Christmas Day holds special interest to pro football enthusiasts and the teams they follow. NFL players often find themselves playing that day or preparing to play a day or so later. Feasting and family often come later, only after the holidays.
Grow up in Kansas City in the 1950s and 1960s and you’ll find any sports fan worth his salt recalling the joy of Christmas morning, accompanied later by pain, following the playing of the Chiefs Christmas Day game of 1971, the final game played at the city’s old Municipal Stadium.
Oddly enough, to late Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, a deeply spiritual person in his own right and a generally positive one, by most accounts, he considered that game to be a memorable one, even though it ended in defeat and signaled – although slow and painful – the beginning of the decline of the franchise, until its renaissance, almost twenty years later.
Hunt made no bones about it; he said of that team: “1971 was the best team we’ve ever had in Kansas City,” but ever the promoter of his beloved AFL, he recognized that the game’s outcome also signaled “the emergence of the [Miami] Dolphins as a great team.” The Dolphins had lost in the playoffs the previous year and went on to lose in the Super Bowl to Dallas, after the win in Kansas City.
The 1971 Chiefs featured no less than 11 Pro Bowl players and the league’s leading receiver in Otis Taylor (1,110 receiving yards). The defense was tops, as was the kicking game with placekicker Stenerud and punter Wilson. The team was well-respected, having been featured in two winning Monday Night contests, when those games reigned as television’s most-watched events. There was no surprise that Kansas City should be considered a favorite to return to the Super Bowl.
“The Christmas Day aspect is very vivid to me,” Hunt remembered years later, “because there was a great hue and cry; the league was criticized for scheduling the game on Christmas Day.”
The game turned out to be a rarity: a playoff hosted at Municipal. The Chiefs would never play another home playoff game in Kansas City, until 1991.
Hunt acknowledged that “it was a terrifically well-played game. Miami scored with about a minute left in regulation time [tying the game, 24-24], and Ed Podolak returned the kickoff 78 yards. We ran several plays and Jan Stenerud attempted the field goal from the mid-20s and missed. He also missed one in the first overtime, a bit longer [a 42-yarder that Miami’s Nick Buoniconti blocked].
“The first one was real makeable. Then, [Garo] Yepremian made his field goal in the sixth quarter [after 22:40 of overtime].”
“I remember my son [now Chiefs chairman] Clark, who was six, went with us very early that morning to Kansas City, so we could watch the first game, which would have been Dallas and Minnesota, and we kicked off our game at four. It was real warm, about 60 degrees. We were sitting in the old press box, which is very narrow and has a long, continuous table that you slid your chairs under.
“About the fifth quarter – it was already dark – Clark went to sleep, and he slept through the longest game. I didn’t have the heart to wake him up.
“It was one of the three or four most memorable games I’ve been involved in. The other thing I remember about it is that, that was the day that Curt Gowdy invented the expression ‘sudden victory.’
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a sudden victory for us.”
Without knowing it at the time, the game represented the closing of a chapter in team history that would forever be linked to the old American Football League and to Municipal Stadium.
The iconic photo of linebackers Willie Lanier and Jim Lynch exiting the field, under the dimming lights of Municipal, was really symbolic, though no one noticed at the time. The Chiefs were aging, just as the stadium had, and as the team took up residence in brand new Arrowhead, the following year, something was lost.
Youth, for certain, as the players who represented the success the franchise had garnered, when the AFL began, and had flourished, following the move to Kansas City, started slipping on the field, with many going the way of retirement as the decade wore on. Their successors were not their equals and the Chiefs might well have looked in the aftermath of that Christmas Day of 1971, with sadness for what might have been.