Above: Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and head coach Hank Stram pose with the AFL Championship trophy that took them to the Super Bowl.
By Joel Francis
When Fred Arbanas’ plane landed at the Dallas airport in 1961 he was greeted by Dallas Texans owner Lamar Hunt and his father, H. L. Hunt. Arbanas and Jim Tyrer, his new teammate who accompanied him on the flight, picked up their bags to walk to the car. The entourage passed BMWs, Lincolns and several other nice cars before stopping in front of a 1953 Hudson.
“It was parked in the back where you didn’t have to pay,” Arbanas recalled.
Hunt went to open the trunk and found it had rusted shut.
“Tyrer went back there and had to yank on it,” Arbanas said. “He got it open, but we thought it was going to come off.
“I remember standing there thinking, ‘Holy cow, what have I gotten myself into?’”
Welcome to the American Football League.
In 1961, Arbanas’ rookie year, the AFL was only one year old. Hunt had founded the league the year before as a response to the NFL denying him an expansion franchise in Dallas.
“It was a real mix in ages. A lot of guys were rejects of the NFL and the Canadian League and then there were us young guys fresh out of school,” Arbanas said. “It was really different coming from Michigan State where there were 76 or 77,000 at games to playing in front of 20,000 people. It was almost like going back to high school.”
Nobody cared about the AFL. Few of the games were televised and many of the players were unknown. The NFL was about the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. No one knew, much less cared, about the Los Angeles Chargers or Boston Patriots.
“We knew we were just as good,” Arbanas said. “We knew we would get in the mix where we would play those teams and beat them. After 1964 or ’65 we felt like we could compete.”
Arbanas didn’t get to play his position of tight end in 1961 because three discs in his back were ruptured during a preseason game. After missing all of the ’61 season, Arbanas suited up in 1962 for his second rookie year. Also new on the squad that year was an old NFL bench warmer from Pittsburgh named Len Dawson.
“Lenny was a little rusty, but he was better than any other quarterback I had ever played with, including Cotton Davidson,” Arbanas said. “He was just one of the guys, but there were times during those early games where you knew he knew how to fire that ball.”
The 1962 season was capped with a championship over the two-time defending AFL champion Houston Oilers, who were also the cross-state rival. The game went into two overtimes, but the Dallas Texans won 20-17. It was the first of three league titles the franchise would capture that decade.
“That was the longest game at that time. We could hardly talk, could hardly move, we were so tired,” Arbanas said. “I can remember the locker room after that ’62 championship game. We were so tired, but still happy. We celebrated quite a bit.”
The game also gave the Texans national exposure.
“It was a big thrill, because people around the country and back in Michigan could see us play,” Arbanas said.
It turned out to be the only championship the Dallas Texans would ever win. Following the 1962 season, Hunt, tired of battling with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, announced he was moving the team to Kansas City.
“We didn’t get booted out,” Arbanas said. “The Cowboys were there but they were drawing the same 20,000 fans per game we were.
“We liked Dallas but when we came to Kansas City we got acclimated real quick to the community. I fell in love with the Kansas City area,” added Arbanas, who currently serves as a Jackson County legislator for the third district, at-large and lives in Lee’s Summit.
The Texans picked up some key acquisitions before kicking off the 1963 season as the Kansas City Chiefs. Outside linebacker Bobby Bell played college ball at the University of Minnesota and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings but surprised many people by signing with the Texans.
“I got a better deal with the Chiefs, although my first contract still said the Texans,” Bell said. “The people who I knew that knew Lamar said this was the better deal.”
Along with Bell, much of what would be the core of the Chiefs for the rest of the decade also came up that year: Buck Buchanan, Ed Budde and Jerrel Wilson.
“I think we had an attitude that we wanted to play football, but we didn’t care where,” said Bell, who lives in Kansas City. “Buck and I were roommates and we set up the task: I’m gonna make the team. In my mind, I said, ‘I’m gonna make the team.’ The other guys, Buck, said, ‘I’m gonna make the team.’ We went out there and we all made the team. That was the type of attitude we had.”
The new players made an impression on the rest of the team.
“I knew Ed Budde from college. He and Buck were both No. 1 choices,” Arbanas said. “I knew Ed was a great addition but only knew a little about Buck. Jerrel Wilson happened to be the greatest punter in football and also played special teams. He was one of the toughest guys on the team.”
The Chiefs’ new home in Kansas City was Municipal Stadium.
“The thing I liked about that was the fans were so close,” Bell said. “I personally felt like we knew all the fans. They didn’t need a program because we were in the community all the time. They got to know us one-on-one. We’d see the same people all the time. The relationship was unbelievable.”
“It was so close, when you got near the Wolf Pack you could hear the people breathing,” Arbanas said.
Shortly after moving to Kansas City, Arbanas was assaulted.
“It was 1964 and I was out at 33rd and Troost looking in a store window about 9:30 p.m.,” Arbanas said. “Some guy walked up and sucker punched me. I couple days later I lost sight in that eye. I can see motion up close, but mostly light.”
Three attempted operations on Arbanas right eye were failures, but he was determined to stay on the team.
“Lenny and I started meeting after work in Swope Park,” Arbanas said. “We’d start 5 or 10 feet apart and work back. Then I would go home and my son and I would throw a tennis ball around in the family room.
“With my son and Lenny nursing me along I was able to start tracking the ball again. I was running patterns again in the spring.”
If his eye bothered him, Arbanas didn’t let it show. He was an All-AFL choice in 1964 and ’65 just as he had been in 1962 and ’63.
“It took concentration to be able to find the ball and get it around into my hands,” Arbanas said. “I’d have to get my head around and get my good eye on the ball. I couldn’t have done it without my son, Lenny and the encouragement of (Chiefs coach Hank) Stram.”
After finishing third in 1963 and ’65 and second in 1964, the Chiefs again conquered the AFL in 1966, winning eight of their last nine games, including a 31-7 playoff romp over Buffalo, and not losing since the first week in October.
As champions, the Chiefs were to meet Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in the first meeting between the AFL and NFL. The game was officially named the AFL-NFL Championship Game, but Hunt called it the Super Bowl. Hunt’s name stuck.
“Being in that game meant a lot more exposure for us at that time,” Arbanas said. “It was a pride deal because we were going to be able to beat the best, who were the Packers. Some of the Packers were guys I had idolized in college. To play against them was a big thrill.”
“We were just excited to be there,” Bell said. “They called us the Mickey Mouse league, but the league didn’t make the player. Those guys put their pants on the same way I did. We had to play our game.”
The Chiefs trailed 14-10 at half-time, but Willie Wood picked off a Dawson-to-Arbanas pass in the third quarter that resulted in a Green Bay touchdown. That proved to be more than the Chiefs could overcome.
“We played them tough for a half, but a game lasts two halves,” Arbanas said. “They beat us but didn’t beat us any worse than anybody else.”
To many sportswriters and sports fans the Chiefs’ 35-10 loss was proof positive that the AFL was an inferior league.
“We were dejected, but we didn’t feel like we were embarrassed,” Arbanas said. “I went into the game with a separated shoulder I got in the game against Buffalo. I got four shots of Novocain in the shoulder before the game and four more at half-time. I wasn’t at my best, but you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t going to play.”
But the Chiefs dispelled that notion before the 1967 season began when the Chicago Bears visited for an exhibition game.
“We beat them like, 66-24,” Arbanas said. “Warpaint (the Chiefs’ equestrian mascot) almost had a heart attack because we scored so many touchdowns and he had to run around the field. It seemed like one of those games where every time Lenny threw the ball up it was a touchdown.”
Bell also played in that game.
“They were clueless,” Bell said of the Bears. “Stram would say let’s see if they can block this, let’s see if they can see this. That’s when they decided for themselves that we were for real.”
The AFL was finally gaining some respect with the NFL.
“When the NFL teams came to town they thought they could step on the field and walk all over us,” Arbanas said. “Then we started poppin’ ‘em and they decided, these guys aren’t too bad.”
A slew of injuries kept the Chiefs out of contention for a return to the Super Bowl. In 1967, two future Hall of Famers joined the team: place-kicker Jan Stenerud and middle linebacker Willie Lanier. Lanier’s addition solidified the Chief’s Hall of Fame defense of Buchanan, Lanier and Bell. With safety Johnny Robinson, tackle Curly Culp and cornerback Emmit Thomas, there wasn’t a weak defensive link to be found.
“If I wanted to go to war, I would start picking (defensive back) Jim Kearney, Lanier, Buck, (defensive end Jerry) Mays, Thomas ? those are the guys I want on my side,” Bell said. “When it comes to playing on game day, when we were together, we were going to fight you. It was our bread and butter. You don’t come into our house and knock us around.”
The Chiefs defense was so good that in 1969 when Dawson missed part of the season because of a torn knee ligament suffered at Boston, the offense barely missed a beat with Mike Livingston at the helm.
“We didn’t have Lenny for seven games,” Bell said. “But the defense would say (to the offense), you guys get us 6 or 7 points, that’s enough.”
The Chiefs finished 11-3 in second place and earned a wild card playoff berth.
“We had to go to New York and beat the Jets,” Arbanas remembered. “It was about 5 above zero (degrees). The wind was blowing, it was a bitter cold game.”
Only a year before, Joe Namath and the Jets had upset the Baltimore Colts, claiming the AFL’s first Super Bowl victory, but that day they were defeated by the Chiefs 13-6.
“We were glad to be the wild card. Because we got to play more games, we got to make more money,” Bell said. “While I played I was working at General Motors Fairfax full time. I got through with practice and I went to work. I took my vacation time for training camp. You might only get $5,000 or $6,000 during the season and then $15,000 as a Super Bowl bonus.”
But along the path to the Super Bowl was the Oakland Raiders.
“We pulled up to the stadium and the Raiders had their suitcases. They were going to leave for New Orleans right after the game,” Arbanas said. “We saw that they already had that planned and it inspired us.”
The underdog Chiefs had already lost to the Raiders twice during the season.
“Everybody said you can’t beat Oakland, you already lost twice,” Bell said. “Well they forgot to talk to us. We were too physical. We were too tough. There was no way we’d lose three times.”
There was no love lost between the Chiefs and Raiders. Only a year before, the Raiders thumped the Chiefs 41-6 in the playoffs. The silver and black had won seven of the last eight meetings, including four in a row. It seemed every time the Chiefs and Oakland clashed, first place or a division title was at stake.
“It started around ’64,” Arbanas said. “They had some bandits on their team that would take extra shots. It never failed, one of them would pull some crap and you’d have to put and end to it quickly so a brawl would start.”
“It was a dogfight,” Bell said. “I hated the color, I hated the numbers. Oakland was a team where you’d consider everything goes.”
When the Chiefs played in the Oakland Coliseum, Stram had the players search the locker room for bugs and wires.
“He’d have us search the walls and under the sinks,” Arbanas said. “He was sure (Raiders owner Al) Davis was up to something.”
Few of the players would put it past Davis to try.
“He had us taking out the ceiling tiles because there might be spies,” Bell said. “One time when we went out there, it hadn’t rained in months and the field was soaking.”
The Raiders hoped to take speed away from the quick Chiefs by letting the grass grow and wetting the field.
“Oakland would grow the grass long, but we’d cut it short,” Bell said. “It was all part of the game.”
At Municipal, both benches were on the same side of the field. When Oakland came to town the Chiefs would have one of their personnel disguised as a photographer wander around the Raider bench and eavesdrop, then report to one of the coaches.
“I guess I don’t hate them today like I used to, but I still don’t like them,” Arbanas admitted. “Any time the Chiefs beat the Raiders I feel good ? it makes my whole week. When we lose, I’m not the nicest person to be around for a few days.”
Bell traveled to Oakland for the Chiefs game on Dec. 9.
“We laugh about it now. I went out there (that) weekend, saw a lot of the guys and laughed,” Bell said. “But when the game starts, I went on my side and they went on their side. We hated each other now.”
The Raiders scored the first touchdown in the 1969 AFL Championship game in the opening quarter, but Kansas City’s defense made sure it was the last time Oakland scored. Dawson’s pass to Otis Taylor just before half-time set up a Chiefs touchdown that evened the score. In the third quarter, two more passes to Taylor set up Robert Holmes’ 5-yard touchdown run. A Stenerud field goal in the fourth quarter iced the game. The Chiefs were headed to the Super Bowl to face the Minnesota Vikings.
“There was a lot more hype,” Arbanas said. “That was a big thing a lot of us noticed.”
The teams had less than 20 years of combined existence, but did have a brief history. The Chiefs had narrowly defeated Minnesota 13-10 in a 1968 exhibition road game.
“We had played the Vikings in an exhibition game and beaten them,” Arbanas said. “Back then an exhibition game between the AFL and NFL was an all-out war. The NFL didn’t want to be embarrassed by a raggedy AFL team and the AFL wanted to prove itself.”
This time the Chiefs had something to prove, too.
“It was great to come back and have the opportunity to play in another Super Bowl and win it,” Bell said. “We worked so hard as a playoff team and here we come to win the Super Bowl. They said it couldn’t be done.”
The Vikings were heavily favored.
Arbanas also felt confident coming into the game. He felt the Chiefs had dominated their first meeting.
“Physically, we knocked them around,” Arbanas said. “You know when you’d physically knocked a team around you could do it again.”
The Vikings were only allowed in the end zone once. Stenerud alone topped Minnesota’s total with his trio of field goals. The Dawson-Taylor combination again proved too much to handle. One reception set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Mike Garrett and on another 46-yard reception Taylor went in the end zone himself. The Kansas City Chiefs were world champions.
“It was out of sight,” Arbanas said. “There was a big celebration on in New Orleans. Then on the airplane my whole family from Detroit was there. I don’t know how the plane stayed in the air there was so much partying and celebrating going on.”
The festivities continued once the team reached home.
“We landed in Kansas City and there were so many people on the tarmac I don’t know how we landed. Somehow we got into different cars and had a parade from the airport,” Arbanas said. “Then we had a big celebration at the Liberty Memorial. It was a time that stays in your mind forever and ever.”
Bell missed it all.
“I missed all that fun,” Bell said with a regretful smile. “I had to get on a plane and play in the Pro Bowl. The day they flew back to Kansas City, I flew another direction.”
The Chiefs were champions but they had to defend their title the next year. Halfway through the 1970 season Arbanas hurt his knee while playing the Cowboys.
“We were playing at Municipal and I caught a pass, spun around and my cleats got caught in the tough turf,” Arbanas said. “I had a couple operations but knew it wasn’t coming around.”
Arbanas retired after the 1970 season having played in 118 games, been named to the All-AFL squad five times and catching 198 passes for 3,101 yards and 34 touchdowns. In 1972 he was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame and his name was placed on the ring of fame inside Arrowhead Stadium.
“That was super. I was so excited, so thrilled,” Arbanas said. “My parents were here and they came to dinner. It was something I had never dreamt of.
“It’s a thrill. Every time I go into the stadium I say, ‘Holy cow!’ I look at the other guy’s names and say, ‘I’ve got some pretty damn good company.’”
In 1971, the Chiefs came close to returning to the Super Bowl. They lost to the Miami Dolphins 27-24 in a 82-minute, double overtime divisional playoff battle.
“I felt like I played in four games,” Bell said. “The thing I remember, in the locker room after the game I didn’t have the strength to take my uniform off. I just stood in the shower with my uniform on. The game itself was long, then it went into overtime, then it went into it again.”
That game holds the NFL record as the longest game and also marked the Chiefs last game in Municipal Stadium. The team opened the 1972 season in Arrowhead Stadium.
“It took a while going into the new stadium,” Bell said. “It had a funny feel like going to an out-of-town game at first.”
Following the 1974 season, Bell decided to retire. His 168-game career included 26 interceptions, 15 recovered fumbles and nine touchdowns. In 1979, he was named to the Chiefs Hall of Fame and in 1983 he became the first Chiefs player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It felt great to be in the Hall of Fame, let alone be the first,” Bell said. “I played six-man football in North Carolina and I never dreamed of this, going to school, let alone playing pro football. That’s the top of the pyramid. When you’re gone, your family can go in and say, ‘This guy is one of the first outside linebackers in the hall of fame.’”
Bell’s No. 78 was retired by the team and his name joined Arbanas’ in the ring of fame.
“I played every game the same way every time I went on the field,” Bell said. “If I played against you and you were a rookie or a veteran and didn’t say ‘Bobby Bell was the best guy you played that day,’ I didn’t do my job. We all played the game that same way.”