So you think the last six months have been turbulent for the Chiefs?
The departure of a 20-season president-general manager, the firing of the head coach, the trade of the Pro Bowl and future Hall of Fame tight end, the unhappiness of a Pro Bowl guard with the new regime, the off-field problems of the Pro Bowl running back, near complete upheaval in the team’s front-office and personnel department and diminished interest among the ticket buying and suite leasing fans.
Yes, 2009 would have to be one of the most volatile off-seasons in Chiefs history, and we still have training camp in the near future.
Certainly, it’s been one of the most volatile. But not the most controversial. Not even close.
Did you know that a Hall of Fame Chiefs linebacker once signed with the Oakland Raiders? Did you know a Chiefs player almost died from a drug and alcohol overdose in training camp? Did you know that one of the iconic figures in team history was traded and didn’t finish his career with the Chiefs? How about a second-round draft choice that boycotted practice so he could be traded?
All that and more happened, much more, in the months before the 1976 season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Chiefs fans, the gold medal for turbulent off-seasons goes to the bicentennial year. It’s not even close. No silver and bronze medals were awarded because there was no real competition.
Thirty-three years ago the Chiefs went through an off-season with enough turmoil to serve any team for a decade.
“That was an ugly time,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell. “There were a lot of unhappy people.”¬†
If you are a Chiefs fan generated by the Peterson/Schottenheimer turnaround, then what happened in ’76 is unknown to you. If you were a Chiefs fan back then, you’ve probably forgotten or tried to wipe away some of the memories of that lost decade of the 1970s.
As we celebrate this July Fourth Weekend, it seems appropriate that we delve into a little bit of history. We remember those times and present the 1976 off-season as evidence that what happened in the last few months around Arrowhead Stadium was nothing in comparison.
Buckle up and enjoy this wild ride through history.
Hall of Fame defensive tackle retired. That was Buck Buchanan. After 13 seasons, Buchanan decided to end his playing career. But he immediately transferred his abilities and work ethic to the coaching profession. Not with the Chiefs, the only team he played for, but with the New Orleans Saints, where he was hired by Hank Stram. Buck was 35 years old when he retired before the’76 season, but the Chiefs had no one to take his place. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Keith Simons.
Hall of Fame quarterback retired. Len Dawson’s body had finally had enough. It was a November ’75 game in Baltimore where he was battered by the Colts pass rush when Dawson knew he was done with the game. That decision was not made official until May 1, 1976 when Len announced he had signed a three-year contract with NBC-TV.
“The last three years I’ve had injury problems and it got tougher and tougher to get back into playing condition,” Dawson said at that time. “I’ve been in pro football 19 years and I’m still able to walk away. I’ve never had an operation.
Hall of Fame linebacker signed with a most hated rival. Lost over the years is the fact that Bobby Bell signed in July 1976 with the Oakland Raiders.
Yes, that Bobby Bell and yes those Oakland Raiders.
“Their center out there (Dan) Dalby had an injured leg and Al Davis called me and wanted me to come out and snap for them during training camp and in the pre-season,” Bell remembered just the other day. “So yeah, I signed and went out there and went to camp with them and played in the exhibition schedule.”
Dalby’s leg healed and he returned to all the snapping duties, and Bell came back to Kansas City.
“Not a lot of people know that one,” Bell said of his brief sojourn as a member of the hated Raiders. “Did it feel weird wearing silver and black? Yeah, the first time I put it on. But after that it’s just football.”
Bell parting with the Chiefs had not been a happy one. When Paul Wiggin and his coaching staff took over in 1975 they thought Bell was well past his prime and no longer had the speed to play linebacker. Bell disagreed, but he sat out the ’75 season and the Chiefs had nothing but problems at linebacker.
Another Hall of Fame linebacker was benched. His name was Jimbo Elrod, a fifth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma. Elrod was the middle linebacker of the future. Holding the position was the consummate pro Willie Lanier.
That’s when the Chiefs coaching staff decided the future was now. Through training camp they worked Elrod into the first team. When the season opener rolled around, Elrod started at middle linebacker, with Lanier moved outside to Bell’s old spot. The move lasted one game, before Lanier was moved back to middle linebacker, but as Elrod’s backup. A few weeks later, Lanier was back in the starting lineup.
At the time, Lanier said: “I’m not bitter. If I start worrying about things like that, it would affect the way I play.”
The franchise’s iconic wide receiver was traded. Otis Taylor began his pro football career with the Chiefs. But he did not end his career wearing an arrowhead on his helmet. Instead, he wore the oil derrick of the Houston Oilers. On June 1, 1976 the deal was announced: Taylor to the Oilers. In return, the Chiefs got a future undisclosed draft choice. Ultimately, it was a fifth-round draft choice.
Taylor had played just one game during the ’75 season because of a knee injury. He ended up spending the season on the injured reserve list. While he didn’t seek the trade, Taylor was happy that he was going back to his home town of Houston.
“I intend to play another two years or so,” Taylor said at the time. “If the knee holds u p I don’t intend to go to Houston and play second string behind anybody. I have talked with Bum (Phillips, Oilers head coach) and he is going to give me a good chance.
“It wasn’t easy at all being traded. My adulthood has been spent in Kansas City and this is where I plan to live during the off-season. Houston is my hometown, but I have adopted Kansas City.”
The second-round draft pick turned out to be a head case and boycotted practice long enough to get traded. In the mid-1970s, the Chiefs had a series of just disastrous drafts. From 1973 through 1976 the draft produced little in the way of talent.
In the ’76 draft, the Chiefs used the 41st spot to select DT Cliff Frazier out of UCLA. Frazier was considered a top flight prospect and he was selected to play in the now defunct College All-Star Game in July against the previous seasons NFL champion.
Frazier took part in that game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and then missed more training camp time because of a contract dispute. Once a deal was worked out, he finally reported to William Jewell College in Liberty.
He was not greeted warmly. His holdout, his personality and his public comments about being interested in starting a Hollywood career rubbed some of the Chiefs players the wrong way.
After boycotting practice one day, Frazier had a long conversation with Wiggin and was prepared to work on fitting in. But 48 hours later, Frazier was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a pair of undisclosed future draft choices. They turned out to be fourth and fifth round picks. With the Eagles, he was reunited with his old college coach Dick Vermeil.
A veteran defensive lineman nearly died when he overdosed on valium and vodka during training camp and was saved only by the actions of the team’s head coach. This is one of the great unknown stories in Chiefs history. During training camp in ’76, John Matuszak overdosed on what was called at the time “the breakfast of champions”: valium and vodka.
Paramedics were called to William Jewell College, but when Matuszak’s heart stopped beating their attempts at CPR were ineffective because of the defensive lineman’s massive chest. That forced Wiggin, a former NFL defensive lineman himself, to jump into the ambulance and pound on Matuszak’s chest and he was able to get it beating again.
Matuszak spent several days in Liberty Hospital and missed a pre-season game. It was reported in the Kansas City Star that his absence from the game was due to “hypoglycemia or low blood sugar.”
A week later, the Chiefs traded Matuszak to the Washington Redskins for a pair of draft choices.
“He’s a good player, not a great one,” Wiggin said of Matuszak at the time of the trade. “He was very good at playing the run and he was improving on the pass rush. But he had problems conforming to our system and this was beginning to have an effect on the team. I believe the trade is in the best interest of the team and John. I hope to God he can walk the line in Washington.”
Redskins coach George Allen wasn’t worried, telling the Washington media at the time that the team had researched Matuszak’s physical condition. “The night he got sick and wound up in the hospital, doctors to us he took Valium as prescribed and drank vodka,” Allen said.
At the time, Matuszak said of his departure: “I imagine myself as a modern-day gladiator. That’s what we are. And as such, we are treated as such off the field. A lot of the modern-day gladiator myth we do fulfill. But the one where a social stigma is proposed because of our size; that is what is unfair. But that has nothing to do with what happened here. I enjoy life. I guess I care, that’s the difference. ”
Matuszak’s lifestyle would lead to his early death at the age of 38.
Another defensive lineman was on the trading block and talked about racism on the Chiefs coaching staff. That was Wilbur Young, who was on the trading block that summer, but ended up staying for two more years. In May of 1976, Young told the Kansas City Times “There are a lot of penny-ante things going on. It has to do with a lot of the way they treated the ball players. They get rid of Bobby Bell. Then we have to pay for it the rest of the year.” Young hinted that there was a move on the part of the coaching staff to “ferret out older black players.”
That charge upset Wiggin. “In my opinion I believe this is one of the least prejudiced situations staff wise that I have been in. I hate to talk about those things because the more you talk about it you’re smoke screening.”
A 10-year veteran starting safety was exposed in the expansion draft and claimed. That was Jim Kearney, who was picked up by Tampa Bay. The Chiefs took a gamble that nobody would be interested in Kearney and they could slide him through.
On May 31, 1976 the move blew up in the Chiefs face.
“I’m kind of disappointed because I wanted to end my career here in Kansas City,” Kearney said at the time. “It’s a weird thing. You play 10 years at Kansas City and this comes up … at least they could give me the courtesy of retiring.”
Said Wiggin: “We didn’t think these teams would draft aged players. We thought they would go for youth. We feel bad losing Jim.”
There was more. Defensive coordinator Vince Costello was eventually fired after the ’76 season when his manner and coaching style left fellow coaches and players angry and upset. One of the starting cornerbacks from the previous season Kerry Reardon, retired, although he eventually came back for the start of the regular season. In a trade with St. Louis, the Chiefs dealt Marvin Upshaw and Mike Sensibaugh for S Tim Gray.
And yes the fans stayed away. In March of that year, the Kansas City Star reported the team had sold 44,000 season tickets. That was down from the 47,000 from the season before and the 66,000 they had sold during the 1974 season.
Oh, and early in the regular season that year the team’s former iconic head coach Hank Stram came to Arrowhead Stadium as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints and walked out with a victory.
In the game, Stram called a timeout with 14 seconds left in order to give the Saints the chance to get their final touchdown and he admitted that he wanted to rub in the victory. After the game, Stram blasted his former employers, saying that the only thing the Chiefs management cared about was filling up Arrowhead. “They don’t care how they do it as long as the pictures of the dead presidents keep rolling in,” Stram said. “The whole approach is a slot-machine approach.”
The next time somebody wants to tell you there’s never been an off-season like 2009 call them clueless and tell them the story of the 1976 Kansas City Chiefs.
SIGNINGS AND MOVEMENT AROUND THE LEAGUE
DOLPHINS – signed seventh-round draft choice LB J.D. Folsom.
JETS – DE/LB Calvin Pace was suspended by the NFL for four games for violating the steroids and related substances policy.
PANTHERS – claimed TE Andrew Davie on waivers (Jets);¬†released LBs Mike Juergens and Brit Miller.
TITANS – signed third-round draft choice TE Jared Cook to a four-year, $2.45 million contract.
SAY HAPPY BIRTHDAY …
Born on July 3, 1949 in Brazoria, Texas was WR Elmo Wright. He was the Chiefs first-round choice in the 1971 NFL Draft out of Houston, taken with the 16th selection. Wright played four seasons with the Chiefs (1971-74), appearing in 45 games with 38 starts. He caught 66 passes for 1,070 yards and six TDs. He also ran 10 times for 69 yards with one score.