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Inside the Chiefs' extraordinary connection to the Super Bowl

MIAMI -- A few years ago, during a celebration of the 50th Super Bowl, Norma Hunt sat on a panel to reminisce about her singular place in NFL history: She is believed to be the only woman on Earth to attend every Super Bowl.

Why, Hunt was asked, had she gone to those earliest games, which possessed little of the interest and even less of the fanfare attached to the current incarnation of the championship game.

"Because," Hunt replied. "My team was in those games."

Fifty years after the Kansas City Chiefs -- Hunt's team -- were last in the Super Bowl, they are finally back this Sunday, continuing the extraordinary ties the franchise has to a game whose mythology is forever tied to Hunt's husband Lamar and the teams he and Norma went to watch in the game's nascent days.

"Hallelujah!" Norma Hunt said in an interview last week.

A lone white flag flies over Arrowhead Stadium, commemorating the Chiefs' sole championship, won in Super Bowl IV. The paucity of appearances since then has been a source of frustration and heartbreak -- don't get anybody started on that defensive offside call that negated an interception of Tom Brady late in last year's AFC Championship Game -- but that the Chiefs won even that one title, that they existed at all, is testament to the will and vision of Lamar Hunt.

A son of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, Lamar was also an avid sportsman and sports fan. He would go on to found Major League Soccer and World Championship Tennis. By the late 1950s, the NFL was little more than 30 years old, but Hunt wanted in. With a vast fortune behind him, he applied for an expansion team and was rejected, the NFL worried about oversaturating the market with too many teams. Then in 1959, Hunt tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals, with the intention of moving them to Dallas, where he lived and which did not yet have a team. Again, he was turned down.

Frustrated, Hunt turned to a fellow oilman, Bud Adams, and suggested they start their own league to compete with the NFL. By late in 1959, Hunt, Adams and a few others who had been interested in buying NFL teams had formed the American Football League. The owners called themselves "The Foolish Club," because they were thought foolish to take on the more established NFL, which had the best players and the established teams in the biggest markets, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That got the NFL's attention -- they hurriedly reversed course on expansion and put a team in Dallas.

In 1960, both the Dallas Cowboys and Hunt's Dallas Texans began play, with the Texans led by a charismatic head coach, Hank Stram. The Texans were the far better team on the field -- they won the AFL Championship in 1962 -- but all of the AFL teams lost money immediately because of competition for fans at the gate. Norma knew that as well as anyone. She was a schoolteacher in Dallas and was a hostess for the Texans, but her primary job was trying to sell season tickets to local businesses. Convinced that Dallas could not support two teams, Hunt moved his team to Kansas City -- it was an easy trip from Dallas -- and they became the Chiefs in 1963. He married Norma the next year.

The AFL did have good television contracts, though, and they were competing to sign veteran players, driving up the price on contracts. By the mid-1960s, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and a handful of owners realized the AFL would probably stick around and be a constant thorn in their sides. So they wanted to merge. The problem? With whom from the AFL could they negotiate?

Tex Schramm, the president and general manager of the Cowboys, knew Hunt from Dallas.

"He knew that Lamar had status and credibility among AFL owners and reports were Lamar wanted peace also," said Joe Browne, the NFL's longtime public relations executive. "Lamar was quiet and reserved by nature, and they needed someone who could keep a secret and he lived just a few blocks from where Tex lived. If he could make a deal with Tex and Pete, Rozelle felt Lamar could sell it to AFL owners. That's the type of stature Lamar had from the beginning."

Schramm called Hunt, who was on his way from Kansas City to Houston for an AFL meeting. They agreed to meet at Dallas Love Field. To be inconspicuous, they sat in Schramm's car and negotiated for 90 minutes. The leagues agreed to begin to merge in 1966, with a joint championship game to be played between the champions of the AFL and NFL.

"Even though it was going to be one league, it wasn't exactly one big happy family," Browne said. "Many NFL owners looked down on the AFL as the junior league. Lamar was the exception. They had trusted him and he had come through for them. NFL owners always accepted Lamar into their circle."

Around that time, Norma had bought their children a popular toy at the time, a Super Ball. In a meeting with other team owners, at which they were discussing the new combined championship game that would be played, someone asked Hunt which game he was talking about.

Hunt said "the last game, the final game, you know, the super bowl," recalled his son, Clark, in "A Lifetime of Sundays," the NFL Films documentary tracing the history of the NFL through the eyes of four women, including Norma. "He just threw it out there."

In the summer of 1966, Hunt wrote a letter to Rozelle.

"I have kiddingly called it the 'Super Bowl,' which obviously can be improved upon," he wrote.

It couldn't, of course.

But the NFL thought Hunt's idea was corny, so the owners decided to call their new title game something more mundane -- the AFL-NFL Championship Game. That's why Super Bowl I -- in which Hunt's Chiefs, the AFL champion, lost to the Packers, the NFL champion -- was not even called that. That game did give the NFL a lasting Chiefs moment, though. Stram had granted Life Magazine access to his locker room during the game, and the late photographer Bill Ray snapped an iconic image at halftime -- quarterback Len Dawson, sitting on a folding chair, smoking a cigarette, with a Fresca at his feet.

That picture captured the ethos of the time, and the simplicity of the championship game. Media, though, immediately picked up on Hunt's serendipitous proposal and by Super Bowl III, the stunning upset by the AFL's Jets over the NFL's Colts, the name was official and on its way to becoming a touchstone in American culture.

"Lamar was such a visionary that I'm sure he expected the championship game between the two leagues would be a big deal," Norma Hunt said last week. "It certainly was important for the American Football League to have that chance to prove we were equal to the NFL on the field. But for as much of a visionary as Lamar was, I believe even he couldn't imagine how big the Super Bowl would become."

It is NFL lore that Super Bowl III changed football, with the first victory by an AFL team legitimizing the merger and introducing the NFL's first superstar quarterback in Joe Namath. The truth is that the NFL owners still considered the Jets' win over the Colts a fluke. Which is why Super Bowl IV, at the end of the 1969 season, was so important. It was the final season before the merger was complete and the AFL name would disappear.

Super Bowl IV was to be the last stand of the AFL and, fittingly, the Chiefs were the AFL representative. The Chiefs were the most successful of the AFL teams. They had won three AFL championships, in 1962 as the Dallas Texans, and in 1966 and 1969 as the Chiefs. Their combined record in their first 10 years of existence, all under Stram, was 87-48-5.

They would face the Minnesota Vikings of Purple People Eater fame in the Super Bowl, and that was an especially delicious twist. Minnesota was supposed to have been a charter member of the AFL, but the owners flipped to the NFL at the last moment.

Like the Colts the year before, the Vikings were heavily favored. Steve Sabol, who had helped his father Ed found NFL Films in the early 1960s, visited Stram in his New Orleans hotel room the day before the game to ask if Stram would wear a microphone for the game. NFL Films had mic'd coaches for regular-season games before, but Stram would be the first for a Super Bowl, but only, he told the Sabols, if he got paid. The Sabols gave him $750 -- cash -- and the man who called himself "The Mentor" became a star.

Stram was known for his impeccable wardrobe, his bad toupee, and a hilarious string of one-liners and malapropisms. And he loved wearing the microphone, Norma Hunt remembers. With the Chiefs stunning the Vikings quickly (they led 16-0 at halftime and were never challenged), Stram was free to put on a show. "65 toss power trap" may be the single most famous play call in NFL history because of how gleefully Stram called it that day. And he unleashed the line that made him immortal.

"Keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys!"

Fifty years later, there still has not been a more memorable coaching moment caught on a microphone.

The Chiefs 23-7 victory -- the one commemorated on that white flag over Arrowhead today -- was not as stunning as the Jets' victory but it served a purpose nearly as important. Once the shock wore off, Rozelle did not complain about the NFL's defeat. The NFL was heading into its future in 1970 with the AFL and NFL at 2-2 in Super Bowls, a key selling point for Rozelle to convince everyone that there would be parity when the leagues fully merged.

"For Lamar, there was a lot riding on the game given how hard he had worked to get to that point," Norma Hunt said. "I remember how satisfied he was after winning that game -- for the fans most of all -- but also because the AFL and the NFL would be tied 2-2 for all time in the Super Bowl. I know that was a very gratifying day for him."

With the merger complete, Lamar Hunt became one of the most influential, if modest, figures in the new NFL. He would send handwritten notes, in very tiny print, with suggestions. The two-point conversion. Putting names on the backs of the jerseys. Those were Hunt's ideas, the work of a creative mind.

And Norma's streak had begun, almost by accident and without anyone noticing.

"It was never all that important to me, but it was always important to Lamar," Norma Hunt said. "He loved statistics and streaks, and it was fun for him to tell people I had seen every Super Bowl. As the numbers started to get higher and higher, I told Lamar that if he insisted on telling people I had seen every Super Bowl, then he better tell them I started when I was 8 years old."

The streak continued through the Chiefs' long drought, with Norma, an avid sportsperson herself, especially enjoying watching the game's most valuable players perform on the grand stage her husband had helped create. The Hunt family has the pictures to prove it -- they always take a family photo as they enter the stadium and then once they are inside, to prove Norma was there.

The Chiefs have been achingly close to allowing her to watch her own team several times. Since Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs have been to the playoffs 17 times before this season. They lost in the AFC Championship Game twice, in 1993 with Marty Schottenheimer and Joe Montana, and last year, a loss to the Patriots that Clark Hunt called "heartbreaking."

"I have to mention that a few years ago, I think it was around Super Bowl 50, after my mom had been to 50 Super Bowls, she said, 'Clark, it sure would be nice if we could play in this game once while I'm still able to go,' " Hunt said. "We've got that checked off."

Norma replied: "I was joking with him when I said that, but it sure has been a long time. After all of these years in pro football, I've learned that opportunities like this one don't come around often, which is why it's important to take advantage of them. I wouldn't say I was ever worried, but I'm certainly glad the fans don't have to wait another year to see their Chiefs in the Super Bowl."

On the dais after the Chiefs beat the Titans to finally secure their return trip, Clark was handed the trophy given to the AFC champion -- the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Norma touched it and gave it a kiss.

"It was incredibly special for our family and especially for the fans," Norma Hunt said. "I am just so happy for them most of all, but also for Lamar's great legacy for us to finally make it back. But it was also special to see Clark holding that trophy because of how hard he has worked to get the Chiefs to this point. He has done a terrific job, and I'm just so proud of him."

Lamar Hunt got ill in late 2006 and he worried that Norma's streak would end when he died because she would be too sad to go to the Super Bowl. When he was in the hospital, he asked to talk to his sons, Clark and Daniel.

"He started off, 'I need you to keep your mom's Super Bowl streak going. Promise you'll take her.' " Clark remembered in "A Lifetime of Sundays." Norma Hunt will be back again on Sunday, of course, and there figures to be a few more pictures than the ones needed to document her attendance.

"I'm just happy that the next game in the streak features my favorite team," she said.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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