a 6-0 preseason highlighted
by a 42-14 blowout of the Los Angeles Rams, the Chiefs opened the regular season with two easy wins, at San Diego and Boston. But in the second game, quarterback Len Dawson went down with an injury, initially diagnosed as a torn ligament in the left knee. After two different doctors recommended season-ending surgery, Stram found a specialist in St. Louis, Dr. Frank Reynolds, who advised that Dawson’s injury might heal with five-to-six weeks of rest and rehabilitation. Dawson decided to avoid the surgery in hopes that his leg would recover.
In the first game without Dawson, a 24-19 loss to Cincinnati, backup quarterback Jacky Lee broke his foot and was sidelined for the season. So Kansas City turned to its third-string quarterback, the unproven Mike Livingston, in just his second year from Abilene Christian. Livingston stepped up and played competently, the Chiefs’
dominating defense buckled down, and Kansas City won all five games Livingston started.
A rejuvenated Dawson came off the bench to engineer a win against Buffalo on November 2. Two weeks later, just two days after the death of his father, he threw three touchdown passes to Otis Taylor, as Kansas City beat the world champion Jets, 34-16, in New York. Two late-season losses to the Raiders left the Chiefs at 11-3, but with the AFL’s expanded playoff format in 1969, the second-place team in each division qualified to play the champion of the opposite division in the first round of the playoffs.
Facing the East Champion Jets
So the Chiefs headed back to New York, for a rematch with the East champion Jets, played in a swirling, icy wind at Shea Stadium. Kansas City held a scant 6-3 lead in the third quarter when a pass interference call gave the Jets the ball at first-and-goal on the Chiefs’ one-yard-line.
An impassioned Willie Lanier, atypically vocal in the huddle, rallied the defense to the greatest goal-line stand in team history. On first- and second-down, the Chiefs stopped the Jets running backs cold. On third down, Joe Namath faked a handoff to running back Bill Mathis and rolled to his right, looking for Matt Snell out in the flat. But Bobby Bell hadn’t bought the fake and was out in the flat to cover Snell. Under pressure, Namath threw the ball away, and the Jets were forced to settle for a tying field goal.
On the ensuing drive, Dawson hit Otis Taylor—on an improvised crossing pattern out of the Chiefs’ “camouflage slot” formation, which Taylor had drawn in the dirt on the sidelines—for a 61-yard gain to the Jets’ 19.On the following play, Dawson found Gloster Richardson in the end zone for the winning touchdown, 13-6.
AFL Championship Game
Two weeks later, the Chiefs traveled to Oakland to face the archrival Raiders’ team that had won seven of their last eight games between the two clubs. The final AFL Championship Game was a violent, fiercely-contested affair. Safety Johnny Robinson cracked two ribs on a play, cornerback Jim Marsalis left the game with a bruised kidney, and linebacker Jim Lynch made one tackle with such force that he broke his belt.
With the game tied at 7 in third quarter, facing third-and-14 on their own two-yard-line, the Chiefs made the game’s biggest play. Dawson scrambled in his own end zone before throwing a high floater to Otis Taylor, who made a spectacular over the-shoulder-catch at the 35-yard-line, while tightroping along the sidelines against double coverage. From there, the Chiefs marched down the field for the go-ahead touchdown. They weathered three fourth-quarter turnovers to emerge as a 17-7 winner and the only franchise to win three AFL titles.
Right: After Emmitt Thomas’ interception iced the AFL title, the Chiefs enjoyed a special menu on the flight home.