The NFL’s centenary has been the big focus of 2019’s football titles, but it isn’t the only significant anniversary that falls this year. Michael MacCambridge’s ’69 Chiefs marks 50 years since the Kansas City Chiefs first – and, to date, only – Super Bowl win.
Read more: Michael MacCambridge interview
That season was the last before the AFL-NFL merger and gave the Chiefs the chance to become the only team to win three AFL Championships, having won their first as the Dallas Texans in 1962 and their second in 1966. That 1966 season ended in defeat in Super Bowl I, and in 1968 they finished with a playoff defeat to their biggest rivals, the Oakland Raiders.
MacCambridge, a Chiefs fan who describes the book as a “labour of love”, opens with the downcast Chiefs travelling back from “their comprehensive humiliation” in that 1968 Raiders game. The 1969 season then unfolded like a movie script as adversity piled up. They lost their quarterback, Len Dawson, for five weeks to a knee injury, and then lost both regular season games to the Raiders. They fought on to the AFL Championship game anyway, only to find themselves facing the Raiders once again.
Of course, as we know, they won that game and the Super Bowl that followed. Though the Jets’ Super Bowl win the previous season gets most of the attention because it showed the NFL that the younger league could compete, the Chiefs’ winning Super Bowl IV was almost as important. It headed off any criticism that the Jets’ win was a fluke and established the Super Bowl as a genuinely competitive game.
That Chiefs team was historically important for other reasons, too. As MacCambridge explains, the Chiefs were the first team to have a majority of black players in the starting lineup, and fielded a black middle linebacker, Willie Lanier, at a time when racist sentiment held that middle linebackers and quarterbacks should be white.
It’s a beautifully presented book, illustrated with photos from Rod Hanna, who was the Chiefs’ official photographer that season. Its size probably makes it a coffee table book, though coffee table books are seldom this well written.
MacCambridge devotes a chapter to each game as well as specific chapters on the offense, defense, Super Bowl week, and so on. These kind of books often become a slog through a list of events – “first this happened, then this, and then they did that” – but that never happens here. MacCambridge continually finds little details to keep the story engaging and adds just the right descriptive flourishes to transport us back in time.
Describing wide receiver Otis Taylor, for example, he writes: “His gait was distinctive as well, less of a pumping run than a graceful, loping prance, a sprinter’s fluid movements with toes barely glancing the turf, combined with a dollop of showmanship. It must have felt good to be able to run that fast.”
The chapter on Hank Stram relates how the head coach was so driven to win that he would cheat, even in racquetball games with his sons. Even so, it’s hard not to like him.
Books like this one are often fans-only affairs, and certainly this should be on any Chiefs fan’s reading list. But everything MacCambridge writes is essential reading for anyone with an interest in football history and ’69 Chiefs is no exception.