Lamar Hunt has died on Wednesday December 13th he will be remembered as a class guy, an honest man and an egoless NFL owner. This last is no small thing, the way the football business has gone.
Lamar may have been the least appreciated architect of the battle that gave America two separate professional football entities until they merged into one, and expanded professional football beyond its wildest plans. Once there was a merger, he became one in philosophy with Wellington Mara and Art Rooney and, to a lesser extent, Arthur Modell.
In a world of self-servers like Carroll Rosenbloom and Al Davis, Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones, he was still all about "the league"... all about what it stood for and what was best for it ... all about the things the NFL's old patriarchs stood for, although before the merger he fought them as hard as anyone else.
An SMU alum schooled in the 100-yard glory of Doak Walker and Kyle Rote, nothing in his life took precedence over the joy he felt on autumn afternoons in the days of his youth, when SMU was king of the Southwest Conference and he watched it all in the picture-postcard Dallas campus stadium or within the massive confines of the Cotton Bowl.
His father, H.L. Hunt, was thought to be one of the eight wealthiest Americans, with an oil fortune estimated at between $4 billion and $7 billion. His brother, Bunker, was involved in an international scam that cornered the silver market and ultimately led to his bankruptcy.
But for all the family turmoil, Lamar went his own way. That way was 100 yards long with goal posts at either end. He loved the game with a passion that rivaled that of Wellington Mara and George Halas and George Preston Marshall.
He desperately wanted to join their elite NFL social set. At age 27, Lamar tried to buy his way in and was rebuffed by the commissioner, Bert Bell. But Lamar was a competitor, so he determined he would start his own league and force a merger. It was at that point, after Hunt had found folks with the same goal, folks like oil man Bud Adams in Houston and Ralph Wilson up in Buffalo and broadcaster Harry Wismer in New York, and others like them, that he launched a venture in which few people believed.
Modell laughed at them and casually said something that would come back to haunt both him and the old guard:
"Let them raise enough money to buy a football."
With Lamar spearheading the project, they raised enough for the football and for the players. But at their first organizational meeting in Minneapolis, the franchise in the host city defected when seduced by Pete Rozelle. The Oakland Raiders were a laughable choice to replace it. They divided their home games between an old softball field and later across the bay at abandoned Kezar Stadium. To Hunt's embarrassment, the Raiders had seven owners who were involved in a fist fight in the press box and then couldn't figure out how the press got wind of it.
Boston (today New England) played at Fenway Park and Braves Field. The Titans (later the Jets) played at the crumbling Polo Grounds and so it went.
Meanwhile, Lamar Hunt had a bigger battle. His Dallas Texans shared the Cotton Bowl with the old guard's embryonic Dallas Cowboys, owned by Clint Murchison. Between them they drew fewer than 10,000 most of the time. At Thanksgiving time, each team could have qualified as part of Dallas' 45 neediest cases. They were on a joint path of self-immolation. Then Lamar saved both franchises and possibly the league by moving his team to Kansas City."People say I lost a coin toss," he often said. "That's not true. It's apocryphal. What makes it apocryphal is the way things were going in real life, the loser should have had to stay."
In Kansas City, the Chiefs came alive. Hunt had found a home away from home.The war gathered steam. Both sides hired huge staffs of what they called "baby-sitters." The idea was to spirit college players away to isolated hotels and keep them there until they signed. Most of the players claimed they signed under duress -- especially when the other league waved more money at them. It is hard to see how 145-pound part-time chaperones could force 253-pound linebackers to do this. This gets easier to understand when you recall some of the phone calls between baby-sitters and their bosses back home:
"What do you mean he wants to leave? Throw him another set of cars. Introduce him to another willing lady. Just get him signed."
The battle grew more intense and Lamar's Kansas City Chiefs signed their share of players held "hostage." I was in Paris one summer in the early '60s, and I bumped into Ralph Wilson and Hunt, who were positively ebullient. Wilson told me that CBS had signed a package for $28 million (a king's ransom in those days) with the NFL.
"What does that have to do with you guys?" I asked Lamar. "You are a reporter. Go ahead and report. It means NBC cannot afford to keep us alive." He was right. Both sides began to resent the baby-sitting wars. It was Vince Lombardi who actually said, "That's enough."And it was Lamar who led the AFL side to the peace table.
NFL folks jokingly referred to him as the AFL's "foundling father," but in truth there would have been no peace without his role. He began to meet with Rozelle's buddy, who was also the Cowboys general manager.
"We met secretly in the old Dallas airport," Tex Schramm told me, "We met in my car. If anyone was going to get bugged, it wasn't me." The deal was cut and Hunt, who had told other AFL palace guard members that all was set, was ordered by Rozelle to the John Adams Hotel in Washington under an assumed name to wait for Rozelle and Jim Kensil, his P.R. guy, to rehearse him for the press conference the next day in Manhattan.
Schramm flew up from Dallas, Rozelle and Kensil, both wearing dark glasses, flew down from New York, and Hunt was told to stay in his room under an assumed name. When Rozelle and his aide got there, Hunt was waiting out front. He waved and hollered, "How y'all doin'?" Between them they rushed to the elevator so fast it's doubtful he left footprints. So, they declared peace the next day, and it is a fact that the new NFL could not have survived without Hunt's leadership. "It was as though we were trying to start another automobile company to compete with General Motors," Wilson said when praising Hunt's contribution.
"There were times during the early days when owners got down and Lamar would give them a pep talk," says John Steadman, his first general manager, "and they would be so high they would be willing to go out and lose another million." John Mara, Wellington's son, said, "They often saw things differently from each other, but whenever the good of the league was an issue, they stood shoulder to shoulder."
And there is one more way in which Hunt left an indelible mark on all of the NFL. He is the one who named the Super Bowl. Rozelle hated it, but in the end Lamar, as he often was, was right on target.
Lamar Hunt is survived by his wife, children Lamar Jr., Sharron Munson, Clark and Daniel; and 13 grandchildren.
Source: Jerry Izenberg The Star Ledger
Jerry Izenberg appears regularly in The Star-Ledger.