By: Kurtis Seaboldt
Thirty-one yards. For the win.
It was Christmas Day 1971, a date that still elicits head shakes, downward glances and stares into the distance almost a half-century later.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins had exchanged haymakers for 59 minutes and 25 seconds in their AFC Divisional Playoff matchup at Municipal Stadium and it looked as if the home team was about to land the knockout punch. The Dolphins had just tied the score at 24 with 1:25 left when Ed Podolak took the ensuing kickoff and raced 78 yards to the Miami 22. Three plays later, Jan Stenerud lined up the field goal that would send the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game.
Thirty-one yards. For the win. Wide right.
It was the first time in their 12-year history that Chiefs fans had tasted true, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking pain. Sure, they had lost the first Super Bowl five years earlier, but the Green Bay Packers just walked away from the Chiefs in the second half en route to a 35-10 rout. There were no “what if” lamentations after that one. This one was very different. And it seemed to set the course for the Chiefs and the postseason for decades to come.
Chiefs postseason history is really quite amazing. They haven’t played very many games – of the teams that have been in existence since that fateful Christmas Day, only four have played fewer postseason games than the Chiefs. Yet they have experienced an incredibly high level of heartache. And it has inflicted upon their fanbase a fatalism that seems to survive any run of success.
It wasn’t like that on January 5, 1991, when they lined up to play just their second playoff game in 19 years against, of course, the Dolphins. The Chiefs blew a 16-3, fourth-quarter lead and lost, 17-16 when Nick Lowery came up short from 52 yards out with 56 seconds left. Dave Szott’s holding penalty that backed the Chiefs up 10 yards has never been forgotten. It was a bitter pill. But, for a fanbase that had felt nothing for almost 20 years, the pain of a tough playoff loss was something of a welcome feeling. “Oh, that’s what it’s like to root for a playoff team.” It was a new age and the Chiefs were on their way.
The next year saw their first postseason win since Super Bowl IV and their first home playoff win ever, a Wild Card victory over the Raiders. Their attempts to get back to another Super Bowl – to win the trophy that bore the name of their founder – were blunted the next three seasons, largely due to the fact that they had to go on the road, always a tough proposition in January.
Then came 1995.
The Chiefs raced out to a 10-1 record and finished with home field in the AFC for the first time ever. It was finally going to happen. Of course, it did not. Four months of glory and hope and promise was gone in just three frigid hours. I’ve never seen this city as quiet as it was that following week. People didn’t know how to function. It was collective mourning.
Looking back, I think that loss changed the hearts of Chiefs fans. All through the early days of the Marty Schottenheimer era, there was a feeling that, eventually, it would be their year. On January 7, 1996, that feeling disappeared and it has yet to return. The Chiefs’ crushing loss to the Broncos two years later only hammered deeper the nails that were already in place.
And what’s happened since has done nothing to boost the spirits of Chiefs Kingdom. If anything, it’s darkened their outlook even further. They lost a game when they didn’t force the other team to punt. They lost a game when they didn’t get a first down for nearly three quarters. They lost a game that they led, 38-10. They lost a game when the opposing quarterback threw a touchdown pass to himself. And they lost a game when a guy didn’t know where to stand.
All of it has turned the average Chiefs fan into a ball of nerves every Sunday. Regardless of the score, at the first sign of trouble, my Twitter mentions fill. “Here it comes.” “I’ve seen this before.” “I know how this ends.” The Chiefs have won four consecutive division titles and its fans can only expect disaster. And I get it. It’s a defense mechanism. They don’t want to believe because they don’t want to hurt anymore.
I think that’s all going to change very soon. This team led by this once-in-our-lifetime quarterback is going to win it all at some point – it might happen this year – and, when it does, it will be one of the most impactful championships in sports history for it will give back to this town what it has not had in more than a generation.
A healthy, happy heart.