I was driving to my new apartment in Huntington Beach, CA, just a California resident for two weeks. With white knuckles gripping my steering wheel, eyes wide with dismay and shock staring out my windshield toward the ocean, I listened to the news roll out from my dashboard. The Pacific was dark and rolling, grey-blue and stern as it crashed and retreated from the shore when I heard the announcer say: “Derrick Thomas, Future Hall of Fame Linebacker and Defensive End for the Kansas City Chiefs has died after complications suffered in a car accident.”
I am a Kansas City girl, the one that’s in Missouri not Kansas for those of you that don’t know the difference. In a town that has hardly any claim to fame besides its barbeque, Kansas City is a tough town to explain to other people. Especially once you leave and find out that most people think it’s in Kansas and that Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was from there (neither is true). But it is my misunderstood hometown that I claim, even though I left it back in 2000.
No self-respecting Kansas City girl could be anything other than a Chief’s fan. So to hear that Thomas had died was a serious blow. I had a morose cloud of grief in my heart for a few days, even though Thomas was not a friend of mine, or even someone I had ever met personally. He was our hometown hero, better than any other Linebacker before or since. His loss was devastating to our town and our team. The Chiefs have never been the same since his death. It seemed that their magic, the small town team that could, was lost on the icy freeway that fateful February.
Over the past decade or so here in the land of fruits and nuts, I have always claimed the Kansas City Chiefs. I believe to be a fan you have to love them even when they stink. And I doubt anyone can argue that for the past decade they have really stunk. In fact, when I tell people out here that I am a KC fan, I usually get looks of sympathy or incredulity. One person asked me if they were arena league.
To be fair to that dopey person, we don’t see a lot of Kansas City games out here. We see plenty of Cowboys’ games though, although why is still a mystery for me since they seem to be mediocre at best and that even that feels like a generous description of their organization. We also see a lot of Giants, Broncos, Chargers, and lately, Indianapolis. I guess that’s because of Andrew Luck and the Stanford connection to California.
Every once in a while the Chiefs would be on, usually playing the Raiders or Chargers. I would watch with hope in my heart, looking for signs of a team that I once knew in the 90s when a whole town would rally together to cheer on our boys in red even when it was 25 degrees below zero. (That’s right, weather wusses, below zero. I wore hunting clothes to that game that were so huge you couldn’t tell if I was a girl or boy and was still so cold that I lost the feeling in my toes briefly.) But I was always disappointed. The magic was gone.
So even though Kansas City was my team, I never really saw them play anymore. The majority of my knowledge of my hometown team came shouted by my husband through the bathroom door from the sports headlines or the score alerts scrolling along the bottom of the screen of another confounding Cowboy’s game.
But this year is different. Kansas City has magic again. They are undefeated. They lead the division. They have forced the ESPN and FOX sports analysts to look again and give them credit. In fact, I joked the other day on Facebook that I was concerned about the skies falling and the seas boiling because positive coverage of the Chiefs at a national level was surely a sign of the apocalypse.
The truth is, it’s not magic. It’s great coaching from a veteran coach who truly loves the game. It’s the heart of young players that are finally getting the chance to show what they can do in an organization that works with their strengths and has patience for their weaknesses. It’s a town that has had very little to cheer for in the past 13 years awakened once more to make Arrowhead the loudest stadium in the NFL. It’s an underdog story that we all love, for an organization that had all but died with the loss of Thomas in February 2000.
Tonight they face the Broncos, a bitter rivalry that has been very one-sided for over a decade now. The Broncos are excellent. Unlike the Chiefs who win on spectacular defense, they win with spectacular offense. Plus, let’s not forget the reason their offense is spectacular has just a little bit to do with the man that heads it up, a quarterback that has given everything he has to the NFL, including his neck, the formidable and lovable, Peyton Manning. Even I, a life-long Broncos hater, have a hard time cheering against Manning.
So I will watch tonight –probably peeking out behind my hands on every snap -- hoping for victory for the boys in red. Whatever the outcome, I will be proud of my team. For I am a Chiefs fan, a Kansas City girl, part of a world that believes that underdogs can win, even when facing incredible odds and superior talent. For we Chiefs fans know that winning is only part of the victory and never giving up on your team, even when they stink, makes winners of us all.