Sunday, August 17, 2014

Memories of summer camp, 1969

Municipal Stadium, 22nd and Brooklyn Ave., during a Chiefs game, ca. 1969.

It was August 17, a Sunday in the summer before I turned 16. Twelve hundred miles east of Kansas City an estimated 300,000 people my age and a little older were sprawled across a farmer's field in Upstate New York, enjoying/enduring the final day of a rainy, muddy, trippy weekend billed as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. But I was oblivious to that. I was headed to summer camp.

That afternoon my folks drove me from our suburban Johnson County, Kansas, home up to Liberty, Missouri, and dropped me off at a dormitory on the campus of William Jewell College. For the next two weeks I'd be an unpaid working member of the equipment staff at the preseason training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs.

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The Chiefs were beginning their seventh season as Kansas City's team in the American Football League after moving here from Dallas. I'd been a fan for the previous three, since the late fall of '66. That November, my dad was going to take me to my first Chiefs game. Instead, they had to rush my baby sister to the hospital. When she died unexpectedly home life grew dark.

After that I began hanging out at a neighbor friend's house. We recently had moved to a new school district and I hadn't made a lot of friends, but he and I spent a lot of time tossing a football in his front yard. The Chiefs won the AFL championship that fall. I watched the first Super Bowl – Chiefs vs. Packers – in my friend's family room. The game was an emotional loss for me, but I was hooked.

 These, of course, were the Chiefs of Stram and Dawson and Garrett, Taylor and Pitts, Tyrer and Arbanas, Stenerud and Wilson, Mays and Buchanan, Bell and Lynch and Lanier and Robinson and on and on. Over the next two seasons they won no championships, but were larger-than-life heroes.

I didn't get to more than a game or two at Municipal Stadium until I learned of something called the Huddle Club, which allowed kids under 15 to attend home games for a dollar.

As Huddle Club members, my little brother, Pete, and I boarded the Chiefs Express bus at Prairie Village shopping center on Sunday mornings for the crosstown ride to Municipal Stadium. Once inside, we bypassed the designated Huddle Club area – seats down the third-base line partially obstructed by the north bleachers – and serpentined our way to the east end zone concession stand, on field level. There we stood for entire games, lined up with others along a low wall there, young Pete often perched atop a narrow ledge, watching the action through the chain-link fencing that separated the concession area from the field.

The area abutted the gold-colored end zone turf. When the Kansas City offense began, say, on its own 10-yard-line, we could hear the players' voices, and our view of the Chiefs' huddle would be something like this:

Focus On Sport-Getty Images
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I had read a story in a football magazine about a kid who worked at the New York Giants training camp. I wrote to Chiefs President Jack Steadman, telling him I would give anything for a similar job. A reply came in May from trainer Wayne Rudy: I was to report to William Jewell in August for the final two weeks before the Chiefs broke camp.

At Jewell I roomed with another two-weeker, Mike Swanson, who was about my age and whose mother worked in the Chiefs front office. (He's now a Royals vice president.) We reported to the equipment manager, Bobby Yarborough, and our basic jobs were the same: carry footballs and other equipment to the practice field, and after practice sort dirty laundry. 

It's funny, but things I remember most clearly from those two weeks have nothing to do with the team's on-field performance. The memories are smaller. Slivers of personal interaction:

– Yarborough warning me to trim my sideburns, because Coach Stram doesn't like sideburns ...
– Threading a red-white-and-blue belt into a pair of practice pants for rookie James Marsalis, the belt he wore a few weeks earlier as a member of the College All-Star team that played the champion Green Bay Packers ...
– Being cursed by Len Dawson for giving him an older football to use in a live scrimmage ...
– Sitting in the lounge with other assistants when Stram emerges from his quarters with a plate of  crumbs, leaving it on a table and telling us "There's some good cheescake left there" ...
– Being asked – begged – after player curfew by someone (Podolak?) whispering from behind a half-closed door to go out and get him a pizza and having to tell him I can't drive ... 
– Not getting to travel to Los Angeles for an exhibition against the Rams, but watching the game on the dorm TV with Bert Coan, the former Jayhawk running back recovering from off-season knee surgery ...
– Moving with Swanson from our spartan dorm room into a larger one we've discovered, one with wider beds and nicer furniture and carpeting, and being run out by Rudy, who tells us that's Lamar Hunt's room and he's arriving any minute ...
 And then it was over. Just before the final exhibition, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team broke camp and I went home to start my junior year of high school.

That season, Pete and I returned as Huddle Clubbers to Municipal Stadium and to our corner of the east end zone. I can't recall outcomes of specific games we saw, just slices of time spent clinging to the chain-link fence with my brother, the peanut shells and cigar smoke, the trumpet flourishes of Tony DiPardo, the intent faces on the field, flashes of violent color, the roar of the Wolf Pack.

It turned out to be a good year for the Chiefs, 1969-70, one like no other since then.  Just sayin'.

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