I have to get something off my chest — I don't love the Chiefs anymore. And it has nothing to do with my dedication as a fan.
* * *
I've been a diehard fan of the Kansas City Chiefs my entire life. I know, I know... everyone and their mother claim to be diehard fans of their favorite team, to have remembered the good ole days, to have watched every game, and so on. But to me, only a percentage of the folks who make bold statements like such can honestly say, without a doubt, they've been there for it all. Through thick and thin, the wins and losses, the ugly-lows and the should-have-beens, they were there... living and dying with every second of every game.
So maybe I should validate my statement. My earliest memory of the Chiefs is probably a 1992 contest against John Elway's Broncos at Arrowhead — a game in which the late Derrick Thomas caused a sack/fumble in the endzone and recovered it for a touchdown to seal the victory. My favorite game has to be the thriller versus a better Denver squad in 1997. The game featured many future Hall of Famers: Elway, Thomas, Shannon Sharpe, Marcus Allen... and a few more who may be deserving but aren't yet eligible like Will Shields, Rod Smith, Jason Elam, and Tony Gonzalez. The game would go down, though, as the Pete Stoyanovich game, because it was his 55-yard field goal with no time remaining that won the game for Kansas City and sent rockin' Arrowhead into an absolute frenzy. The team carried him off the field. What a day to be a Chiefs fan.
Ironically, it may be the darker days I recall more vividly. Naturally, the Lin Elliot playoff fiasco comes to mind first. It was the first time I'd truly had my heart broken by a professional sports game. I can recall the playoff losses all the way back to the '92 season, but nothing compares to the 10-7 fluke loss the Colts in January of '96. It's possible it's because I was finally old enough then to realize the magnitude of the game at hand, and therefore old enough to realize the absolute defeat of a 13-3 season coming to an end all too soon. I was ten years old. I listened to the late Bill Grigsby talk about his favorite ice cream he'd like to eat after a tough loss on the Chiefs' radio postgame while sobbing in room for hours upon hours after that game.
I still haven't forgotten Rich Gannon's parting gift to King Carl in the last game of the 1999 season — a year after the Chiefs made him expendable and the Raiders made him their starting quarterback. The Chiefs, then led by Elvis Grbac, needed a victory in the season's final game to secure a playoff spot versus the hated Raiders. Down by 21 entering the fourth quarter, Gannon brought Oakland back from the dead in front of a capacity crowd at Arrowhead and eventually led the silver and black to victory in overtime, knocking the Chiefs out of playoff contention.
Even though Marty Schottenheimer had been relieved as head coach a year prior, it was that final game of the '99 season that really felt like the end of an era for the Chiefs. Two weeks later, a fatal car wreck meant Derrick Thomas had already played his last down in the NFL. The core of the roster had already mostly been turned over because of a disaster season in '98.
The team I had fallen in love with was no more.
Aside from the memorable, one-last hoorah for Dick Vermeil in 2003, the past 12 months has easily been the best time to be a Chiefs fan since the days of my childhood. The team has a ton of talent. The quarterback is young and has improved in each of his two seasons in Kansas City. Eric Berry, a Pro-Bowler as a rookie, has some already putting the Hall of Fame tag on him when discussing his potential. Tamba Hali... my goodness... Tamba Hali led the AFC in sacks last year. Did you know that?
And the best part about all of that is this: We haven't even mentioned the team's most exciting and electric player, Jamaal Charles.
So it begs the question — Why can't I fall in love with these Chiefs?
It's possible I'm experiencing what most sports fans that get to my age go through. Maybe, no matter how great, no matter how loyal the players are... Maybe it was those Chiefs who stole my heart first, and it's unreasonable to think it will ever be the same again. Something like a young, teenage boy having his heart broken by the girl of his dreams for the first time. There is that.
But no, I believe it has more to do with the way Scott Pioli and Todd Haley lead this version of the Chiefs. I think it's the "Patriot Way" Pioli brought with him from New England that is getting in the way of how we used to fall in love with our favorite teams and players. We knew DT. Tim Grunhard was a household name. Dale Carter closed down Westport, and Dan Saleaumua grilled burgers at City Market. Will Shields lived in the city year-round, as did a much higher percentage of the players in years past compared to today's group.
Those guys were Kansas City's Chiefs. And we loved them because of it.
Last week, the team's first-round draft pick, Jonathan Baldwin reportedly scuffled with veteran Thomas Jones after a practice. These types of things go on all the time, only in years past, it would be an opportunity for the fans and media to get a glimpse into that player's mind and who he really is.
Today, the Patriot Way only allows for, "Family business," and "I'll only talk about the guys on the field."
In New England, the Patriots developed a reputation for never putting loyalty first in front of the bottom-line, and never scared away from cutting loose from long-time veterans. The same has reigned true in Kansas City with possibly the last two players we were allowed to get to know, Gonzalez and Brian Waters, being shown the door instead of being allowed to retire as Chiefs.
But the core of the problem with the Patriot Way may be the coach himself. The Chiefs play a sport based more on emotion than any other, yet the head coach shows less emotion than a slug. I remember Marty wearing his heart on his sleeve every second of the way. Vermeil did it as well. I wanted those coaches — and, as a result of their coaching, the players they coached — to win just as much as I did the team as a whole. And Haley, as per-Patriot Way policy, can't allow us to get to know him or his players.
Who wants to root for anything like that?
Say what you will about New York Jets' head coach Rex Ryan and the circus-like atmosphere his style promotes, but if all-else is equal, aren't Jets fans left with a better, more entertaining product to invest in that we are?
The Patriot Way is system over player, corporate over blue-collar, on-field product over the overall product.
So I can't say I love these Chiefs, or if I ever will. It's just the law of the land nowadays, and this is my coming to grips with it. Of course, I'll always root for them. I want the Chiefs to win more than you'll ever know. Hey... you know something? The Super Bowl may not be as far off as some think.
It's just the road that gets us there won't be nearly as fun.