KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whether it was in the huddle during the early days of the AFL or behind the microphone as the NFL grew into the behemoth it is today, Len Dawson carried himself with an unmistakable swagger and self-assurance that earned him the well-worn nickname “Lenny the Cool.”
He was a Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl championship and a Hall of Fame broadcaster who brought football into the homes of millions on the iconic HBO show “Inside the NFL.”
“He was so far advanced in his time,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes once said. “One of the best to ever do it.”
Dawson’s family announced his death Wednesday at the age of 87. No cause was given, though Dawson had had prostate cancer and quadruple heart bypass surgery over the years. He had been in hospice care since Aug. 12.
“With wife Linda at his side, it is with much sadness that we inform you of the passing of our beloved Len Dawson,” his family said in a statement issued by KMBC, the Kansas City-based TV station where Dawson spent his second career as a sports broadcaster. “Len was always grateful and many times overwhelmed by the countless bonds he made during his football and broadcast careers.”
Dawson was the MVP of the Chiefs’ 23-7 Super Bowl victory over the Vikings in January 1970, and he went on to set numerous franchise records that only now Mahomes is starting to surpass. He was enshrined in Canton as a player in 1987, then received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
“Len Dawson is synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs,” team owner Clark Hunt said in a statement. “Len embraced and came to embody Kansas City and the people that call it home.”
Dawson’s career was going nowhere when he joined the Hunt family’s nascent AFL franchise, then located in Dallas. But along with coach Hank Stram, Dawson led it to three AFL titles and two Super Bowls. The Chiefs would lose to Green Bay in the inaugural one before beating Minnesota three years later at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
“Looking back on my career, I’ve been blessed for what I had the opportunity to do,” Dawson said told The Associated Press in 2017. “I could not have accomplished so much without my teammates and colleagues, and I’m grateful for each of them.”
Dawson remained a beloved figure in Kansas City, even though he cut back on public appearances several years ago, when his health began to fail. Yet he always had time for fans, whether it be a photograph or signature, the latter often scrawled upon a popular photo from halftime of that first Super Bowl: the exhausted quarterback, his white uniform covered in grass stains, sitting on a folding chair with a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of Fresca at his feet.
It perfectly captured a time and place. And it perfectly captured “Lenny the Cool.”
“He was always under control,” Stram recalled years later. “I said to him once, ‘Leonard, make sure that you never let them see you sweat.’ And he said, ‘Coach, quarterbacks don’t sweat. Quarterbacks perspire.’”
Dawson was born June 20, 1935, the ninth of 11 children to fill the house of James and Annie Dawson in the manufacturing town of Alliance, Ohio. He was a three-sport athlete at Alliance High School, setting records in both football and basketball, and turned his success on the gridiron into a scholarship offer from Purdue.
He led the NCAA in passing efficiency as a sophomore while also playing defense and kicking, and by the end of his college career, Dawson had thrown for more than 3,000 yards in an era that favored ground-and-pound football.
He was chosen by the Steelers in the first round of the 1957 draft, but wound up riding the bench behind Earl Morrall as a rookie and then failed to beat out Bobby Layne for the starting job the following season. The Steelers ultimately traded him to the Browns, where Dawson was unable to beat out Milt Plum for the job and was released.
With freedom to play anywhere, Dawson jumped to the upstart AFL and the Texans, lured in part by the chance to play for one of his old coaches at Purdue. Stram managed to tap into his talent, helping Dawson quickly become one of the league’s prolific passers, and the Texans went 11-3 their first season and won the first of three titles.
The second came in 1966, when Dawson led the Chiefs to an 11-2-1 record and a 31-7 blowout of the Bills in the AFL title game. That earned the Chiefs the chance to face the powerhouse Packers of coach Vince Lombardi in the inaugural Super Bowl, where Dawson threw for 210 yards and a touchdown in a 35-10 defeat.
It was the 1969 season that proved to be the most memorable of Dawson’s career, though. He hurt his knee against the Patriots in Week 2, forcing him to miss the next five games, but returned to lead the Chiefs over the defending champion Jets and rival Raiders to reach what would be the final Super Bowl before the AFL-NFL merger.
He threw for 142 yards and a score in a 23-7 triumph over the Vikings.
“It was overwhelming,” Dawson said afterward. “It’s just, you know how that relief comes with you now that it’s over with, and we’ve been successful? That’s the feeling that I had when I came off the field.”
Dawson played six more seasons in Kansas City, setting many franchise records that stood until Mahomes came along. The two became fast friends, and Dawson was overjoyed when Mahomes led the Chiefs to their second Super Bowl title with a come-from-behind victory over the San Francisco 49ers in February 2020.
“RIP to the legend Len Dawson,” Mahomes tweeted Wednesday, accompanied by photos of them together. “The legacy and impact you made on Kansas City will live on forever.”
Many fans remember Dawson first for his broadcast work, which began as a publicity stunt in 1966 when then-Chiefs general manager Jack Steadman was trying to build support for the team in Kansas City. Steadman persuaded Dawson to anchor a sports segment on the nightly news, and his charisma and folksy style made him a natural.
Dawson turned toward TV and radio on a full-time basis after his playing days ended, first working in local TV and later doing game analysis for NBC. But he’s perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work alongside Nick Buoniconti on the HBO staple “Inside the NFL,” which helped the league reach millions of fans.
Dawson also served for more than three decades on the Chiefs’ radio broadcast team before retiring in 2018.
“I did all those postgames with him and I think the world of him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said back then. “He has been there, he has done it — it doesn’t matter the age gap or the time away from being in the huddle. He just gets it. I love that part of it. He is a Hall of Famer all the way around.”
Dawson was married to his high school sweetheart, Jackie, from 1954 until her death in 1978, and they had two children. His second wife, Linda, remained by his side as Dawson entered hospice care.