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Sports






Posted on Sun, Aug. 25, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Where does Chiefs country begin and end? Take a trip with us to find out

The Kansas City Star

The command from the man was simple: Grab a photographer, get into a small, European car and head out on a road trip. The goal was slightly more difficult: Find out where Chiefs country begins and ends.

After all, when Lamar Hunt packed up his Dallas Texans and moved them north in 1963, one of his goals was to establish a team with regional interest.

The Kansas City Chiefs were born.

And you wonder why Hunt is a rich, rich man?

At the time, Texas was already occupied by the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and, further to the south, the AFL's Houston Oilers. In Kansas City, Hunt's franchise would be on a veritable island. The closest neighbors would be the Denver Broncos some 550 miles to the west and the St. Louis Cardinals some 250 miles to the east.

To further the notion that his was a regional team, Hunt chose a logo that depicted a Native American running against the backdrop of the six-state midwestern area.

The logo may have lacked political correctness, but it did establish the Chiefs as (Middle) America's team.

"There definitely was a motive behind that," Hunt said of the original Kansas City logo. "We wanted the Chiefs to have a regional appeal when we brought them to Kansas City. Of course, there was no way of knowing at the time that football was going to take off the way it has."

By the time Len Dawson, Otis Taylor, Bobby Bell and the boys upset the Vikings to capture Super Bowl IV, football was on its way to overtaking baseball as the American pastime.

Now, nearly 40 years after Hunt brought his franchise north, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and were replaced by the Texans; the St. Louis Cardinals left for the desert and were replaced by the Rams; and the Cowboys grew into one of the most popular franchises in sports.

And still, the Chiefs are a regional team.

While the majority of season tickets are distributed in Kansas and Missouri, the Chiefs continue to have hard-core followers in parts of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas and Illinois.

Chiefs fans can catch radio broadcasts in 54 cities in seven states. The majority of Chiefs games are televised in a radius encompassing Columbia, Springfield, Tulsa, Dodge City, Omaha and Des Moines.

There are many tales on the road to Arrowhead Stadium. Here are some of them:

III

Joe Montana is permanently frozen inside Patrick's bar on the southern edge of Tulsa. Not Ted Williams frozen, but framed in an old photograph taken nearly 10 years ago by a rabid Chiefs fan.

The picture shows Montana dropping back in the pocket preparing to deliver one of his trademark spirals against the San Diego Chargers on what appears to have been a frigid day at Arrowhead.

"He was the man," says Thom Mericle, who has dropped by his favorite watering hole to discuss his favorite team. "A buddy of ours took that picture from his seat. Pretty good, huh?

"Boy, those were fun games when he was here," Mericle continues. "You'll never believe how much excitement there was when the Chiefs went out and got Joe."

It is right here, underneath the aforementioned photo of Montana, that Mericle and other Tulsa-area Chiefs fans gather on fall Sunday afternoons. Tulsa, it seems, is the last stronghold for fans of the red and gold.

Head any further south and one enters Cowboys country.

"Yeah, I would say that it's split around here, but as you get toward Oklahoma City, it becomes all Cowboy fans," says the bartender, who goes by the name of Stretch.

Just as a visitor gets ready to ask the barkeep why he's called Stretch, he stands up and, well, stretches.

"Of course," Stretch says, "people are really into college football around here, especially the Sooners."

This point is driven home a few minutes later when two guys sitting belly-up at the bar are overheard discussing "the OU quarterback situation."

The phrase is uttered with a seriousness normally reserved for discussions about the Middle East, dirty politicians or religious scandal.

Back underneath Joe, Mericle tries to explain why he continues to support a team that hasn't provided a whole lot of excitement since those heady days when Montana, Marcus Allen and Derrick Thomas gave Arrowhead star power.

"Well," Mericle says as he lifts a glass of refreshment to his thirsty tongue, "when you grow up cheering for a team like I did, you don't just stop caring. I'll always be a Chiefs fan."

III

LIBERAL, Kan. -- Driving west from Tulsa, you can tell where you are just by picking up a copy of the Dallas Morning News

The big splash in the business section is a photo of various Dallas Cowboys merchandise with an accompanying story about owner Jerry Jones' ideas for "expanding the Cowboy brand."

This means, of course, selling more jerseys, hats, jackets, coffee mugs, mini-helmets and assorted other merchandise associated with "America's Team."

Anyway, the story brings to mind an interesting thought. Jones is taking Hunt's idea from 40 years ago and aggressively expanding on it. He's trying to maintain the Cowboys' status as a regional and national power through savvy marketing.

The car is now headed toward the Oklahoma panhandle and, eventually, the southwestern Kansas town of Liberal. Here, one can find a hard-core Chiefs fan who has struck upon a most modern way of showing love for his team: He's created a Web site.

Before reaching Liberal, a traveler will come across all sorts of odd things while passing through Oklahoma towns such as Enid, Woodward and Buffalo.

One of the coolest is a sign just off the highway that reads: "Hitchhikers might be escaped inmates."

Cowboy country, indeed.

Liberal is the proud home of the "Wizard of Oz" museum. It's also home to one of the world's biggest Chiefs fans. How big? After moving his wife and three children from his hometown of Larned, Kan., last year, the 27-year old C.J. Korf had one overriding concern -- and it had nothing to do with the quality of schools in his new community.

"I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get Chiefs games out here," Korf says from the office of his two-bedroom home. "I thought they might show Denver games instead."

"He's not kidding," chimes in Korf's wife, Kim.

For a little more than two years, Korf has run chiefswarpath.com, a site dedicated to his favorite team. The site has become an even bigger part of Korf's life now that he's on the outermost edges of Chiefs country.

"It's just something that I started doing as a way to follow them a little better," Korf says. "I've met all kinds of fans from all over the country through the site. It's a good thing, because there aren't many people around here who want to talk Chiefs like I do."

III

DODGE CITY, Kan. -- Take out a map of Kansas, color one half of it red for the Chiefs and the other half blue for the Broncos, and Dodge City is the place where the colors should meet.

"You really have to be careful around here because it's pretty much split between Chiefs fans and Broncos fans," says Karla Demuth over a plate of food at a downtown Dodge City cafe. "During the season, people get pretty passionate about their team. Me, I kind of like 'em both."

One Dodge City resident who has no problem identifying a favorite team is Steve Pfannenstiel, the manager of the Locker Room sporting goods store. The 38-year-old Pfannenstiel remembers choosing the Chiefs as a kid.

"You remember those old Hutch football uniforms they had when we were little?" Pfannenstiel asks. "Well, my brother always wore a Dolphins uniform, and other guys wore Raiders stuff or Cowboys stuff or Steelers stuff. I had a Chiefs uniform, and they just became my favorite team."

Pfannenstiel has been a season-ticket holder for four years and has attended each home game for six years.

Pfannenstiel and his family perfectly illustrate the commitment -- both emotionally and financially -- that many Chiefs fans make to their team. On each Chiefs home weekend, Pfannenstiel, his wife and two sons make the five-hour drive to Kansas City, check into a hotel room and attend Sunday's game.

When you consider gas, lodging, tickets and food, Pfannenstiel estimates that he spends between $500 and $750 on each trip.

"It costs a lot in terms of time and money, but it's worth it to see that gleam in my sons' eyes when we pull into Arrowhead on game day," Pfannenstiel says. "And it's not just my kids, it's all the kids you see there at games. They are really having a blast."

Like some fans, however, Pfannenstiel's zest for the sport has been tainted by the growing perception that everyone -- from players to coaches to owners to the television networks -- is into the game for one reason: money.

"It is getting harder and harder to pay as much as we do to go to a game only to see a bunch of millionaires who couldn't care less about the fans," Pfannenstiel says. "I mean, it's sad to see kids standing outside the gate for hours waiting for an autograph and the players just drive by in their SUVs like they aren't even there. Then, every time you pick up the paper, you're reading about some guy holding out for more money... Sometimes it seems as though the love of the game has turned into the greed of the game."

Why, then, do fans like Pfannenstiel continue to pour their time, money and hearts into the sport?

"I guess I want my sons to grow up having a team to root for like I did," Pfannenstiel says. "I think that's an important thing for a kid."

III

FREEMONT, Neb. -- Nebraska is a state that worships the Cornhuskers above all else. Fall Saturdays in Lincoln are treated with a fervor normally reserved for religious ceremonies.

But there is a strong Chiefs following as well. Travis Justice is the sports director at KMTV-3, the CBS affiliate in Omaha, and has learned how Chiefs fans can be when they are cut off from their team.

"We try to show all their games," Justice says. "When we don't, we hear about it. There are Broncos, Vikings and Packers fans up here as well, but the Chiefs have the biggest following by far. It's a pretty short trip to Kansas City for games, so they've always had fans around here."

One of the biggest is 19-year-old Bill Krumel of Freemont, which sits just up the road from Lincoln. A sort of free agent who grew up with strong loyalties as a kid, Krumel became a big fan shortly after meeting Montana in the early 1990s.

"They've been my team ever since," Krumel says.

That point is made clear by the Chiefs shrine Krumel has erected in his parents' living room and by his favorite hobby: updating wildbillschiefs.com, the Web site he created in 1998.

"When you don't live in Kansas City, it can be hard to get a lot of Chiefs information," Krumel says. "You don't see as much stuff on the news, it's not in the paper every day and you can't just turn on the radio and hear Chiefs talk. So I thought the site would be a good way to stay updated.

"Plus, it's a fun way to talk about how I hate the Raiders."

Krumel makes the drive to Kansas City three or four times each season and has become popular among fans who have checked out his site.

"When people meet me, I think they expect to see some big guy with a beard or something like that," Krumel says. "I think it catches them off guard when they meet a kid with glasses."

III

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Tiny, who officially goes by the name of William Hannah, is on a roll now. In fact, he's spitting out words like Bill O'Reilly on a caffeine high. The subject that has his attention this time is marriage.

"Don't do it, man, don't do it," Tiny says, rising from his chair inside Johnnie's Hall of Fame, the oldest sports bar in downtown Des Moines. "They'll trap you, man. Your life will never be the same. They'll get you for everything you got ..."

Tiny's impassioned speech is interrupted by the presence of a rather stern-looking woman who whispers something in his ear before walking away.

"Who's that?" a visitor asks Tiny.

"Oh, that's my wife," he replies.

"But I thought you said I shouldn't get married," the visitor says.

"I said YOU shouldn't get married," Tiny says. "I'm on my third one. It's too late for me. You're still young."

As will happen several times over the course of the next couple of hours, everyone in the vicinity of Tiny busts out laughing. The 58-year-old Tiny is, of course, a large man.

He stands 6 feet 5 and says he weighs 300 pounds. That's down significantly from where he was a few years ago, when he tipped the scales at well over 400 pounds.

How did he lose the weight?

"I got divorced," he says.

Soon the conversation turns to another of Tiny's passions: football. The lifelong Chiefs fan has strong feelings about the history of the game and the direction in which it's going.

And though Des Moines is without a team of its own, Tiny sees it as being in the center of the football universe.

"You should come in here on Sundays," he says. "You'll see Chiefs fans, Vikings fans, Bears fans -- especially last season. Packers fans come in. There are all kinds of Steelers fans. The Rams. Dolphins. Cowboys. Me, I'm with the Chiefs. Have been my whole life. I believe in sticking with your team no matter what happens ..."

Tiny is on a roll again.

"That's how things used to be. People were loyal. The game was better. Look at them."

Tiny pauses long enough to point toward a large wall in Johnnie's that is packed with portraits of great players from the past. Leo Nomollini. Charley Taylor. Mike Ditka. Sam Huff. Ray Nitschke.

"Those were real players," Tiny continues. "They didn't make all the money they make today, but they played with heart. The game was better."

Tiny is cut short by the return of his wife. Apparently, she's not one for words. Hard eye contact is all that is needed to get Tiny moving.

"See what I'm saying?" Tiny says as he gets up to leave. "They'll get you, man. Watch out. Come back sometime, though. Des Moines is a great place. Don't believe all that stuff you hear about it being a farm town. We love our sports here."

On his way toward the front of the bar, Tiny stops and turns around.

"Say, is that Gonzalez boy ever going to sign a contract?"

III

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The trip from Des Moines to Columbia is made smooth by the sounds of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Not hearing Jack Buck's voice is strange, though. Buck, who passed away this summer at age 77, represented Cardinals baseball like no one else.

Being able to hear a Cardinals game in mid-Missouri is one of several signs that St. Louis' influence stretches well beyond that city's border. Since the Rams captured Super Bowl XXXIV at the end of the 1999 season, their popularity has soared as well.

What was once considered Chiefs country is now, at best, split 50/50.

"That Super Bowl really changed it," says Ted Creasy, the manager of Harpo's sports bar in the heart of Columbia. "Before that, I would say the majority of people around here rooted for the Chiefs. There still are a ton of hard-core Chiefs fans around, but the Rams have become pretty popular."

Tory James, a University of Missouri student from St. Louis, says the majority of his peers are Rams fans.

"First of all, it seems like there are way more students here from the St. Louis area than Kansas City, so they are going to cheer for the Rams," James says. "The other thing is, the Rams play such an exciting style of football, so people like watching them. If you walk into a house or a bar when the Rams are on, you'll see a big crowd. It's not like that for the Chiefs."

But that doesn't mean Chiefs fans don't still carry weight in a large portion of Missouri. Just ask Dan Lucy, the sports director at KOLR-10, the CBS affiliate in Springfield.

Because the Chiefs play most of their games on CBS and the Rams play the most of their games on FOX, deciding which Missouri team to show is usually not a problem.

However, every so often, the teams play at the same time on the same station. And that creates quite a headache for someone like Lucy.

"Last year late in the season, we had a choice and we went with the Rams because they were still in the playoff hunt," Lucy says. "Well, that didn't go over so well. My partner who works weekends said he pulled into the parking lot and was greeted by 10 angry Chiefs fans doing a tailgate. And we got pounded with calls from Chiefs fans who weren't pleased... When that happens, it's just a no-win situation."

III

ONE MILE FROM HOME -- How about this for a postscript: Lamar Hunt thinks this road trip idea is cooler than his jaunt across Japan and Korea during the World Cup.

Perhaps he didn't have to ride for five days across the Midwest in a Volkswagen with a trash-talking, 5-foot-nothing photographer who likes bad music. Perhaps he's never driven through Alma, Okla., where the five-star restaurant in town is McDonald's.

Maybe he should. This is his country, after all.

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