I remember the first time I tried to contact Lamar Hunt for a story I was writing about his new-born American Football League. This was before there was any Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans published yearly, but everyone knew the identity of No. 1. It was Lamar's father, H.L. Hunt, the eccentric and secretive oil baron.
I thought it would be difficult to reach Lamar, so I called a friend in Dallas for suggestions. "He's in the book," I was told. "Call him. He'll probably answer the phone himself."
He did, with infant son in his arms. He kept apologizing for the baby's gurgling, answered all of my questions, gave me two other phone numbers where he could be reached and invited me to call any time.
That was the quintessential Lamar Hunt. His partner in the founding of the AFL, Bud Adams of Houston, was known in their state as "the rich Texan who bought his dog a boy." Bud, at least in his younger years, was more in line with the more flamboyant wealthy men who have owned or operated pro sports franchises in Texas through the years -- Clint Murchison, Jerry Jones and Tex Schramm of the Cowboys, Mark Cuban of Dallas' NBA team and our current president, George W. Bush, when he was the managing partner of baseball's Texas Rangers.
Hunt was the exact opposite, so self-effacing that when he obtained a divorce in the '60s, he took out an ad in the Dallas newspapers because, as a public figure, he thought he owed the public an explanation.
When he came into pro football, his nickname among both his rivals and allies was "Mr. Peepers," after the then-popular television show about a mild-mannered, bespectacled school teacher played by the actor Wally Cox. But as a collegian he walked on to the football team at Southern Methodist University and made it as a third-string end, playing 20 minutes in three seasons, not enough to earn a letter. Nevertheless, as a scrub he lined up during each practice against tackle Forrest Gregg, whom Vince Lombardi would identify as the greatest Green Bay Packer he ever coached.
Years later Gregg remembered, "You'd never know how wealthy Lamar was. He wore the same thing I did, which were penny loafers, blue jeans, SMU T-shirts and socks we stole from the athletic department. He was one of the guys."
It says here Hunt may have been the most important figure in professional sports over the last 50 years, the driving force behind the maverick league that forced a merger with the NFL, resulting in the colossus of professional sports that it is today.
Without Hunt there would have been no Buffalo Bills, no New England Patriots, no Miami Dolphins, no Raider Nation and, for that matter, no Dallas Cowboys either.
The Cowboys came into existence the same year, 1960, as Hunt's AFL team, the Dallas Texans, had made a foothold under the coaching of Hank Stram and the play of the AFL's first star, running back Abner Haynes. The old-guard NFL wasn't keen on Dallas as a pro football site, since it placed a previously defunct franchise there in 1952. Seven games into the season it was such a flop its operations were switched to Hershey, Pa., and it became a road team. Dallas was then considered strictly a college sports town until the NFL took the Cowboys into its lodge with the idea of driving Hunt and the AFL out of town and, better yet, maybe his league out of business.
By 1962 Hunt's Texans flourished on the field, winning the AFL championship in the second pro game ever decided by overtime. Conversely the Cowboys went seven seasons before compiling a winning record. Financially, both franchises were foundering so Hunt, afraid that his home city would be embarrassed if both teams folded, agreed to move his team to Kansas City. He took no money for moving, but the Cowboys agreed to buy the Texans' training site.
At least Hunt had the satisfaction of seeing his Chiefs play in the first Super Bowl, which they lost to the Packers, but by Super Bowl IV they upset heavily favored Minnesota to confirm that the merging leagues were on the same artistic level.
Whenever a well-known figure dies, it's customary for people to say, "He'll be missed." For old-time football people, especially the AFL originals, that sentiment comes from the heart.
Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.