Forty-seven years Ken Bradshaw roamed football sidelines in Kansas City, first at old Municipal Stadium downtown, later out at Arrowhead, sprawled out along Interstate 70. He was a member of the chain gang that officially measures first downs, so he had a job to do. But he was also a Chiefs fan to his bones, so while he was toting the down marker, something else was tugging his heart.
“The thing about this city that you have to understand,” Bradshaw says brightly, “is that we always want to believe it’s going to better this time.”
The chuckle is replaced by a laugh.
“All evidence to the contrary,” he says.
There are a few things more certain in an NFL playoff season than this: If the Chiefs are playing at home, as they will Saturday at 4:30 p.m. with the Colts on the other sideline, there will be 76,416 people occupying 76,416 seats; almost all of them will be cloaked in red, the sacred vestments of the home team; and almost every one will have their ears on high alert, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Because it always does.
“One of these years,” Ken Bradshaw says. “One of these years it’ll be different.”
The laws of probability insist that to be so. But the bylaws of history sing a different tune. In their history, the Chiefs have hosted nine playoff games in what, from September through December, is one of the most intimidating home-field advantages in all of sports. They have somehow lost seven of those games.
Wait, it gets worse: In four of those years, the Chiefs had the best record in the AFC — as they do this year — meaning they also forfeited a chance to host the AFC title game the next week. Wait, it gets even worse: two of those losses were to the Colts, who have also taken the Chiefs out twice in Indianapolis in recent years, including a surreal 45-44 game five years ago in which the Chiefs blew a 38-10 lead in the third quarter.
“No. 1 seed, home game, you’re feeling good about things again,” Bradshaw says, laughing. “And then you look up and look who’s coming to town.”
Bradshaw was there at the old rockpile on Brooklyn Avenue on Christmas Day 1971, when the Chiefs and Dolphins engaged in one of the greatest games ever played, a double-overtime epic that wasn’t decided until Garo Yepremian kicked a 37-yard field goal 7 minutes and 40 seconds into double-overtime. It’s still the longest game in NFL history.
Twenty-seven years and two weeks later, team founder Lamar Hunt was surveying his wrecked locker room after the Chiefs had lost a grisly 14-10 game to Denver in the first round of the playoffs, ruining a 13-3 season. He was asked if that was his toughest loss.
“Christmas Day will always be the worst for me because I felt that was our greatest club,” Hunt said of the ’71 team, which featured six future Hall of Famers (and should be seven, if the Hall ever rights a decades-long wrong and inducts Otis Taylor). “That team was even better than the team that won the Super Bowl two years earlier.”
Hunt forced a smile.
“But this one is no fun, either.”
Two years earlier, it had been Lin Elliott — a name which is still a four-letter word everywhere inside the city limits — who’d missed three field goals as another 13-3 Chiefs squad silenced Arrowhead with a 10-7 loss. Bradshaw remembers watching Chiefs quarterback Steve Bono — who threw three picks that day — tentatively move around the pocket, and so wanted to scream “Run! Run! Run!”
Instead he suffered silently, with a better view than most.
“He was right in front of me,” Bradshaw says. “And there was nothing I could do.”
It is a feeling that revisits this city year after year. Dick Vermeil was the coach in 2003 — another 13-3 season — and the Chiefs and Colts engaged in what locals still call the “No Punt Game,” a classic shootout in which Peyton Manning had the final shot. Colts 38, Chiefs 31. The Chiefs had divisional home games the past two years that further wrenched the hearts of the locals — two years ago the Steelers’ Chris Boswell kicked six field goals to personally oust a 12-4 Chiefs team, 18–16, and a year ago the Titans rose from a 21-3 hole at the half to eke out a 22-21 win.
“This list,” Bradshaw says, “really is amazing.”
The Chiefs, in truth, are like the adopted twin brothers of the Jets: born of the same father (the old AFL), bathed in early glory (the Chiefs won their only Super Bowl on Jan. 11, 1970, one day less than one year after the Jets won theirs), with nearly 50 years of haplessness alternating with profound playoff heartache. When the Chiefs lose a playoff game, it’s rarely boring. There’s usually a story to go along with it. Sound familiar?
“I think we’d like to change the story this time around,” says Ken Bradshaw, enjoying his second year of retirement from the chain gang, now just another fan hoping for a different ending. “I think we’ve earned that much, don’t you?”