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With Chiefs up next, meaning of White House visit still resonates with past KC honorees

When the phone call came around 6:30 in the morning after Mario’s Miracle propelled Kansas to the 2008 NCAA title, KU coach Bill Self and his wife, Cindy, had just returned to their San Antonio hotel room.

Somewhere between over-served and wiped out, a groggy Self answered. On the other end, he heard either someone purporting to be a White House operator saying “please hold for the President,” or perhaps someone seeming to imitate President George W. Bush himself.

Though Self believes it was the latter, he can’t quite remember for sure.

He recalls one point clearly, though: Figuring it was a joke, he hung up.

On the President of the United States.

“They called right back, he got on the line and said, ‘Hey, this is the president,’” Self said, laughing. “I began to eat crow and apologize profusely.”

But Bush wasn’t just calling Self to congratulate him on KU’s championship. He was calling to invite Self and the Jayhawks to the White House, a gesture Self had the clarity to immediately accept through the fog.

Because he understood it was a monumental opportunity, one that turned out to include a visit to the U.S. Capitol (and an audience with Kansas’ congressional delegation) and the U.S. Supreme Court Building (where they met with several justices and shot baskets in the fifth floor gym known as “The Highest Court In The Land”) and even a surprise session inside the Oval Office.

The trip is one of Self’s great memories in coaching, one that makes him lament that the 2022 title team wasn’t able to go because of ongoing fallout from the pandemic.

“Regardless of political affiliation,” he said, “it’s a very proud time to be in the most powerful office in the world.”

Super Bowl champion Chiefs will visit the White House

Monday will make for another proud time for the region as the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, for the first time, will be hailed at the White House with ample thanks to the young man from Whitehouse High in Texas: two-time NFL and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes.

The Chiefs earned their call by beating the Philadelphia Eagles, who happen to be the NFL team of choice for Pennsylvania native Joe Biden, who seems likely to make reference to that even as he salutes the Chiefs. In the spirit of reaching across the aisle, though, perhaps the president will convey some kinship with Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy — who like him are Pennsylvania natives who attended the University of Delaware.

The novelty of the moment might seem surprising for a franchise that’s now won three Super Bowls.

But amid the heart of the pandemic, there was no such opportunity after the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV. And while Super Bowl IV marked the first time a president called to offer postgame congratulations (from President Richard Nixon to MVP Len Dawson), team invitations to the White House were sporadic at the time.

Other than during a pandemic, though, such visits are regular now. But never routine. And even if there occasionally are political rumblings in the air that might cloud the concept for some, Mahomes is right to anticipate what he recently called a “once-in-a-lifetime” sort of experience awaiting.

(Never mind that signs point to the likelihood of more once-in-a-lifetime visits ahead for a player who has stoked the franchise to three of the last four Super Bowls.)

“A feeling comes over you when you walk in that house …,” said former Royals vice president of communications and broadcasting Mike Swanson, whose 43-year baseball career featured White House trips with Arizona (2001) and the Royals (2015). “I’m never speechless, but it’s one of those things that’s really difficult to put into words.”

That’s at least in part because the scene makes for a surreal merger: the most familiar of groups to team fans melded into a fascinating world few of us ever get to observe firsthand.

“There are few people who’ve ever had that honor,” said Tom Watson, the Kansas City golf legend who has played the sport with four presidents and visited the White House as captain of the 1993 Ryder Cup team.

So the experience should be an enduring one for those privileged to go, he added, and one that “should really resonate with people.” And while that’s most true for those having the experience, that also radiates to those living vicariously through them.

Former White House press secretary and Kansas City native Josh Earnest points to how having the Chiefs, like other local teams before them, go to the White House is another platform for unification and celebration among fans.

“To have that point of pride in the national spotlight, even for a brief moment, is a really special thing,” said Earnest, who is now the chief communications officer for United Airlines but will be attending the celebration of the Chiefs.

The spotlight on the Chiefs, incidentally, will be a different sort than was on KU (twice) or Sporting KC or the Royals (twice).

Because of the international sensation that is Mahomes and how the Chiefs have enjoyed sustained time at the pinnacle and an enduring national impact.

By way of example, Earnest noted that in his suburban Chicago neighborhood he sees more children wearing Chiefs gear than that of the Bears. So the audience on Monday, he reckons, will be different than in the 2016 celebration of the 2015 Royals. Since that team was more a local sensation than D.C. draw, Earnest helped fill the seats with family and friends from back home for the event a colleague described as his own personal “inauguration day.”

“I’m sure there will be plenty of people that don’t have any connection to Kansas City who will be very excited to come see Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce in the East Room of the White House,” he said. “I think that will also shine through at the White House.”

As for what might be expected from a tradition that harkens back more than 150 years but has only been routine in recent decades?

Consider some past visits from the Kansas City area...

George Brett, Kansas City Royals meet Ronald Reagan

Weeks after beating the Cardinals in 1985, the Royals were greeted upon arrival in D.C. by a 26-piece U.S. Army band playing “Kansas City” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” The Associated Press wrote then. In the Rose Garden, per Reagan Library archives, the president who popularized such visits addressed the team:

“In that Interstate 70 series, the ‘Show Me’ spirit really came through,” President Ronald Reagan said. “Your team showed the world, and you did it royally. You’ve proved to America what a never-say-die spirit can do.”

He lavished particular attention on Bret Saberhagen, who at 21 became the youngest MVP in World Series history, and future National Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett.

“Something of a Kansas City institution,” he called Brett, adding that he had “captured the essence of hitting.”

Reflecting the inherent juxtaposition of the scene and the times themselves, the official archive then notes Reagan was asked a question after receiving a Royals jacket and cap.

“Reporter. Mr. President, have you sent your new arms proposal to Gorbachev?

The President. I’m making an announcement this afternoon.”

‘Danny and the Miracles’ earn a White House trip

After KU’s improbable title run in 1988, the Jayhawks were honored along with Louisiana Tech, the women’s championship team.

“What happened is a testament to determination, to hard work — lots and lots of hard work — to pride, to teamwork, and the courage to dream,” Reagan said of KU, according to a transcript from the Reagan Library.

Then speaking to the stories of both teams, he added: “Remember the lessons you’ve learned this season, the lessons about hard work and never quitting, about digging down into yourselves when you seem to be behind. Because what you’ve learned in basketball will be a strength to you all your lives. Especially here, in this great land of opportunity.”

Speaking of land of opportunity, Reagan noted coach Larry Brown had just turned down UCLA and said, “I know Jayhawk fans everywhere are rejoicing that, next year, I’m the only one moving back to California.”

Weeks later, though, the nomadic Brown left KU for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

Tom Watson gives the President some advice

Before Team USA won a second consecutive Ryder Cup in 1993, Watson and teammates visited the Bill Clinton White House even as several Republican golfers were voicing their displeasure with Clinton, a Democrat.

But the way Watson looked at it, then and now, was that it’s an incredible honor to be recognized by the President of the United States.

While he said Thursday he didn’t entirely recall the specifics of what ensued, here’s how Sports Illustrated’s (and Kansas City’s) estimable John Garrity told it:

“The President ignored the widely quoted insults and warmly greeted the team in the Rose Garden, shaking hands down the line,” Garrity wrote in 1995. “Watson then gripped a golf club and said, ‘You know, Mr. President, the golf grip is a lot like politics. If you hold the club too far to the right, you’re going to get in trouble on the left. If you hold it too far to the left, you’re going to have trouble from the right.

“But if you hold it in the middle ...”

Amid laughter, Garrity wrote, Clinton finished the thought …

“You’ll get it just right!”

Now Watson hopes the Chiefs get it right on Monday by soaking it all up as he did then and when he took his then-8-year-old daughter to Washington for what he called “a father-daughter trip I’ll never forget.” From the artwork and the history to the ceremony itself, he said, it all has the makings of a special day.

Bill Self meets President Bush ... and asks a question

In Bush’s remarks in the Rose Garden, he lauded Mario Chalmers as “Super Mario” while noting KU’s 2008 identity as a true team and its emergence from a Final Four made up of all No. 1 seeds.

All memorable, of course. But what happened next was what overwhelmed Self.

No sooner had Bush finished his remarks than he turned to Self and said, “Hey, I want to see you and everyone in your party in my office.”

Self said, “Like, the Oval Office?”

Yeah, Bush responded, that’s my office.

For some 20 minutes, Bush addressed the group and offered encouragement about leadership and responsible use of their platform. He posed for pictures. He even took questions, including one from Self asking how he was dealing with having low approval ratings.

“He said, ‘Bill, what you’ve got to understand is you won’t know whether a president’s done a good job or a poor job until 20 to 30 years from now,’” Self recalled. “‘You can’t worry about what everybody thinks. You just do what you think is best. But it’s impossible to evaluate somebody in real time. Because history has a way of defining somebody.’”

Sporting KC ‘got the ball rolling’ for Kansas City

As he spoke in October 2014 of Sporting’s journey to the 2013 MLS Cup, President Barack Obama referred to the grit that had enabled Peter Vermes’ team to win the title in sub-freezing conditions. And he made color points about the team

But he also offered broader observations that have proven prophetic in what was to come with the Royals, Chiefs and even Kansas City being selected as a 2026 World Cup host city.

Days before, he noted, the Chiefs had romped over the Patriots and the Royals had mustered the preposterous comeback in the 2014 American League wild-card game.

“And so, clearly, something is going on in Kansas City, but apparently these guys are the ones who got it all started, got the ball rolling,” he said, according to Obama White House archives. “It’s a pretty good day to be from Kansas City. You guys are feeling kind of cocky right now.”

Obama later alluded to what is now known as Children’s Mercy Park being sold out regularly even in adverse conditions.

“And this past summer, when Americans packed restaurants and stadiums and city parks during the World Cup, the fans in Kansas City led the way,” he said. “It seemed like 10 minutes couldn’t pass without seeing live shots of thousands of fans crowding the Power and Light District and cheering on Team USA …

“So as soccer continues to grow here in the United States, it does so in large part because of the great example of dedicated fans in Kansas City.”

And, yes, the 2015 Royals get their shine

In Earnest’s eight years in the White House, including as press secretary from 2014 to 2017, the visit by the Royals in 2016 indisputably was the most sheer fun he enjoyed.

“It was like I spent the whole day smiling,” he said, smiling anew as he added: “And not all my days in the White House were like that, at the risk of understating it.”

As a die-hard and thus long-suffering Royals fan, Earnest was elated by the story of an infectiously lovable team and relished the opportunity to help Obama’s speechwriters prepare.

So that day, Obama alluded to everything from the “keep the line moving” mindset that fueled an MLB-record eight postseason comeback victories to Jarrod Dyson’s “that’s what speed do” — “I love this quote,” Obama said — even to “hashtag ‘Yosted.’”

People from all over the world, and certainly of differing political persuasions in Missouri and Kansas, basked together in what Earnest called “one of the few things that is mostly insulated, not completely but mostly, from partisan politics in Washington, D.C.”

Then-general manager Dayton Moore said merely hearing Obama say his name was “overwhelming.” Alex Gordon felt goosebumps surge when Obama mentioned him. Yost thought about “the wonder” on so many faces. And Sal Perez, the Venezuelan who didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 2020, put it like this:

“That’s a lot,” he said, “to meet the President of the United States.”