There was a thread on Twitter Sunday soliciting suggestions as to who the coolest Kansas City athletes of all time were. While I was never a true Chiefs fan, I did spend 23 years in the city and have some thoughts on the subject.
First, let’s go ahead and admit this covers the 30-35 years that I’ve been aware of Kansas City athletes. So there won’t be any members of the Scouts or A’s included. And Tom Watson dominated golf for a few years, but I wouldn’t ever say he was cool.
I think I was seven, and not yet a KC resident, when an uncle mentioned the name Amos Otis to me. I didn’t know anything about AO, but his name sure sounded cool. And the way Willie Wilson ran was cool. Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong were cool when the Kings were still in town. Gino Schiraldi, Enzo Di Pede, and Yilmaz Orhan all seemed cool for about five minutes when the MISL was hot. But none of those guys were transcendently cool. Well, maybe Willie was, but he had some competition on his own team for coolest guy status.
Anyway, this are the guys who stood out for me. I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two people who are obvious to others.
- Bo Jackson. One of the coolest athletes ever, in any sport, in any city. It wasn’t just that he could, seemingly, do anything. It was that he didn’t act like any of his freakish accomplishments were that big of a deal. To him, throwing a ball 400 feet on a rope1 was like you or me tossing a wadded up piece of paper three feet into a trashcan. Bo was so cool that when I was debating what Royals jersey to have Santa bring me for Christmas this year, I spent a lot of time with a Jackson 16 jersey at the top of my list.
Joe Montana. He wasn’t really Kansas City’s, the city just rented him for the final two years of his career. But it was a big freaking deal when he arrived. The city tried desperately to claim him, and he politely kept his mouth shut. He knew it was silly. No matter how the 49ers treated him in his final year there, he was always going to be associated with San Francisco. But there’s no doubting that when the Chiefs acquired him, they went from just being a good team to being one of the NFL’s marquee teams.
Frank White. He wasn’t cool in an awe-inspiring way. He was cool in a smooth way that made you admire the way he went about his business. I love the shot of him right before George Brett exploded in the Pine Tar game: casually sitting next to Brett with one foot up on the bench. Brett was already stewing, telling teammates that if they called him out he was going to go kick someone’s ass. Frank just chilled, not seeing any reason to get worked up about something that hadn’t happened yet. He exuded cool.
Derrick Thomas. DT had all kinds of issues off the field. But he was so good on the field that most Chiefs fans looked the other way. Even non-Chiefs fans could not help buy admire the havoc he brought to the football field. Once George Brett began to fade, DT was the most nationally recognized athlete from KC. Unlike Montana, he always seemed to embrace the city as it embraced him, giving him some bonus coolness.
George Brett. The coolest ever. There was a 10-15 year period where every little boy in Kansas City wanted to be him. He was one of the five best players in baseball and played every game all-out. Fathers would point to Brett and say to their sons, “That’s how you play the game.” That style cost him numerous games to injuries each season, but you knew when he was on the field he was going to try to stretch every single into a double, break up every double-play ball, and not take any shit from anyone in the other dugout. Throw in his well known hard partying ways off-the-field, and to a little boy he seemed like everything you wanted to be when you grew up. In many ways, Thomas mimicked his career as his popularity made people overlook a lot of sins in Westport.
Buck O’Neil. OK, this is a stretch. He became famous and cool well after his playing and managing career ended. So I suppose he was more of a cool sports figure than an actual athlete. The dignity with which he lived his life, and the causes that he embraced, were a way of life we can all aspire to.
Still my favorite Bo moment that I witnessed first hand. Anyone who follows baseball knows about his famous throw in Seattle that nailed Harold Reynolds at the plate. I was at a game when he grabbed a ball at the wall, turned, and fired home. The ball didn’t just reach home in the air. It went 20 feet over Mike Macfarlane’s head and hit the screen another 25 feet behind him. And it was still at least 10 feet off the ground. So Bo threw a ball at least 400 feet and it still had another 15-20 feet of range if the net hadn’t interrupted its flight. ↩