As he stood aboard the so-called Chiefs “ChampionShip” Saturday night on the Main River, Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt seemed afloat in more ways than one.
Mingling with fans at the epicenter of the franchise’s considerable presence here on the eve of its meeting with Miami at Deutsche Bank Park, the typically reserved Hunt was as at ease and upbeat as we’ve ever seen him.
He had arrived only the day before, he said with a smile, adding, “But I will be ready to play tomorrow.”
Indeed, he seemed ready to do just that as he reveled in the “whole bunch of red” in Frankfurt and the dozens of Chiefs fans he fist-bumped on the flight from Dallas.
He basked in the guy from Spain at the hotel breakfast, who reminded him he’d been at Chiefs games in London (2015) and Mexico City (2019). And he relished the fact he didn’t hear a “whole lot of English being spoken” among hundreds of fans wearing Chiefs gear on the ship — fans for whom Hunt, team president Mark Donovan and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell bartended before a dinner aboard.
He thought back to the Before Times, prior to the advent of Patrick Mahomes and three Super Bowl appearances in four seasons and this next phase of NFL international engagement, to when the Chiefs were stranded somewhere in the middle of brand recognition in Germany.
“And we’re now No. 1, and No. 1 among social platforms as well, and that’s before playing this weekend,” he said. “Which I think will just elevate that.”
But there was another element to Hunt’s fulfillment, and a touching one at that: a sense of extending the legacy of his visionary father Lamar, who founded the franchise and its AFL origins and was a driving force in the emergence of soccer in the U.S. … among infinite other fascinating endeavors.
Those included advocating for the growth of the NFL internationally, including as a proponent of what was largely known as NFL Europe from 1989-2007 and pushing for the Chiefs to be involved in four so-called American Bowl preseason games — including the first NFL game of any sort in Germany in Berlin in 1990.
“That was something that was very important to him,” Hunt said.
Something Hunt tethered to a more overarching point, back to the pursuit of his father’s in 1958 that helped make the NFL what it is today. Inspired by the Baltimore Colts’ 1958 NFL championship victory over the New York Giants, Hunt tried to buy the then-Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals and move them to Dallas.
It’s a more complicated and longer story than this, but the rejection of his offer set in motion Hunt’s impetus to launch the rival American Football League that debuted in 1960.
After the 1962 season, Hunt, who died in 2006, moved his Dallas Texans to Kansas City and forever changed its landscape and even identity.
“If you think about it, (the NFL in Europe) is the same mindset that he actually had back in 1958,” Clark Hunt said. “Because one of his goals in 1958 was to bring football to audiences in the U.S. that hadn’t been exposed to it at the professional level.
“There were, what, 12 NFL teams, most east of the Mississippi, and he wanted to bring a team to Dallas and ended up starting the league which really broadened the breadth of the NFL domestically” with the merger a decade later.
He added, “And then there he was 25 years later, working on the NFL’s growth in Europe, knowing that was sort of the next frontier. So I think certainly this weekend, he would be really excited to see everything unfolding, to see the Chiefs playing in Frankfurt, to see this ChampionShip with all these Chiefs fans … and Chiefs fans in the making that are here.”
Now it’s the son who’s on the NFL’s international committee and pondering the further growth of the NFL all over the globe and certainly in Germany — where the league estimates it has 18 million fans and some 3.6 million who could be considered avid.
Many of those, including a couple who came to Kansas City to get married because of Mahomes and the team, are devotees of the Chiefs, who are one of five NFL teams to enjoy commercial rights in Germany under the league’s global markets program.
“It’s a really perfect time for us to be doing this,” said Donovan, adding that internally it’s seen as “a responsibility to take advantage of this opportunity” bolstered by the team’s success, Mahomes and Travis Kelce “pre-Taylor (Swift) and now (with) Taylor on top of that.”
That’s why the Chiefs are the “It” team now. And even if that doesn’t necessarily make them America’s Team, per se, their ambitions now might be seen as greater than that within a league that one day could expand to include a European division.
For all the logistical complications of such a development, Hunt made an intriguing point on Saturday despite expressing skepticism about that prospect as recently as last week.
“It actually might take supersonic travel to make it possible,” he said. “Presumably at some point we’re going to get that again. And if the planes are of scale, then you could probably make it work.”
If that seems far-fetched, it’s certainly no more so than what this possibility in Frankfurt appeared nearly 50 years ago when the then-9-year-old made his first trip to Germany with his soccer-mad father during the 1974 World Cup.
That was the start of the younger Hunt attending 12 of the last 13 World Cups ... and his zeal for Kansas City to be a host for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
As it happens, it also was the start of something else: The first World Cup match he attended (Brazil vs. Yugoslavia on June 13, 1974) was in Frankfurt in the very stadium the Chiefs are playing in Sunday.
Even if none of them were thinking about the Chiefs playing here in 1974, Hunt said, smiling, “It’s really a full-circle moment for me personally to get to be here.”
With echoes of the past reverberating toward the future — and with the imagination of his father animated now by visions of his own.