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Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and broadcasting legend, dies at 87

Quarterback Len Dawson #16 of the Kansas City Chiefs drops back to pass against the Oakland Raiders during an early circa 1970's NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images
Quarterback Len Dawson #16 of the Kansas City Chiefs drops back to pass against the Oakland Raiders during an early circa 1970's NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

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.

Former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson stands on the sideline during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 30, 2017.
Colin E. Braley / AP
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AP
Former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson stands on the sideline during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 30, 2017.

"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.

Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs passes to a teammate during Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, La. on January 11, 1970.
/ Focus on Sport/Getty Images
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Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs passes to a teammate during Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, La. on January 11, 1970.

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."

Len Dawson, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs is pictured giving his sportscast at a local television station in Kansas City, Mo., Dec. 1, 1970.
William P. Straeter / AP
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AP
Len Dawson, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs is pictured giving his sportscast at a local television station in Kansas City, Mo., Dec. 1, 1970.

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."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs greets fans before the Class of 2008 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on August 2, 2008 in Canton, Ohio.
Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs greets fans before the Class of 2008 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on August 2, 2008 in Canton, Ohio.

Corrected: August 24, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
We originally said that Len Dawson was one of four in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player and a broadcaster. He is actually one of three.
Greg Echlin
Ever since he set foot on the baseball diamond at Fernwood Park on Chicago's South Side, Greg Echlin began a love affair with the world of sports. After graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he worked as a TV sports anchor and a radio sportscaster in Salina, Kansas. He moved to Kansas City in 1984 and has been there since covering sports. Through the years, he has covered multiple Super Bowls, Final Fours and Major League Baseball's World Series and All-Star games.