As coach Marty Schottenheimer began to speak, one sound resonated through the Kansas City Chiefs' locker room on a bitter-cold Sunday evening last January in Arrowhead Stadium. It was a loud wail, not unlike the kind you hear from the widow at a young man's funeral. "We had our opportunities, men, and we just didn't take advantage of them," Schottenheimer said, louder than he wanted, trying to be heard over the plaintive cries. "The score is what it is. Nothing we can do now. The worst emotion is self-pity."
Now he had to stop, because the noise was so intrusive. About then, running back Marcus Allen walked out of the room and into the shower, so Schottenheimer could finish. Allen, known for his never-let-'em-see-you-sweat image, pushed away those trying to console him. The Chiefs had just suffered a stunning 10-7 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and Allen could not handle it. Neither could cornerback Mark Collins. Tears staining his cheeks, he walked to the equipment room and smashed his forehead into the door. Once, twice, at least 10 times. "This can't happen!" he screamed again and again. Defensive end Neil Smith threw his helmet against a wall, and it split in two.
Seven months later, as he sits in a room at the Chiefs' training camp in River Falls, Wis., Allen is his old self. His polo shirt and pressed shorts and spotless deck shoes perfectly complement his cool look. You are sure when it comes time to discuss his emotional locker room display, he will try to laugh it off. Instead he fixes you with a serious stare.
"I cried for me, I cried for the team," Allen says. "It is a time I will never forget. To have the Super Bowl snatched away like that was devastating. Driving home that night, the city was so still. You could hear a pin drop, like Kansas City was mourning the death of a president."
And now? "Failure is not an option," he says. "We must get to the Super Bowl."
In 30 years so much has changed, and so much hasn't. Kansas City met the Green Bay Packers in the first AFL-NFL Championship Game, in January 1967, just as the two teams will meet again in Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997.
Failure is not an option. Nor was it for Vince Lombardi's Packers. They faced so much pressure from the established and holier-than-thou NFL leading up to that first title game that the granite coach suffered from insomnia. The '96 Packers will face similar pressure in New Orleans because the NFC has won the last 12 Super Bowls.
Lombardi's presence can still be felt in Green Bay. Packers quarterback Brett Favre recently moved to a neighborhood west of town, and his drive home takes him west on Lombardi Avenue, north on Packerland Drive and then west on a road that runs past the Lombardi Middle School.
The Chiefs carried the banner for the underdog AFL 30 years ago, just as they will carry the baggage for the underachieving AFC next Jan. 26. Three decades ago Kansas City had a shy and conservative millionaire owner, Lamar Hunt; a coach, Hank Stram, who loved to be miked; and a ferocious defense. Today they have the same shy and conservative millionaire owner, a coach who loves to be miked and a ferocious defense.
Packers-Chiefs. It just feels right.