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Hunt remembered for energy, integrity

Pro sports visionary dead at 74

03:08 PM CST on Thursday, December 14, 2006

By JOE SIMNACHER and BRAD TOWNSEND / The Dallas Morning News

His family name was synonymous with Texas oil, but Lamar Hunt, once a third-string football player at SMU, had other plans: He would start a professional football league at the age of 26.

Content to let others handle the family's oil business, Mr. Hunt became one of the most influential innovators and promoters in American sports history, coining the term "Super Bowl" and bringing professional tennis and soccer into the American psyche.

The modest and soft-spoken Mr. Hunt, the impetus behind the creation of the American Football League, was inducted into the football, tennis and soccer halls of fame, as well as the Texas Business Hall of Fame.

Mr. Hunt, 74, the youngest son of legendary oilman H.L. Hunt's first family, died at 9:40 p.m. Wednesday of complications from prostate cancer at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. Service details were being worked out by his family Thursday.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he had "always thought of Lamar as a founder of the NFL as we know it today."

"He was the energy and catalyst behind the AFL, which turned out to be half of what this league is all about," Mr. Jones said. "He's been an inspiration for me.

"When I was 22 and trying to buy the San Diego Chargers, he met me at the airport in Kansas City and treated me like I was president of the United States."

While Mr. Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, was widely known for his prowess as a sports entrepreneur, longtime friends knew him as a kind-hearted family man and friend.

"When he comes over and visits with us, or vice versa, he lets you do all the talking," said Edward "Buzz" Kemble of Fort Worth. "He says, 'Tell me about this and tell me about that'."

Mr. Kemble and Mr. Hunt rode the bench together as third-string football players at Southern Methodist University. They later became close friends.

"He's just a neat kind of guy who is so much fun to be around," Mr. Kemble said. "He never says one word ever about the things that were going on in his life. It's not that he's trying to be secretive; it's just that he cares so much about other people."

Mr. Hunt and Mr. Kemble shared a special interest in gardening. Mr. Hunt particularly enjoyed topiary, sculpting trees and shrubs into ornamental shapes.

On one visit to his friend's Fort Worth home, Mr. Hunt got on a ladder and was cutting the shrubs and trees, Mr. Kemble said.

"One of my neighbors came out with his camera and played like he was taking a picture of his son," he said. "He really just wanted a picture of Lamar up on top of this ladder, cutting my tree."

Tom Hunt of Dallas, chairman of Hunt Petroleum, described his cousin as a kind and thoughtful person and "not one who blows his own horn."

Tom Hunt is the son of H.L. Hunt's older brother, James Garfield Hunt.

Lamar Hunt was friendly but didn't like to air his concerns, his cousin said.

"I know when he first developed his cancer years ago, I found out and told his brother," Tom Hunt said. "He kept problems to himself."

The early days

Lamar Hunt was born in El Dorado, Ark., on Aug. 2, 1932. His mother, Lyda Hunt, had returned to her hometown so her personal physician could deliver her baby.

At the time of his birth, his parents' home was in Tyler, where H.L. Hunt had based his East Texas oil business.

In January 1938, the Hunts moved to an estate overlooking White Rock Lake. Lamar earned the nickname "Games" because of his eagerness to invent and organize family competitions.

Just 5 years old, Lamar began his long streak of attending the Cotton Bowl game, said his brother, Nelson Bunker Hunt.

DMN file
Lamar Hunt started a professional football league at 26, coined the term "Super Bowl" and brought professional tennis and soccer into the American psyche.

"He was interested in all kinds of sports, and it's been his main interest for 40 years," Bunker Hunt said.

Lamar Hunt attended The Hill, a boys' school in Pottstown, Pa., where "he was a very good high school player," Bunker Hunt said.

"He played tailback and quarterback," he said. "He was a good ball carrier." Mr. Hunt was team captain his senior year.

In his sister Margaret's book about growing up in the Hunt household, Lamar Hunt said, "When I was a teenager, and played football, not very well, I envisioned that I was a Doak Walker.

"In high school I wore the same number as he did, 37."

Lamar quit developing physically when he was about 14 or 15, Bunker Hunt said. At SMU, Lamar started on the freshman squad but spent much of the time on the bench during his three years on the varsity.

"In my last year, I got into five games for an average of four minutes each," he said in H.L. and Lyda: Growing Up in the H.L. Hunt and Lyda Bunker Hunt Family, the book written by his sister, Margaret Hunt Hill.

"That's twenty out of six hundred minutes."

In 1954, in his early 20s, Mr. Hunt married Rosemary Carr, whom he had known since high school. They had two children together and later divorced.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in geology from SMU in 1956, Mr. Hunt left the oil business to his family and began his pursuit of professional sports ventures.

Mr. Hunt said he felt like he was born to be a sports entrepreneur.

"I always thought that if I had any skills in business, it was understanding how to sell tickets," Mr. Hunt told The Dallas Morning News in 1992.

"I always say that my mother must have been bit by the show business bug while she was pregnant with me."

Campaigning for a team

Fresh out of SMU, Mr. Hunt approached the National Football League in 1957 and again in '58 seeking an expansion team for Dallas.

"I thought Dallas was the most attractive city in America without an NFL team," he said in the 1992 story in The News.

The NFL rejected him NFL both times. League officials steered him toward the owners of the Cardinals, one of two teams in Chicago. But those owners had no interest in moving the team.

It occurred to Mr. Hunt that since baseball had a National League and an American League, so could football. So in 1959, at age 26, he rounded up fellow millionaires such as Bud Adams, Barron Hilton and Ralph Wilson and formed the American Football League. The eight original owners whimsically called themselves "The Foolish Club."

Suddenly threatened, the NFL hastily offered Mr. Hunt and Mr. Adams expansion franchises in Dallas and Houston, respectively, but they declined, reasoning that they didn't want to desert fellow AFL owners.

Pro football franchises now sell for about $800 million, but Bunker Hunt said that 47 years ago, Lamar Hunt literally could not give a team to a potential Atlanta owner.

The upstart league had placed seven franchises and was willing to give the eighth to Atlanta investors just to get the ball rolling, Bunker Hunt recalled.

[An Atlanta investor] "said he wasn't interested in getting in a rinky-dink league," Bunker Hunt said. "[He added] that Atlanta was big time and that the NFL was the only kind of league for football."

The NFL awarded its Dallas franchise to Clint Murchison Jr. The NFL Dallas Cowboys played their first home game at the Cotton Bowl on Sept. 24, 1960. Mr. Hunt's AFL Dallas Texans made their Cotton Bowl debut the next day.

Dallas was excruciatingly slow in warming to pro football. It didn't help that the Cowboys were 0-11-1 and 4-9-1 in their first two seasons.

The Texans, with local products such as E.J. Holub, Jerry Mays, Jack Spikes and Abner Haynes, won the 1962 AFL title with a 20-17 double-overtime victory over the Houston Oilers. But that season, the Texans averaged just 10,100 fans per home game, the Cowboys 9,900.

Off to Kansas City

Before the 1963 season, Mr. Hunt moved his team to Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs.

"The decision was painfully difficult," he recalled three decades later. "But it had to be made. It was to the benefit of all parties."

Tom Hunt said the move to Kansas City was influenced by a weekend baseball series there between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Athletics in the late 1950s.

"That Friday night game went to 1:30 [a.m.], and when he [Lamar] went to move the football team, he remembered that fans did not leave there in Kansas City," Tom Hunt said. "That influenced him to think Kansas City would be a great sports town."

H.L. Hunt used to say his son was popular enough to be elected Kansas City mayor, said his niece, Lyda Hill.

Mr. Kemble witnessed Mr. Hunt's popularity in Kansas City, where the friends attended a college basketball playoff. While walking around the arena looking for tickets, Mr. Hunt was greeted by everyone, Mr. Kemble said.

"The people who come up to him, it was just unreal," Mr. Kemble said. "He has got to be the most popular person I ever heard of in Kansas City. And they always called him Lamar."

Fierce competition between the NFL and AFL led to bidding wars for top players. As salaries skyrocketed, the NFL in the spring of 1966 quietly approached Mr. Hunt about a possible merger.

Mr. Hunt, Cowboys president Tex Schramm and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle secretly hammered out an agreement: There would be a world championship game after 1966, and the 10 AFL teams would be absorbed into the NFL beginning in 1970.

Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, described Mr. Hunt as "an enormous man in the NFL."

"I think of Lamar in the same category as [the New York Giants'] Wellington Mara and the [Pittsburgh Steelers'] Rooneys," Mr. Richardson said.

"That's special territory."

Mr. Hunt came up with the term "Super Bowl" for the new championship game. He thought of it while watching his daughter, Sharron, play with the 1960s "Super Ball" toy.

Mr. Hunt's Chiefs lost the inaugural Super Bowl to Green Bay, but in 1970's Super Bowl IV, they defeated Minnesota in the final game played by an AFL team. The next year, the AFL became the American Football Conference.

Mr. Hunt and his family remained in Dallas while spending four-plus decades attending the Chiefs' home games 450 miles away.

Behind the Bronco Bowl

One of his most notable nonsports ventures came in 1963, when Mr. Hunt announced he was building a huge teenage club, the Bronco Bowl, adjacent to a popular bowling alley on the Fort Worth Highway at Hampton Road. Jayne Mansfield was the major attraction on opening night.

Until it closed in August 2003, the Bronco Bowl hosted numerous performers, including Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and David Bowie.

In 1964, Mr. Hunt married Norma Lynn Knobel, who had done promotional work for the Dallas Texans. They had two children together.

That same year, Mr. Hunt and Fort Worth businessman Tommy Mercer brought minor league baseball's Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs to the area. Four years later, they flew to Chicago believing they would be awarded one of the two National League expansion franchises scheduled to begin play in 1969.

But they were blocked by intense lobbying from Houston Astros owner Roy Hofheinz, who didn't want his team to share Texas' major league stage.

Stroke of tennis genius

In 1967, Mr. Hunt found a new arena. He and New Orleans friend Dave Dixon co-founded World Championship Tennis. Based in Dallas, the organization hastened the professionalism of the sport after Mr. Hunt and his nephew, Al G. Hill Jr., signed elite amateurs such as Cliff Drysdale, John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Dennis Ralston.

"Lamar Hunt to me should be remembered in historical terms as having the greatest influence on the sport of tennis," Mr. Drysdale told The News several years ago. "Who knows how long it would have taken tennis to wake up and turn pro?

"He was ahead of the game and ahead of his time."

Mr. Hunt's tennis organization folded in 1990 when the Association of Tennis Professionals was formed, freezing the WCT out, but Mr. Hunt never expressed bitterness. He said he was surprised and flattered when he was inducted into the sport's hall of fame three years later.

In 1966, Mr. Hunt became one of the founding investors in the NBA's Chicago Bulls. He maintained his stake through the years, netting six world title rings during the team's Michael Jordan-led run in the 1990s.

Soccer, No. 1 in his heart

But of all his sporting ventures, nothing topped his devotion and financial commitment to soccer.

Convinced that the sport should and would catch on in the U.S., Mr. Hunt in 1967 became one of the founding owners of what would become the North American Soccer League. The Dallas Tornado won the championship in 1971 and was runner-up in '73.

The franchise folded after the 1981 season. When the NASL gave out in 1985, Mr. Hunt estimated that the Tornado had cost him more than $20 million.

Undeterred, Mr. Hunt in 1996 became a founding investor in Major League Soccer, initially owning Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City franchises.

Now his family owns the Dallas and Columbus MLS clubs. He took over the local team in April 2003.

Testament to Mr. Hunt and his love for soccer is FC Dallas' Frisco home, the 20,500-seat Pizza Hut Park, which opened in 2005.

The 115-acre, $65 million complex includes 17 full-sized soccer fields adjacent to the stadium. The facility hosted the MLS championship match in 2005 and 2006.

"The most enjoyment I get is trying to build something," Mr. Hunt told The News in 2003, shortly after the Pizza Hut Park venture was unveiled.

"I think I have some ability in comprehending what it takes to put something together. Most times, I think I see the big picture, but I'm too impatient."

Mr. Hunt's name will long resonate in the sports world. In 1999, soccer's 90-year-old U.S. Open Cup was renamed the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. And each year, the American Football Conference champion is awarded the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

Rare slip-ups

Not all of Mr. Hunt's plans panned out.

In 1969, he tried to buy Alcatraz island for $2 million and turn it into a $4 million tourist park, landscaped with a shopping area that resembled San Francisco in the 1930s. That idea fell to local opposition.

In late 1979 and early 1980, Mr. Hunt invested in futures contracts for delivery of 9 million ounces of silver. The investment ultimately was a costly one for him. News in 1980 that his brothers, Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, had accumulated 60 million ounces of silver contributed to the collapse of world silver prices and allegations that the Hunts had tried to corner the market.

In 1989, Lamar Hunt settled two claims in a class-action lawsuit charging that he had participated in a scheme to manipulate the world silver market. At the time of the settlement, he said he contributed $2.75 million toward the settlement fund "to avoid the inconvenience and the burden of years of further protracted legal expenses." His brothers landed in bankruptcy.

But Lamar Hunt will be remembered for his sports prowess, something that wasn't lost on one of his young grandchildren.

As Mr. Hunt fought for his life last week the grandchild asked during a family hospital visit whether "they have a football team in heaven."

When an adult in the room answered that she didn't know, the grandchild replied:

"Well, I know if there isn't, Pappy will start one."

Staff writer Rick Gosselin contributed to this report.

E-mail jsimnacher@dallasnews.com and btownsend@dallasnews.com

Service details were being worked out by his family Thursday.

He is survived by his wife, Norma Hunt of Dallas; two brothers, Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, both of Dallas; three sons, Lamar Hunt Jr. of Leawood, Kan., and Clark Hunt and Daniel Hunt, both of Dallas; a daughter, Sharron Munson of Dallas; two sisters, Caroline Rose Hunt and Margaret Hunt Hill, both of Dallas; and 14 grandchildren.

He also is survived by several half brothers and half sisters from H.L. Hunt's other marriages and relationships.