KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and popular radio and TV sports personality Len Dawson has died. He was 87.
He led the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl win in 1970, even picking up the MVP title. “Lenny the Cool” also guided Chiefs fans through their ups and downs as a broadcaster for more than 50 years.
Dawson had entered hospice care earlier this month. In a statement released by the Chiefs, “Len Dawson is synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs. Len embraced and came to embody Kansas City and the people that call it home. You would be hard-pressed to find a player who had a bigger impact in shaping the organization as we know it today than Len Dawson did,” said Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt.
Dawson was born in Alliance, Ohio, in 1935. Fifty-two years later, he stood at the Hall of Fame in nearby Canton, inducted after a 19-year football career. He was only the third person to enter the Hall of Fame as a player and a broadcaster, after Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf.
“I was into working,” Dawson said with a laugh in 2017, when the broadcasting booth at Arrowhead Stadium was formally dedicated to him. “Because my parents didn’t have a whole lot and they taught me something: ‘If you want something, find a way to earn it to get it done.'”
Dawson was a color commentator for the Chiefs radio broadcasts on the Chiefs radio network from 1984 through 2017. His broadcast play-by-play partner for 24 of those years, Mitch Holthus, was a long-time admirer.
“I made sure my mom made a crude, stitched jersey with 1 and 6 on it because I wanted to be Lenny Dawson,” said Holthus, referring to Dawson’s jersey No. 16.
Dawson was a first-round draft pick out of Purdue by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957 but was unable to get any significant playing time with the Steelers or in his two years with the Cleveland Browns in 1960 and 1961.
Meanwhile, Lamar Hunt founded the American Football League in 1960.
“I remember (Browns owner/coach) Paul Brown saying, ‘Hey, there’s a bunch of sons of rich people. This is a hobby for them,'” Dawson recalled. “‘It won’t last more than a year or two. It’s not going to be very long.'”
Dawson signed with the Dallas Texans in the fledgling AFL before the 1962 season and was reunited with coach Hank Stram, one of his assistant coaches at Purdue. The Texans won the AFL championship that year before moving to Kansas City.
In 1964, Dawson threw 30 touchdown passes, a Chiefs record until Patrick Mahomes shattered it with 50 in 2018. On the verge of breaking Dawson’s record, Mahomes said he talked to Dawson about it.
“When you throw 30 touchdowns in today’s league where there’s a lot more passing, you’re still having a great season,” said Mahomes in 2018. “For him to be that advanced, I mean he won a Super Bowl here. He was one of the best quarterbacks to ever play.”
With Dawson at QB, the Chiefs lost in Super Bowl I, but beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. Dawson was the MVP.
“We were the underdog in that game,” he recalled. “We were supposed to get beat by a couple of touchdowns. Thankfully, we didn’t believe that.”
Dawson’s final season was in 1975 when he was 40. Behind an injury-decimated offensive line, he was sacked seven times in a late-season game. By then, Dawson said, he knew his playing career was over.
“It made my decision,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s it. I don’t need to take this whipping like this anymore.'”
Unbeknownst to Dawson in 1966, Chiefs president Jack Steadman started discussions with management at KMBC-TV and radio about working Dawson into the broadcasts.
“I didn’t have any idea he was doing that, so it ended up starting my broadcasting career,” Dawson said.
Not only did he remain a major figure in Kansas City, he also became well known for a groundbreaking national show on HBO called “Inside the NFL.”
Chiefs Mourn the Passing of Franchise Legend Len Dawson
The Kansas City Chiefs are saddened to share the passing of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, Chiefs legend and Kansas City icon, Len Dawson.
“My family and I are heartbroken. Len Dawson is synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs. Len embraced and came to embody Kansas City and the people that call it home. You would be hard-pressed to find a player who had a bigger impact in shaping the organization as we know it today than Len Dawson did,” Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said. “I admired Len my entire life – first as a Hall of Fame player on the field, and later as he transitioned into a successful broadcasting career. Throughout his remarkable career, Len made it a priority to give back to the community that he loved. The franchise has lost a true legend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Linda and his family.”
Dawson was the heart and soul of the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs franchise during his illustrious14-year Chiefs career, helping make the franchise one of professional football’s premier teams while becoming one of the game’s elite passers.
Under the leadership of PFHOF Head Coach Hank Stram, who brought Dawson to the Texans/Chiefs franchise in 1962, Dawson’s Chiefs were perennial contenders and won American Football League Championships in 1962, 1966 and 1969. He earned the Most Valuable Player award for Super Bowl IV when he directed Kansas City to a 23-7 win over the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings. Dawson won the AFL passing title four times and still holds the franchise’s career records for pass attempts (3,696), completions (2,115), passing yards (28,507) and touchdowns (237).
He was named to six AFL All-Star teams and one Pro Bowl squad, and also earned AFL Player of the Year honors for the 1962 season. Dawson started 158 regular season games for Kansas City, the most of any quarterback in franchise history. He led the AFL in passing four different seasons (1962, 1964, 1966 and 1968), pacing the AFL in completion percentage eight times, including a string of six-straight seasons from 1964-69.
Dawson was recognized as the 1973 NFL Man of the Year, one of five Chiefs players to ever earn the honor. He retired from professional football on May 1, 1976. He was enshrined into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1979 and was immortalized at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1987. He was also enshrined in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.
Dawson enjoyed an equally legendary broadcasting career that began during his playing days. In 1966 he served as a sports anchor with KMBC Radio and as sports director for KMBC-TV while serving as the club’s signal caller. Following his retirement from professional football after the 1975 season, Dawson joined NBC and served as a color analyst on NFL games until 1982. He then joined the Chiefs Radio Network as a color commentator in 1984, serving on the team’s radio crew for 35 years. While working NFL games for NBC, Dawson embarked on what would become a 24-year run that spanned four decades (1977-2001) as the host of HBO’s popular “Inside the NFL,” cable television’s longest-running series and the first NFL-related program to air on cable.
For his contributions to broadcasting, Dawson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Hall’s Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award in 2012. He became just the third individual in professional football history to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a broadcaster, joining Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford.
In 2014, Dawson was honored with the Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football at the 44th Annual NFL 101 Awards, recognizing his contributions both on and off the field that helped shape the National Football League into the preeminent professional sports league in America. In 2017, the club renamed the television broadcast booth inside GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium the Len Dawson Broadcast Booth in honor of Dawson’s accomplishments both on the field and as a broadcaster.
Dawson began his professional career as a first-round draft pick of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957. He went on to land with Cleveland in 1960 but was cut by the Browns prior to the 1962 season, at which point he was signed by the Dallas Texans as a free agent on July 2, 1962. In total he spent 19 years as a quarterback in the NFL/AFL.
The Alliance, Ohio, native attended Purdue University where he was a three-year starter at quarterback for the Boilermakers (1954-56) and ended his career as the university’s leader in career passing yards and touchdown passes.