Stram Had Class, Character and Heart

When news surfaced that Kansas City Chiefs legendary Hall of Fame Head Coach Hank Stram passed away my heart sank a bit. After all it was the 4th of July, a time to celebrate the birth of our country. But from this point forward, this day will have new meaning for me; it will mark the death of a man who made a profound impact on me as a child.

Hank Stram was first and foremost a great family man. He married the only women he ever loved his wife Phyllis and they had four sons and two daughters that lived a life together that many should envy. But he also had an impact on everyone who knew him.

In talking to my eight year old son shortly after we saw the report that ESPN aired on his death, he was shocked and surprised when I told him that I knew the Chiefs first head coach. I told him that I spent a great many days with him and his family when I was younger. The Athan household and the Stram household were on the same street separated by only a few blocks. It was shortly after the conclusion of the 1970 season that I had my most memorable encounter with Hank Stram. It was something that I would never forget.

My parents were great friends with Hank and his wife Phyllis. As they did on several occasions, they had asked us over to their house with a bunch of other families. I always loved to go over to his house just in hopes of getting to spend a few minutes with him. Granted Hank spent most of his time talking with the grown-ups and making them laugh, he always made time for the kids in house.

Still I was not the only child in the house that night as there were easily twenty or thirty of us youngsters patrolling the grounds. But he took the time out to sit with me for a few minutes each time I was in his house. However, on this night it was different.

As I ran into him in the hallway of his home, he asked me how I was doing. He called me ‘Nicky' and outside of my grandparents nobody else uttered the name. It was Nick or Nicholas and I told everyone that but Hank.

We would always talk about school and he reminded me that I should be on my best behavior for my parents. But my favorite part was when he would ask me if I was a ‘Chiefs fan'. And he would ask me the question as if he didn't already know the answer. "Of Course," I proclaimed loudly that night as I always did when he asked the question.

After my proud statement, he asked me to follow him into a room where he had Chiefs memorabilia everywhere. He reached into a box and handed me a small white mini Kansas City Chiefs football. It was a trinket to say the least; a plastic football three to four inches in length with a Chiefs helmet in the center and two yellow stripes circling the tip of the ball at each end. To me it was the Lombardi Trophy.

I told him that I could not accept it. But Hank insisted. He was so kind and I attempted to shake his hand to thank him but I was trembling because I was so touched by his generosity. He put his arm around me and told me that he appreciated me being a Chiefs fan. I'm eight years old and this incredible man made me feel like I was on top of the world. I'm not sure if he did that for any other kids that night but I didn't care and it would have taken nothing away from his gesture even if he had passed the footballs out to other kids.

To this day, I still have that football and a signed program from the inaugural 101 NFL Banquet back in 1970 that he gave me that night. So his passing has hit me very hard. I'm not big into that signed stuff and even though I could have had a room full of signed memorabilia from those early years being a Chiefs fan; I spent so much time with kids whose fathers played for the Chiefs that getting a signed autograph meant very little to me. But that football means something to me because of the person who gave it to me on that cold winter evening when I was eight years old.

As I grew older, I learned even more about him though my father or I'd listen to stories about him from Bobby Bell and Len Dawson. In fact, when I did an interview with Bobby Bell, who many of you know was also a neighbor of mine growing up late last year for Warpaint Illustrated, he and I reflected on the story that Hank told me about when Bell tried to move into our neighborhood in Prairie Village, Kansas in Johnson County back in the 60's.

Not many people wanted Bobby Bell and his family to live in our neighborhood. I mean nobody. They went out of their way to make it difficult to do so because of their prejudices. We like the Stram family lived in the white based JC Nichols sub-division that fought like mad to prevent him from buying a house. For me it was a gas to have Bobby Bell in the neighborhood. He was awesome to the kids and he shared his home, pool and food with everyone at that time he was our modern day Pied Piper.

When Bell finally found someone who would give him a home loan and he moved just a few houses down from my family; he could not go to the local Safeway Grocery Store around the corner to buy food. They would not allow him in the store because of the color of his skin.

So Hank Stram bought him food until the grocery store finally relented on their attitude toward the Bell family. Of course when I was younger I thought the story was a joke when I heard it the first time. But reflecting on it now, it was a time in America when the Archie Bunkers of the world were still characters seen on TV and not ones living in your neighborhoods. But unfortunately that wasn't the case as I would come to understand at an early age.

But my favorite NFL story about Hank Stram came from legendary Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Otis Taylor. Shortly after Taylor was drafted, he was struggling to adjust oo the coaching style of Hank Stram. He was all over him, yelling and screaming to the point where Taylor felt as if he was going to quit the team.

In fact Taylor called his mother back home that first night and told him of his pending plans to depart the team. Mrs. Taylor would have no part of her son quitting. The next day at practice Stram took Taylor aside at the end of the workout. He put his arms around him and told Taylor that he loved him.

Stram knew what Taylor needed. He had to show him that there was a reason for his madness. That he knew he would be a special player if he just listened to him and practiced harder. He did and that hug fortified a bond that has never been broken even today with his passing. Stram didn't often show a soft side on the practice field but he was deeply emotionally involved with his players and his love for them was never in question despite the fact some of his players wanted to kill him at times during his tenure as head coach.

But that's what made him such a character. Stram was tough as nails and demanding to say the least but his heart was pure, honest and one filled with more integrity and honor than most. Now in my forty's and not seeing Hank for nearly 30 years I can say with certainty that time I spent with him in the early moments of my life; fueled my passion as a Chiefs fan.

After the 1974 season Hank Stram was fired by the Chiefs. It was a tough year for me as I lost my grandfather earlier that year. So it was a time in my life where I understood loss to some degree. But in a time when eating a good hot dog, curly chicken noodle soup, playing football in the back yard with your friends and being a Chiefs fan; I'll never forget those moments that seem frozen in time; that I spent with the Mentor.

Nothing in life is greater than when people you idolize take the time to make a difference in your life regardless of your age. Imagine if every eight year old could meet their idol and what kind of impact that would make on them for the balance of their lives. Even though he moved to Louisiana and we only saw each other on a rare occasion after he left town, he made me feel special at a time when the world was safe and the Chiefs seemed to be at the center of my world.

For most Chiefs fans, they'll remember the memories of him stalking up and down the sidelines with that matted up program, that navy blue blazer with the Chiefs emblem on the chest pocket; not too mention those classic Super Bowl IV moments recorded by NFL Films; Stram leaves more than a legacy behind you with your passing.

Hank Stram was a man among men who made everyone feel special regardless if they were his players on the field or his friends and family or strangers who wanted to shake his hand and offer up their thanks for bringing a World Championship to Kansas City. In the end, coaching pro football was just the icing on the cake.

Looking back on Stram's impact on the game of football, he was in essence the Barnum and Bailey of the NFL. Above all else Hank Stram was one of the games true pioneers and nobody was more responsible for changing the way fans watched a new brand of football. It all started with his innovative ideas on the field in the 60's and the showmanship he brought to the upstart league before the eventual merger in 1971. On the field, Stram was the games most influential offensive innovator with the birth of the moving pocket better known today as the West Coast Offense. His stack defenses befuddled opponents.

But at no time were those innovations more evident to those who had never seen the Chiefs play football than when he orchestrated the Chiefs 23-7 Super Bowl IV victory over the Minnesota Vikings. That game served notice that the AFL is for real. Thus Stram led the final charge for the AFL and that victory led to a new and competitive format that would become the true birth of the NFL.

Stram had a quick wit, he was decisive on the field and everyday from all accounts it was entertaining to watch him work. I just wish I was older so I could appreciate his gab with the media. Still he will always be a legend in this city because of the way he carried himself when he was Head Coach of the Chiefs. He delivered a World Championship Trophy to Founder and Owner Lamar Hunt; a Championship that will forever make him one of the endeared Kings of our city.

Now he'll be in Heaven where he can coach any player he chooses. He'll be back on the sidelines in those funny looking shorts, Chiefs shirt and hat where he'll be reunited with some of his best players; Buck Buchanan, Jim Tyrer and Jerrell Wilson. Together they can all matriculate the ball down the field once again waiting for some of their other teammates to arrive.

In fact it wouldn't surprise me if Hank Stram would try and bribe legendary Notre Dame running back Knute Rockne to run the '65 Toss Power Trap' until the rest of his team can be reunited in the great football field in the sky.

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