Super Bowl aLIVe
On Sunday, February 2, 2020, I witnessed something I was dreadfully worried I’d never get the chance to see in my lifetime: the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl and became champions of the football world! What was even more impressive was that the Chiefs did it in dramatic, almost poetic, fashion. It was the NFL’s 100th season; it had been 50 years since they last won a championship (Super Bowl IV on January 11, 1970); and Kansas City won each of their playoff games this season (the divisional round against Houston, the AFC Championship against Tennessee, and the Super Bowl against San Francisco) after trailing by double-digits and then exploding to victory by the end of each game. Watching the Chiefs come alive like never before during this season was something truly special. In fact, watching the Chiefs win Super Bowl LIV made me and much of the Midwest come alive like never before.
I watched Super Bowl LIV from the comfort of my own living room, friends and family surrounding me. The Chiefs entered the 4th quarter trailing the San Francisco 49ers by 10 points, but by the time there was 2:44 left in the game, KC had impressively worked themselves to a slim 24-20 lead. I was hopefully, anxiously, and nervously pacing the long strip of carpet behind my couch. After a great defensive stop, Kansas City once again had the ball; it was now 2nd-and-6 with time winding down and only 1:18 left in the game. Our young but electrifying quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, handed the ball off to running back Damien Williams. Williams made a cut to the edge, broke through the 49ers secondary, sped down the field for 38 yards, and scored an unexpected touchdown that all but cemented the victory for coach Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. With my dad’s old 1950s-era Chiefs helmet on my head, I was like the Ultimate Warrior sprinting around my living room, fist pumping, and cheering in ecstasy. It was unbelievable! It was joyous! It was a feeling I had never felt before. The Chiefs were NFL champions! It was something I always hoped for, prayed for, and even quietly predicted last year, but that was all fantasy; this was real. Before the final seconds of the game were over, I was exhausted, down on one knee, head in my hands, and crying tears of joy.
The Blacker the Berry
I’m a second-generation KC native, but so many first-, second-, and third-generation Kansas City natives, Missouri natives, Kansas natives, and Midwestern natives (see the old logo) have waited a long time for this. The Royals, KC’s baseball team, won a championship in 1985 and again in 2015, and those were great, but while baseball is America’s pastime, football is America’s passion. So the Chiefs winning was markedly different, especially since there have been five decades of good-but-not-great, “maybe-next-year” Chiefs teams. Rany Jazayerli, writer for The Ringer.com, wrote a wonderful article, “The Forever Cycle of Chiefs Fandom Has Been Broken,” five days before the Super Bowl. It meticulously detailed the decades of disappointment the Chiefs had given their fans and the city. It’s a great historical archive, if you will, that every diehard Chiefs fan knows all too painfully well.
That’s why, when Damien Willams carried that ball into the end zone with 1:18 left in Super Bowl 54, my emotions, all of KC’s emotions, were so incredibly high; we had been so used to being so low for so long— and with one of the greatest comebacks in Super Bowl history, that had all changed. Everyone like myself who ever donned a Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, or Joe Montana (as a Chief) jersey, had spent years in the black pit of failure and despair. Now everyone who dusted off those old jerseys, and even those who bought new ones, were sharing the sweet taste of a long-awaited championship. An old adage rings true here: the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Well, the berry of a Chiefs Super Bowl victory had been ripening (if not over-ripening) on the vine for a very, very long time, but I can attest to the the fact that this juice was and is as sweet at it gets. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime flavor that can (and did) make grown men cry (myself included) over a simple game.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait…and Work
Now that the Chiefs, their city, their region (“the great state of Kansas” anyone?), and their fanbase have another Lombardi trophy to add to their display case, it feels like a lifetime of hard work has finally paid off. I know I did nothing on the field—most didn’t. But I, along with thousands if not hundreds of thousands of loyal fans in the Chiefs Kingdom, invested a lifetime of emotional, mental, and financial capital to see not only the Chiefs win, but the communities that rally around them win as well. Winning, victory, and success— all of them could be used to describe this NFL season for Kansas City, but I find that another word equally as fitting: gratifying.
In fact, the level of gratification for this victory, as I just mentioned, was like a vine-ripened berry that was blackened with the best juice. Naturally, it was the waiting, 50 years worth, that made for such sweetness. There are many areas of life where waiting, even long-suffering, reaps greater rewards: the finest art, architecture, relationships, careers, and cuisine (I’m thinking slow-smoked ribs and a barrel-aged bottle of bourbon) are all achieved with time and patience. It’s almost a universal principle: quality increases in direct relation to time spent. Even my mother says, “anything worth doing is worth doing well”— another adage I hold true. Of course, doing things well takes time; that’s what makes them so gratifying. Unfortunately, in an era of quick fixes, easy diets, fast-tracks, and instant gratification, time invested towards the production of a quality product, something immensely more gratifying than the quick and easy, has become something to be maximized, minimized, and even eliminated. That’s also why so many NFL fans were so sick and tired of watching the New England Patriots win Super Bowl after Super Bowl over the last 18 years. Many of their victories were quick, seemingly easy, and quite possibly a result of cheating. I’ll leave the full extent of that accusation to be unpacked for another time, but rest assured, America has been sick of the Patriots for a long time, and the Chiefs’ rise to the top of the AFC has been a refreshing, small-market, “it’s about time” story that many in and around the NFL have enjoyed watching.
It’s not just the waiting, however, that begets quality production; it’s the work that goes along with it. The Chiefs would not have gotten a championship simply by waiting for 50 years. It was also the 50 years of failure that taught the team hard lessons about how to find the right players, develop the right personnel, coach effectively, practice to perfection, and do the work necessary to win. The championship was gratifying not just because the Chiefs beat another team or even a whole season worth of teams to win; it was so gratifying because they put in the work to beat back the demons that came with five decades of failure. And little in life is as gratifying as gaining strength in a place where weakness was so prevalent. That’s why when Antman, actor Paul Rudd and Kansas City native, said, “It [the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl] was the worst experience with the greatest outcome,” I knew precisely what he meant. Each game for the Chiefs in this season’s playoffs was a terrible roller coaster of emotions; one that was the “worst [emotional] experience with the greatest outcome.” Every Chiefs fan knew that this year’s magical run could end that way it has ended over the last half-century: in heart break. And it certainly looked like it was heading that way again when the Chiefs entered the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Thankfully, we in the Chiefs Kingdom know now how it did end— with KC washing away a long history of disappointment and loss.
We Have Risen
That’s something else I’m thankful for, too, that one more corner of my life, even if it is simply my fanatical love for my football team, is now marked with victory. That’s one of the reasons why Americans love sports, specifically football, so much; the cities that host professional teams so often rise and fall mentally and emotionally as a result of what happens on the field. Sports is a communal experience, and some would even argue it’s a religious experience. After all, here I am singing the praises of the Chiefs. It sure sounds religious. Without diving any deeper into the fascinating (and maybe even troubling) religious nature of football fandom and/or sports in general, I’ll just say that after the service….I mean, the game on Super Bowl Sunday, Chiefs fans had risen emotionally, mentally, and maybe even a little spiritually. Once victory was achieved, we all felt the old had was gone and the new had come—I know you’re picking up more of my intentional religious connotation here.
The Grand Allusion
When I started writing this, I had grand theoretical notions about the importance of delayed gratification (e.g. the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment), the neuroscience behind perseverance (e.g. how serotonin improves determination), and even literary allusions to the hero’s journey (e.g. Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology) as they related to the Chiefs long-awaited win. I quickly realized those lofty intellectual parallels were beyond what my feeling wanted to say in simpler terms: this football season was deeply emotional for me and all of the Chiefs Kingdom. And like all instances when emotions become the driving force, reason often takes a back seat.
I was glad that I got to share the game with my wife and my son. They get excited for me more than they do for the Chiefs. Although, I am currently indoctrinating… I mean, raising my son to root for the Chiefs. I certainly can’t raise him a Las Vegas Raiders fan— that’s child abuse and gross. It brought a huge smile to my face to watch Jameson (mind you while he was wearing his Batman costume) grab a small Chiefs flag, wave it over his head, and say unprompted by me, “We did it! We did it!” shortly after the Chiefs won. That’s all the people of Kansas City ever wanted to do. That’s all people of any fandom, faith, or family ever want to do: raise their banner, waive it proudly, and joyously proclaim, “We did it! We did it!” It makes us believe we might actually be able to do it in other areas of our life as well.
A Perfect Season
The Chiefs have a good shot at returning to the Super Bowl in the years to come. We have a great team lead by a great, young quarterback. But when we do return to the big game and have the chance to waive our banner in victory once, maybe even twice more, as is my new hope, I don’t believe it will be as sweet as this one. Super Bowl LIV was a long time coming. This is the one that changed everything. Patrick Mahomes on the sidelines of the game, down in the fourth quarter, kept reassuring his teammates they would regain the lead, and more than that, “they [the team, the fans, the media, and the sports world were] going to talk about this forever!” For KC fans, that couldn’t be more true. Maybe it’s because of the waiting, or the work, or the washing away of the past, or maybe it was because it just feels so good to have our hopes finally come to fruition. Whatever the reason, we will “talk about this [championship] forever.” It was the perfect season for a city, a fanbase, and a coach, all of which waited for a very long time, that couldn’t deserve it more.