One morning during Tom Watson’s senior year (1966-1967) at Pembroke Country Day, Kansas City Chiefs icon Len Dawson was a guest speaker at the school now known as Pembroke Hill.
Watson still remembers the time of the assembly, 8:10 a.m., and his conversation afterward with Dawson.
He already was a golfer of enough renown that Dawson knew who he was when Watson approached and told Dawson he was playing quarterback for the football team.
“He kind of stops and says, ‘What are you doing playing football?’ ” Watson recalled by telephone.
That was the first story he wanted to tell when we spoke the other day about Dawson, who now is under hospice care. He still laughs at the thought of Dawson somewhat astutely chastising him for risking his future in golf.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that as much as Watson admired the illustrious play of Dawson, what he has appreciated most were other traits that resonate with many near and far:
“I liked the way he spoke,” Watson said, “and I liked the way he carried himself.”
Not long after George Brett was called up to the Royals in August of 1973, he met Dawson for the first time — surely “in awe,” he said — most likely at one of the Chiefs practices Brett periodically visited at the Truman Sports Complex.
But he needn’t have met Dawson to understand his place in Kansas City sports history.
“I would say Lenny was the first real big superstar athlete in Kansas City, wasn’t he?” Brett said in a phone interview, later adding, “When I got to Kansas City, he was the guy. He was the name. He was the name of the city, you know?”
As in being both indivisible from Kansas City and the name most associated with it for more than a decade with the Chiefs, accented by his half century here as a broadcaster of national fame and distinction.
That helps explain why he’ll stand here in perpetuity with a legacy historically rivaled only by Brett, the lone player who spent his whole career with the Royals to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Watson, the world’s top-ranked golfer from 1978-82.
Watson arguably remains Kansas City’s most successful native athlete, enhanced by living here all his life; Brett (California) and Dawson (Ohio) burnished their places here by making this their adoptive home.
“They would always say, ‘The Big Three,’ ” Brett said, laughing and adding, “Now, there’s, I think, the big four.”
Whoever else you might think belongs in this discussion (Buck O’Neil? Bobby Bell? Willie Lanier?), the fourth in this case would be Patrick Mahomes, the phenomenon who changed everything about the modern Chiefs and led the franchise to its first Super Bowl win since 50 years before … when Dawson led them to their only other triumph.
While they only met perhaps a handful of times as Dawson’s health was diminishing, the deferential Mahomes is keenly aware that Dawson was the face of Kansas City long before he became the contemporary version. He’s also praying for him that “hopefully everything gets better.”
Accomplished as Mahomes already is, he is cognizant that Dawson still stands for something he aspires to no matter how many of Dawson’s records he’s already broken.
“His stamp on this franchise is undeniable,” Mahomes said in an interview with The Star this week.
That stamp included being “kind of the guy who made the Kansas City Chiefs … this iconic franchise at the beginning,” Mahomes added.
For that matter, he reckons “If not for guys like him, I don’t think we would be in Kansas City or (be) the Kansas City Chiefs like the Kansas City Chiefs are.”
By way of Dawson’s collaboration with coach Hank Stram and owner Lamar Hunt moving the team here from Dallas after the 1962 season, he said, a tone was set here as, “We’re winners.” Winners who played in the first Super Bowl and won Super Bowl IV.
“And even the iconic picture he has where he’s smoking the cigarette at halftime (of the first Super Bowl) with a Fresca,” Mahomes said, smiling. “That’s just the type of swag and confidence that he kind of brought.”
Like Brett and Watson, who have their own special connection in their advocacy for ALS patients through the shared losses of friends because of the disease, Mahomes also feels a sense of his own link to Dawson.
That’s something you can get a nice glimpse of in a 2018 video the Chiefs made of longtime broadcaster Mitch Holthus interviewing them together. Mahomes speaks of how “Mr. Dawson” was so far ahead of his time, and Dawson praises how Mahomes is applying his great talent. Somewhat poignantly now, Dawson at one point smiles and says, “I was young once.”
And achieved singular things, particularly in the context of Kansas City sports history.
“So I’m going to try to do whatever I can,” Mahomes told The Star, “that one day people can look back at me like that.”
Pausing and smiling, he added, “But I don’t know if I have as much swag as he does.”
Including as a sportscaster, Mahomes noted … while he was still playing.
“You don’t see a lot of guys doing that stuff,” Brett said, laughing when asked if he could picture Mahomes doing such a thing. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. You couldn’t even get (Royals rookie) Vinnie Pasquaninto to do that. … ‘No, I’m making minimum (pro) salary, I’m doing fine.’ ”
Even if they haven’t been extremely close, Brett came to consider Dawson a friend through various encounters over the decades and feels honored by any association people might make between them.
And maybe he never lost that sense of awe he felt when he first met him.
Even when Brett was entering the Hall of Fame in 1999, he couldn’t believe Dawson was coming to his house to interview him for KMBC.
“It was Lenny (bleepin’) Dawson. In my house,” he said, still marveling. “I think at the end he asked me something to the effect of, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I want to be remembered as a gamer.’ And he says, ‘No, you’re not a gamer. You’re a Hall of Famer.’ ”
“And that was pretty cool,” he added, pausing and repeating, “That was pretty cool.”
Because it came from the guy known as “Lenny the Cool.”
“He set the standard of being a Hall of Fame player in Kansas City,” Brett said. “He set the standard. He really did.”