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Chiefs Legend Len Dawson

The Game Before the Money Radio Show remembered legendary quarterback Len Dawson. The show airs on the SportsMap Radio Network on Saturday mornings at 11 am Eastern, 8 Pacific and is hosted by football historian Jackson Michael.

Len Dawson Hall of Fame Quarterback

NFL icon Len Dawson passed away in 2022 at the age of 87. He is remembered as a legendary quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.

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I’m not quite old enough to remember Len Dawson as a player. I learned of him from the great HBO series Inside the NFL. When we first got HBO, at least in our household, it must have been about 1981 or 1982, somewhere around then. Len Dawson and Nick Buoniconti were the hosts of the show. That was the first I learned about either of those two players because I wasn’t old enough to see them play. But I sure learned a ton of football from both of them. They were great analysts, and that was a fantastic show.

Inside the NFL

You didn’t get very many NFL highlights in the early 1980s. That’s why the halftime highlights on Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell were so popular. You were limited as to what games were being shown in your television market and also whatever highlights they were showing at halftime. Sometimes at the end of games, you’d get lucky. Maybe Brent Musburger would run through the scores quickly, but often, the network would just cut to regular programming. You didn’t get to see highlights of very many teams in those days.

So when Inside the NFL came along, they’d show highlights of every game and not just five or ten seconds of highlights. They’d spend a few minutes showing highlights of each game. The great Harry Kalas narrated the highlights, and then Len Dawson and Nick Buoniconti gave their thoughts.

That really helped me start to understand how to watch football at a very young age: what kind of patterns to look for, what kinds of talents and skills better players had, and some of the mistakes made by teams and players who weren’t quite as good.

So, Inside the NFL is how I learned of Len Dawson. And there might be a lot of you out there who are about my age and learned about him that way as well.

Quarterback for Purdue Boilermakers

Len Dawson grew up in Ohio. His father was a machinist. Len Dawson was one of seven brothers. He chose to attend Purdue University over Ohio State because Ohio State ran the split T formation and Dawson didn’t want to be a running quarterback. So, he chose Purdue.

Dawson started at quarterback for the Boilermakers at 19 years old and, in his first game, beat Missouri 31-0. But it was his second game that really made headlines. Len Dawson threw four touchdown passes against number one ranked Notre Dame at Notre Dame as a 19-year-old kid in his second college football game. Purdue upset the Irish, 27-14.

When I said that game made headlines, I meant it. The New York Giants baseball team won the 1954 World Series on the same day, and the New York Times sports section headline read, “Giants Sweep World Series. Purdue tops Notre Dame.” That’s how big of a deal it was.

Dawson not only threw four touchdown passes in that win over Notre Dame, but he also played safety and made an interception. During his senior season of 1956, he also kicked four extra points against Notre Dame in another upset victory.

Dawson led the Big Ten in passing for three seasons. He set several conference records. Purdue also had a great assistant coach while he was there, a former Boilermaker football player named Hank Stram. One of Dawson’s favorite receivers to throw to in college was Lamar Lundy, the future Rams defensive end, who was part of the famous Fearsome Foursome.

Drafted by Steelers in 1957 Draft

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Len Dawson in the first round of the 1957 draft. Four Hall of Famers were drafted in the first eight picks, and Len Dawson was one of those four. After being drafted, Len Dawson kind of became “Hard Luck Lenny” for a while. When Dawson arrived at Pittsburgh, he played behind Earl Morrall and Jack Kemp. Both of those quarterbacks were a key part of championships for other teams (Kemp with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in the mid-60s, and Morrall with the undefeated 1972 Dolphins).

A Quiet Leader

The Pittsburgh Steelers also drafted Johnny Unitas in the 1950s. But that’s another story for another day. Len Dawson never really got a chance to play in Pittsburgh and was traded to Cleveland. He never really got a chance at Cleveland either. Milt Plum was the quarterback that head coach Paul Brown preferred.

Dawson later told author Bill Libbey that he thought of retiring. In the 1963 Pro Football Almanac, Dawson said that neither head coach — the Steelers Buddy Parker, or Cleveland’s Paul Brown — seemed to have any confidence in him. He added that he thought both liked to pick a quarterback and stay with him no matter what.

Buddy Parker was quoted in the 1964 Pro Football Almanac as saying that he thought Len Dawson was too quiet to be a leader. But Len Dawson was a quiet leader, and a lot of great quarterbacks fall into that category.

Playing for Hank Stram’s Dallas Texans

By this time, Hank Stram had become head coach of the American Football League’s Dallas Texans. Dawson eventually asked Paul Brown to release him. Paul Brown okayed the release, and Dawson tried out for Hank Stram’s Dallas Texans. Stram liked the fact that he had worked with Len Dawson previously at Purdue, and that helped Dawson win the starting job. After the Texans won their first game of 1962 with Dawson at quarterback, they traded their previous starting quarterback, Cotton Davidson, to the Raiders to fill in for the injured Tom Flores.

The Dallas Texans won the American Football League championship that year (in 1962) in a famous double-overtime game. By that time, Len Dawson was a star.

Dawson Helps Chiefs win Super Bowl IV

The team moved to Kansas City the next year and became the Kansas City Chiefs. Len Dawson was the oldest member of the Chiefs entering the 1963 season, and he still had much of his greatest football in front of him. The 1963 Pro Football Almanac quoted Hank Stram as saying, “Len’s willingness to accept responsibility for his choice of plays is one of the things that makes him a terrific quarterback.” (Back then most quarterbacks called their own plays.)

Dawson led the Chiefs to Super Bowl I and later to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Dawson was also named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl IV.

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Len Dawson Stats and Bio

  • Set several Big 10 passing records at Purdue
  • Steelers first-round draft choice in 1957
  • Led Dallas Texans to 1962 AFL Championship
  • Led Kansas City Chiefs to two Super Bowls
  • Owns NFL record for most seasons leading league in completion percentage (8)
  • Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987
  • Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner in 1973

Hear More on The Game Before the Money Podcast:

Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.com – Barnes and Noble – University of Nebraska Press

Like sports history? Listen to The Game Before the Money Podcast! Most episodes include stories from legendary football stars.

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