Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Chiefs QB Len Dawson dies at 87

Former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Len Dawson has died at 87.

Dawson was the starting QB for the Chiefs when they beat the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Dawson was named the MVP of that 23-7 win as he threw a game-sealing 46-yard TD pass to Otis Taylor in the third quarter to provide the winning margin.

In a statement Wednesday, Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt called Dawson a "true legend" whose name is "synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs."

"My family and I are heartbroken. Len Dawson is synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs. Len embraced and came to embody Kansas City and the people that call it home. You would be hard-pressed to find a player who had a bigger impact in shaping the organization as we know it today than Len Dawson did. I admired Len my entire life – first as a Hall of Fame player on the field, and later as he transitioned into a successful broadcasting career. Throughout his remarkable career, Len made it a priority to give back to the community that he loved. The franchise has lost a true legend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Linda and his family."

The fifth overall pick of the 1957 draft out of Purdue, Dawson spent the first three years of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After two nondescript seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Dawson signed with the Dallas Texans of the AFL in the summer of 1962. He immediately became the team’s starter and led the AFL in TD passes as the Texans won the AFL title in their final season in Dallas before becoming the Kansas City Chiefs.

Dawson’s star grew with the Chiefs and was one of the best quarterbacks in professional football in the 1960s. He led the league in completion percentage for six consecutive seasons from 1964-1969 and also threw the most TDs in the league four times during that span. Dawson was named a first-team All-Pro QB in 1962 and 1966 and was selected to seven Pro Bowls.

That 1966 All-Pro season came as the Chiefs won the AFL and faced off against the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl. Halftime of that game became the setting for one of the most iconic images in pro football history as Dawson was captured smoking a cigarette on a folding chair with a bottle of Fresca between his feet.

Former Kansas City Chiefs QB Len Dawson during halftime of Super Bowl I. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Former Kansas City Chiefs QB Len Dawson during halftime of Super Bowl I. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The Chiefs lost that Super Bowl 35-10 and their Super Bowl IV win was the only one in franchise history until the Chiefs beat the 49ers to win Super Bowl LIV.

Patrick Mahomes, who was named MVP of Super Bowl LIV, also sent out a tribute to Dawson on Wednesday.

Dawson played in just nine games in the Chiefs’ 1969 Super Bowl-winning season because of a knee injury he suffered in the second week of the season. Dawson, then 34, missed five games and came back to finish the regular season as the Chiefs went 11-3.

The Chiefs then beat the defending Super Bowl champion New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders on the road in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl where they took down the Vikings. The Chiefs’ win over the Vikings was the last time the AFL and NFL champions played each other. The two leagues merged the following season.

Dawson played through his age 40 season in 1975 before retiring. He ended his career completing 57% of his passes for 28,711 passing yards and 239 TDs and 183 interceptions. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 along with Larry Csonka, Joe Green, Gene Upshaw and three others.

Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter lauded Dawson's perseverance in a statement.

“Len grew up only a few miles from where the Pro Football Hall of Fame later was built, and fans in the area have always taken a special pride in seeing one of the greats from this region enshrined in Canton. Fans connected with Len’s story of perseverance, appreciating how he gave the game one more try after five nondescript seasons when many others would have quit.

"The American Football League, and Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram, gave Len a true opportunity, and he made the most of it, building the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender, and eventually a world champion."

Dawson became a Kansas City icon because of his play on the field and his role in the city’s sports landscape off of it. He was named the sports director at KMBC-TV in Kansas City while he was still playing in 1966. He held that post with KMBC through his retirement in the spring of 2009.

In addition to being a fixture on local television, Dawson also did work for HBO’s Inside the NFL and was a member of NBC’s NFL coverage for a number of years. In 1985 he became the Chiefs’ radio analyst and held the position until he retired in 2017.