There’s no question that Len Dawson set the bar high for Kansas City Chiefs quarterbacks during his heyday in the 1960s.
The man nicknamed “Lenny the Cool” helped the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs win three AFL championships and one Super Bowl title.
Nobody saw that coming after a forgettable combined five-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.
When Dawson reconnected with Hank Stram in 1962, he shook off the cobwebs and became one of the best quarterbacks in Kansas City Chiefs franchise history.
Dawson eventually finished his legendary 19-year pro football career as the Chiefs’ franchise leader in pass attempts (3,936), completions (2,115), passing yardage (28,507), and touchdowns (237).
Truly, Len Dawson’s legacy will live in the heart of Chiefs Kingdom forever.
Leonard Ray “Len” Dawson was born to parents James and Annie in Alliance, OH on June 20, 1935.
Len was the third-youngest of eleven children in the Dawson clan. Interestingly enough, he was the seventh son of a seventh son. Len’s father James was the seventh son in his brood. Len, too, was the seventh son in his family when he was born in the mid-1930s.
When 52-year-old Len Dawson earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH in 1987, he credited his two older brothers who taught him how to work hard and shape his character when he was just nine or ten years old.
Those lessons served Len well when his pro football career with the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs reached unprecedented heights in the 1960s and1970s.
Len Dawson attended Alliance High School in his hometown. He excelled in basketball, baseball, and football for the Alliance Aviators.
During Dawson’s time at Alliance High School, Aviators head football coach Mel Knowlton taught him the gridiron fundamentals.
Purdue Boilermakers assistant football coach and baseball coach Hank Stram recruited Len Dawson during his senior year with the Aviators in 1952.
“That was my saving grace,” Dawson said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in the summer of 1987.
One of the Last of the Breed:
Hail and farewell to the legendary Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, a classic Midwest football hero. He also spent some time with the Steelers and the Browns. Born in Alliance, Ohio in 1935; attended Alliance High School and then Purdue. pic.twitter.com/vVLoO17bTt
— Patrick Kerin (@PatrickKerin1) August 24, 2022
Stram intervened in Dawson’s life at the perfect time. Their paths would cross again in the AFL with the Texans and Chiefs a decade later.
When Stram first met Dawson, he thought the 17-year-old recruit was a reserved and quiet individual. Despite Dawson’s quiet nature, Stram thought his confidence rubbed off on the people he met.
Stram also considered Dawson an unpredictable person because nobody knew what play selection he had in mind for the Aviators. Sometimes, Dawson also answered simple questions in a profound manner.
When Len Dawson visited Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN in his senior season, he watched some film with Stram. After watching the Purdue Boilermakers’ highlight “passing rear,” Dawson told Stram he thought the quarterback threw an incomplete forward pass, per ProFootballHOF.com.
As Dawson’s high school athletics career wound down, he earned team MVP honors from the Aviators football team. The International News Service also declared Dawson the outstanding Ohio back of the year as a senior in 1952.
Len Dawson also became a First-Team All-State selection in football and basketball that year.
In terms of Dawson’s college choice, he whittled his shortlist down to Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes and Stuart Holcomb’s Purdue Boilermakers.
Although Dawson had a chance to remain in-state with Ohio State, he ultimately chose Purdue because of Hank Stram – the man who would play a pivotal role in his life for the next five decades.
College Days With the Purdue Boilermakers
Len Dawson attended Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN from 1953 to 1956. He suited up for Purdue Boilermakers head football coaches Stuart Holcomb and Jack Mollenkopf.
Dawson married his high school sweetheart Jackie in his sophomore year with the Boilermakers in 1954. He was just 19 years old at the time.
Dawson also took the field as the Boilermakers’ quarterback for the first time that year.
Assistant Boilermakers football coach Hank Stram recalled one of the Purdue coaches wishing Dawson luck in his first start in the college football ranks.
“Thank you, coach but you don’t need luck – all you need is ability,” Dawson told him (via ProFootballHOF.com).
Dawson was stellar in his first start. He had four touchdown passes in a 30-0 shutout victory over the Missouri Tigers in September 1954.
Dawson had another four touchdown passes in a 27-14 win against Terry Brennan’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish a week later. He had 213 passing yards on just 12 passing attempts against the Irish.
Couple things about @BoilerFootball's late Len Dawson:
• He led @B1Gfootball in passing in 1954, 1955 & 1956
• He tossed a then-record 96-yard TD in 1955 ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/SyANMJoFt0
— Purdue On BTN (@PurdueOnBTN) August 24, 2022
Those two games stood out for Stram. He even mentioned them when he introduced Len Dawson during his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement in the summer of 1987.
Dawson’s 145.8 passing efficiency and 15 touchdown passes led the country in 1954. To nobody’s surprise, he earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore.
The Boilermakers had an average 5-3-1 mark with Len Dawson as their starting quarterback in 1954.
A thumb injury hampered Dawson’s production on the college gridiron in his junior season in 1955. Despite his predicament, Dawson led the Big Ten Conference in passing with 901 yards. However, he managed just six touchdown passes during the season.
With an injured Len Dawson under center, Purdue duplicated its 5-3-1 record from the year before.
Dawson finished his college football career on a strong note. He became the first player in Big Ten history to lead the conference in total offense and passing for three consecutive years.
Dawson also set school records with 3,325 career passing yards and 29 career passing touchdowns from 1954 to 1956.
Dawson also excelled in the classroom. He received Academic All-Big Ten recognition as a senior and also became the first Academic All-American in Purdue football history.
Unfortunately, Purdue regressed in Dawson’s senior campaign. The Boilermakers had a below-average 3-4-2 record in Dawson’s final college football season in West Lafayette, IN.
Len Dawson was just getting started. Although his pro football career got off to a rough start with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, he eventually established a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Pro Football Career
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Len Dawson the fifth overall selection of the 1957 NFL Draft.
According to Bob Gretz’s 2015 book, Tales from the Kansas City Chiefs Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest Chiefs Stories Ever Told, the Steelers and Cleveland Browns had a coin toss for the rights to the fifth overall pick of the draft.
Browns head coach Paul Brown wanted Len Dawson badly. One of his reasons for wanting to draft Dawson was their common Buckeye State roots.
To Brown’s dismay, Pittsburgh won the coin toss and promptly took Len Dawson off the draft board.
Many Browns fans consider that twist of fate a blessing in disguise. After the Steelers selected Dawson, the Browns took former Syracuse Orangemen running back Jim Brown with the sixth overall selection.
A shot of #Steelers rookie Len Dawson from the 1957 team picture. pic.twitter.com/UlxffVpN7h
— Ryan Recker (@RyanRecker) August 24, 2022
Jim Brown immediately made a sales pitch to Dawson after the draft. He called the new Pittsburgh quarterback and brought up the possibility of Dawson playing pro football in Canada should his contract with the Steelers hit a snag.
Once Dawson got a year or so of experience north of the border, he could join Brown in Cleveland.
Jim Brown and Len Dawson eventually became teammates with the Browns after Pittsburgh traded him to Cleveland on New Year’s Eve 1959.
Brown became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. Dawson joined him sixteen years later.
Dawson’s legendary 19-year pro football career got off to an inauspicious start. He mustered just 204 passing yards and one touchdown playing behind Bobby Layne in Pittsburgh and Milt Plum in Cleveland from 1957 to 1961.
Dawson, who considered Hank Stram’s recruitment of him back in high school his saving grace, received another shot at redemption from the legendary head coach.
Stram, Dawson, and their friend Joe Rittman met in Pittsburgh at the end of the 1961 NFL season. They talked about the possibility of Dawson suiting up for the third-year AFL franchise, the Dallas Texans.
The thought of playing for Stram again piqued Dawson’s interest. Before long, the latter approached Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown and asked him if he could put him on waivers. Brown gave in to Dawson’s wishes.
The Browns subsequently released Dawson in 1962. He admitted his pro football career was going nowhere at that point.
“I was awful after five years of not playing,” Dawson said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 1987. “The skills I once had were gone.”
Paul Brown seconded that fact. He called Stram prior to Dawson signing with the Texans in 1962. The gist of their conversation revolved around Dawson’s deterioration – his throwing arm and attitude left much to be desired, per Gretz.
Hank Stram was shocked when he first saw Dawson practicing with the Texans. His former Purdue Boilermakers quarterback was gaunt and extremely slow. It was evident five years as a backup had diminished Dawson’s once-promising quarterback skills.
Len Dawson of the Dallas Texans wearing this cool Helmet! @Chiefs @NFL @ProFootballHOF @espn @Super70sSports pic.twitter.com/HDARsOq3os
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) October 24, 2019
When Len Dawson donned Dallas Texans red, gold, and white in 1962, he promptly turned his pro football career and the franchise’s fortunes around.
Dawson had 2,759 passing yards, a league-leading 29 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions as the Texans’ starting quarterback in the 1962 AFL season.
Dawson’s 98.3 passer rating and 61.0 completion percentage both led the AFL that year.
Dawson hardly resembled the backup quarterback he was with the Steelers and Browns from 1957 to 1961. He played so well that he racked up a slew of accolades in his first year in the American Football League.
Dawson earned the first of his six AFL All-Star selections, the first of his two First-Team All-AFL selections, and his first and only AFL MVP award.
The Texans, who averaged seven wins per season in the first two years of their existence, went 11-3 in their third year with Len Dawson under center in 1962.
Dawson led the Texans to a 20-17 win over their in-state rivals, the Houston Oilers, in the 1962 AFL Championship Game.
Dawson completed 9 of 14 passes for 88 yards and one touchdown in the win. The Oilers’ pass rusher also sacked him six times.
In Len Dawson’s lone year with the Texans in 1962, he remembered that they never played in front of a full-capacity crowd at their home stadium, the Cotton Bowl.
Dawson recalled Texans fans filled up just half of the stadium for most of their games. In some instances, the turnout was far less, per Gretz.
When Dawson returned to his Pittsburgh, PA residence (a house he owned dating back to his three years with the Steelers) after the successful 1962 AFL season, he found out that team owner Lamar Hunt was planning to uproot the Texans and moved them to Kansas City, MO.
Dawson told Gretz in 2015 that he didn’t know a thing about Kansas City. He was even surprised to find out that both Missouri and Kansas had a city with that name.
Hunt renamed the Dallas Texans the Kansas City Chiefs prior to the 1963 AFL season. For his part, Len Dawson emerged as one of the greatest quarterbacks in franchise history.
When Dawson took the field for the Chiefs’ first game at Municipal Stadium on August 9, 1963, it was a throwback to the previous year with the Dallas Texans at the Cotton Bowl – hardly anybody was in the stands.
Dawson and his teammates received tiny red and white footballs from the Chiefs’ marketing personnel which, in turn, they threw to the fans in attendance.
“It would have been easier for us to go into the stands and hand out the balls,” Dawson told Gretz in 2015. “There was barely anybody there.:
According to Gretz, only 5,721 fans turned up for the Chiefs’ first game in Kansas City, MO. Their head coach, Hank Stram, remembered the forlorn looks on his players’ faces on that day. They were certain Kansas City wasn’t a football town by any stretch of the imagination.
Dawson felt the Chiefs’ first several years in Missouri were a massive struggle both on the gridiron and the gate receipts. He told Gretz some fifty-two years later that there were plenty of trials. He and his teammates wondered if relocating to Kansas City was the best move for the franchise.
Nevertheless, Len Dawson promptly picked up where he left off in Dallas. He led the AFL in completion percentage six more times from 1963 to 1969. He never threw for less than 54 percent during those seven years.
Dawson also led the AFL in touchdown passes three more times and passer rating five more times during that same time frame.
With Len Dawson clicking on all cylinders, the Chiefs overwhelmed the Buffalo Bills in the 1966 AFL Championship Game, 31-7.
Dawson led Kansas City to the first edition of the Super Bowl following the 1966 AFL season. Regrettably, they lost to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I in a lopsided fashion, 35-10.
Len Dawson began his esteemed career in sports media in 1966. He started moonlighting as a Kansas City KMBC-TV’s sports director that year.
It wasn’t unusual for Dawson to do a sports broadcast after practice with the Chiefs back in the day, per ESPN.
Kansas City continued playing at a high level over the next three seasons. The Chiefs averaged eleven wins per season from 1967 to 1969.
Len Dawson had never sat out a game due to injury in his first twelve pro football seasons. Alas, he tore his left knee’s medial collateral ligament in the Chiefs’ second game of the 1969 AFL campaign.
Five of the six orthopedic surgeons Dawson consulted recommended surgery. The sixth, Dr. Frank Reynolds of St. Louis, MO, recommended a healing and rehab program that allowed Dawson to suit up again in six weeks.
Dawson followed Reynolds’ program and took the field again after sitting out five games. Unfortunately, he was clearly off his game. He threw a combined eight interceptions against the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders over the next four weeks.
While Len Dawson was recovering from his left knee injury, his father James passed away in his sleep in Alliance, OH. Despite the tragedy, Dawson managed to suit up for a game against the New York Jets where he had 285 passing yards and three touchdown passes.
Dawson and the Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl just three years after losing to the Packers. This time around, they faced Fran Joe Kapp’s Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV – the final Super Bowl game before the historic AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Kansas City had a chance to become the second straight AFL team to win the Super Bowl. Their showdown against the Vikings occurred one year after Joe Namath’s New York Jets stunned Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, 16-7.
Dawson and Co. didn’t disappoint. Although the Vikings were double-digit favorites, the Chiefs emerged victorious, 23-7.
Dawson, who had 142 passing yards, one touchdown, and one interception, earned Super Bowl IV MVP honors. His 46-yard touchdown strike to Otis Taylor in the third quarter put the game out of reach for the Vikings.
Len Dawson also brought home a brand-new car for earning the Super Bowl IV MVP plum.
The Chiefs were an average football team during their first six seasons in the National Football League from 1970 to 1975. They averaged seven wins per season during that time frame. They made the postseason just once, losing to Bob Griese’s Miami Dolphins in the 1971 AFC Divisional Round, 27-24.
Dawson earned his only Pro Bowl berth in the National Football League in 1971. He won the NFL Man of the Year award two years later.
Len Dawson retired from professional football in the spring of 1976. He retired as the Kansas City Chiefs’ all-time career leader in pass attempts (3,936), completions (2,115), passing yardage (28,507), and touchdowns (237).
Hank Stram, Dawson’s legendary head coach with the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, aptly summed up his Hall of Fame quarterback’s 19-year pro football career.
“Greatness is measured by the test of time and Lenny passed that test with flying colors,” Stram said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame introductory speech for Dawson in the summer of 1987.
Post-Football Life and Death
Len Dawson and his first wife Jackie were married for twenty-four years until she passed away on December 7, 1978. They have a son, Lenny, and a daughter, Lisa.
Kansas City, MO authorities suspected Jackie Dawson had a second stroke that caused her death. Len told them he found her in their bathroom and then gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Unfortunately, it was too late.
Jackie Dawson was 42 years old.
Len Dawson later remarried. His second wife Linda remained by his side until he passed away in the summer of 2022.
Dawson became a member of the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1979. He’s also a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.
Len Dawson served as an NBC color analyst from 1976 to 1984. He was also the host of HBO’s “Inside the NFL” from 1977 to 2001.
Dawson also did commentary for the Chiefs Radio Network from 1984 to 2017.
Len Dawson entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player in the summer of 1987. Hank Stram, his head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, was his presenter.
Part of Dawson’s enshrinement speech reads:
“You can’t do it alone. You have to have a great deal of help and I had the help all the way along the line.”
The Chiefs retired Len Dawson’s No. 16 jersey in 1987. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a broadcaster twenty-five years later.
Doctors diagnosed Dawson with prostate cancer in January 1992. He had a checkup at the urging of his wife, Linda. Physicians caught the cancer at an early stage and eventually removed Dawson’s prostate through surgical means.
Sadly, Len Dawson passed away on August 24, 2022. He was 87 years old.
RIP to the legend Len Dawson. The legacy and impact you made on Kansas City will live on forever. Prayers to his family 🙏🏽🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/AKMhxoUFYH
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) August 24, 2022
Kansas City Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, who was “heartbroken” when he learned about Dawson’s passing, declared the legendary quarterback and broadcaster as one of the franchise’s cornerstones.
“Len Dawson is synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs,” Hunt said in a statement (via ESPN). “You would be hard-pressed to find a player who had a bigger impact in shaping the organization than Len Dawson did.”
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