KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Whether it was in the huddle during the early days of the AFL or behind the microphone as the NFL grew into the behemoth it is today, Len Dawson carried himself with an unmistakable swagger and self-assurance that earned him the well-worn nickname “Lenny the Cool.”
He was a Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl championship, then a Hall of Fame broadcaster who brought football into the homes of millions on the iconic HBO show “Inside the NFL.”
“Len was my first sports hero and he remained someone I admired and respected his entire life,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said. “His impact on the Kansas City Chiefs and everyone who has worked for the organization cannot be overstated.”
Dawson’s family announced his death Wednesday at the age of 87. No cause was given, though Dawson had had prostate cancer and quadruple heart bypass surgery over the years. He had been in hospice care since Aug. 12.
The Chiefs intend to honor Dawson during their preseason finale against Green Bay on Thursday night, Hunt said, though the details were still to be decided. Other memorials will be arranged according to the wishes of his family.
“With wife Linda at his side, it is with much sadness that we inform you of the passing of our beloved Len Dawson,” his family said in a statement issued by KMBC, the TV station where he worked as an anchor. “Len was always grateful and many times overwhelmed by the countless bonds he made during his football and broadcast careers.”
Dawson’s career was going nowhere when he joined the Hunt family’s nascent AFL franchise, then located in Dallas. But along with Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram, Dawson led it to three AFL titles and two Super Bowls; the Chiefs would lose to Green Bay in the inaugural one before beating Minnesota three years later at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
He was the MVP of that 23-7 triumph over the Vikings in January 1970, then proceeded to set numerous franchise records that only now Patrick Mahomes is surpassing. Dawson was enshrined in Canton as a player in 1987, then received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I’ve been blessed for what I had the opportunity to do,” Dawson said told The Associated Press in 2017. “I could not have accomplished so much without my teammates and colleagues, and I’m grateful for each of them.”
Dawson remained a beloved figure in Kansas City, even as his health declined and he cut back on public appearances. He would go out of his way to make time for fans, whether it be a photograph or signature. The latter often was scrawled upon a seminal photo from halftime of the first Super Bowl: the exhausted quarterback, white uniform covered in grass stains, sitting on a folding chair with a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of Fresca at his feet.
It perfectly captured a time and place. And it perfectly captured “Lenny the Cool.”
“He was always under control,” Stram recalled years later. “I said to him once, ‘Leonard, make sure that you never let them see you sweat.’ And he said, ‘Coach, quarterbacks don’t sweat. Quarterbacks perspire.’”
Sophisticated yet blue-collar to his core, Dawson was born June 20, 1935, the ninth of 11 children of James and Annie Dawson in the manufacturing town of Alliance, Ohio. He was a three-sport athlete at Alliance High School, setting records in both football and basketball, but turned his focus to the gridiron with a scholarship to Purdue.
Dawson led the NCAA in passing efficiency as a sophomore while also playing defense and kicking. And by the end of his college career, he’d thrown for more than 3,000 yards in an era defined by ground-and-pound football.
He was chosen by the Steelers in the first round of the 1957 draft, but wound up riding the bench behind Earl Morrall as a rookie and then failed to beat out Bobby Layne for the starting job the following season. When the Steelers traded him to the Browns, Dawson was unable to beat out Milt Plum for the job and was summarily released.
With the sudden freedom to play anywhere, Dawson jumped to the upstart AFL and the Texans, lured in part by the chance to play for one of his old Purdue coaches. It was Stram who managed to tap into his talent, helping Dawson become one of the league’s prolific passers, as the Texans went 11-3 in 1962 and won the first of three titles together.
The second came in 1966, when Dawson led the Chiefs to an 11-2-1 record and a 31-7 blowout of the Bills in the AFL title game. That earned the Chiefs the chance to face the powerhouse Packers of coach Vince Lombardi in the inaugural Super Bowl, where Dawson threw for 210 yards and a touchdown in a 35-10 defeat.
It was the 1969 season that proved to be the most memorable of Dawson’s career, though. He hurt his knee against the Patriots in Week 2, forcing him to miss the next five games, but returned to lead the Chiefs over the defending champion Jets and rival Raiders to reach what would be the final Super Bowl before the AFL-NFL merger.
“It was overwhelming,” Dawson said after the victory over Minnesota. “It’s just, you know how that relief comes with you now that it’s over with, and we’ve been successful? That’s the feeling that I had when I came off the field.”
Dawson played six more seasons in Kansas City, setting many records that stood until Mahomes came along. The two became fast friends, and Dawson was overjoyed when the young quarterback led the Chiefs to their second Super Bowl title with a come-from-behind victory over the 49ers in February 2020.
“RIP to the legend Len Dawson,” Mahomes tweeted Wednesday, accompanied by photos of them together. “The legacy and impact you made on Kansas City will live on forever.”
While many fans know Dawson for his playing days, others think first of his career in broadcasting. It began as a publicity stunt in 1966, when then-Chiefs general manager Jack Steadman was trying to build local support for the team. Steadman persuaded Dawson to anchor a nightly sports segment on TV, and his charisma and folksy charm made him a natural.
Dawson turned to broadcasting full-time after his playing days ended, working both in local TV and doing national game analysis for NBC. But he’s perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work alongside Nick Buoniconti on the HBO staple “Inside the NFL,” which helped the growing league reach millions of fans.
Dawson also served for more than three decades on the Chiefs’ radio broadcast team before retiring in 2018.
“I did all those postgames with him and I think the world of him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said at the time. “He has been there, he has done it — it doesn’t matter the age gap or the time away from being in the huddle. He just gets it. I love that part of it. He is a Hall of Famer all the way around.”
Dawson was married to his high school sweetheart, Jackie, from 1954 until her death in 1978, and they had two children, Lisa and Len Jr. Dawson’s second wife, Linda, remained by his side even as he entered hospice care.
“Len was really the first big sports celebrity in Kansas City,” Hunt said. “He was the undisputed leader of that Chiefs team that won the Super Bowl, and I think not only me but anybody who was cheering for the team during that era has a very fond memory and a very special bond with him.”