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Catching Fire
Michael Silver
December 08, 1997
With a blistering defeat of the 49ers, the Chiefs moved from an underdog to a favorite in the AFC playoff picture
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December 08, 1997

Catching Fire

With a blistering defeat of the 49ers, the Chiefs moved from an underdog to a favorite in the AFC playoff picture

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The spread was enormous. That much was obvious. The Kansas City Chiefs had not yet digested their most resounding victory of the '90s, and now there were Portobello mushrooms, carved rump roasts, pumpkin cheesecake slices and countless other offerings at their disposal in a private club on the north side of Arrowhead Stadium. Two hours after Kansas City's stunning 44-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, while players, coaches and relatives scarfed with abandon, three mavericks sat at a table in the middle of the lounge with empty plates and solemn stares. Noting the union of coach Marty Schottenheimer, wideout Andre Rison and linebacker Derrick Thomas—the ultimate K.C. power lunch—one Chief remarked, "Check it out: a meeting of the minds."

More accurately, it was a meeting of the hearts. For Schottenheimer, Rison and Thomas, three of pro football's most emotional men, Sunday's demolition of the 49ers served as the latest validation of their ardent faith in a dream—winning a Super Bowl. To appreciate where they are today, consider that nine months ago Schottenheimer was a coach under fire, Rison a thrice-discarded nomad and Thomas a frustrated free agent who was blasting the Kansas City front office. Now they are the leaders of a 10-3 team that has improbably emerged as a Super Bowl contender, one that ended San Francisco's 11-game winning streak and dealt the Niners (11-2) their worst defeat in more than a decade.

"Who could have called it?" Rison asked in the aftermath of Sunday's game, in which he burned the 49ers for 117 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. His message was clear: The Chiefs are more comfortable in the role of underdog than Harrison Ford. Kansas City played five games in November and was favored in none of them, yet the Chiefs went 4-1, losing only to the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Nov. 9 after quarterback Elvis Grbac had gone down the previous week with a broken collarbone. Kansas City has trailed in 10 of 13 games, and six of its victories have not been secured until the final seconds.

Before Sunday the Chiefs weren't taken seriously; now, though they remain a game behind the Denver Broncos in the AFC West, their bandwagon is more crowded than Boogie Nights protagonist Dirk Diggler's drawers. "All our critics can decide what this victory meant," said Thomas, who sacked Steve Young once and spent much of the game in the 49ers' backfield. "All I know is, if we play together like we're capable of playing, there's nobody we can't beat."

It helps that the Chiefs play together off the field as well. "Forget about the scores," says 37-year-old running back Marcus Allen, who ran for a touchdown and threw for another to tight end Ted Popson. "What I love about this team is the people. There's a family feeling—guys who love each other and are fighting for the same cause." Allen says the '95 Chiefs, who went 13-3 before being stunned by the Indianapolis Colts in the division playoffs, were similarly close-knit. However, he believes last year's team, which went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, "had a fractured chemistry, some people with their own agendas. This year that's gone, and we're being rewarded. I like to think that the human spirit prevails."

Spirits were flowing on the Monday before the game when, on the heels of the Chiefs' 19-14 victory at Seattle, nearly a dozen players congregated at a bar in the Westport section of Kansas City before separating into smaller groups. One dinner party included Rison, Thomas, rookie quarterback Pat Barnes and veteran cornerback Mark McMillian. Thomas is as commanding a social presence as any NFL player, but he was somewhat muted in the company of Rison, who routinely puts his varied and often conflicting emotions—joy, rage, loyalty, impudence, vexation and neediness, for starters—on display.

Riding with Rison is the closest thing in the sports world to living inside a hard-core rap track. First, meet Rison's companion, a hip-hop producer and designated cell-phone-answerer named 5. Then watch Rison take the phone from 5 and talk to his former fiancée, singer-rapper Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes of TLC, while accepting a Spiderman Pez dispenser from a Chiefs fan. (Spiderman is Rison's latest nom de gridiron.) Now listen to Rison describe a recent off day during which he traveled to New York City to cut a single with young hip-hop diva Foxy Brown: "I was at the Rihga Royal [hotel], and you'll never believe who was in the elevator. Muhammad Ali. It was just me, him and his wife, and I was going crazy. Everything about me as an athlete—the cockiness, the showboating, the guaranteed victories—came from Ali. I couldn't believe it, but he knew who I was. He asked me up to his room, and we sat there for an hour. He talked, and his wife helped translate. We talked about football, boxing, life, but it didn't really matter what was said. It was Ali, man. I was like a little kid."

Finally, step with Rison into McMillian's sports-utility vehicle and experience Tupac Shakur's All Eyez on Me CD, played at a sternum-shaking volume. Rison identifies with the slain rapper and is particularly fond of the song Heartz of Men, a point he drove home by restarting the tune at least a dozen times during the trip to a north Kansas City club. Rison rapped along with Shakur—"No longer livin' in fear, my pistol close in hand. Convinced that this is my year, like I'm the chosen man"—and drew connections between his life and Tupac's. Shakur spent eight months in jail for sexual assault, but not before releasing a CD that made him one of the hottest rappers in the industry.

Rison flourished with the Atlanta Falcons in the early '90s, but then he suffered during disastrous stints with the Cleveland Browns, in '95, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who cut him in November '96. He was signed by the Green Bay Packers and scored the first touchdown in the Pack's 35-21 Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots last January. "That touchdown got me out of jail," Rison yelled. "Now I'm the chosen man."

Rison was happy in Green Bay, but coach Mike Holmgren was committed to Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman as his starting wideouts. Figuring that Rison would be disruptive as a backup, Holmgren released him in the off-season. "That hurt my feelings," Rison says, "because he was telling me that I wasn't better than the other guys. I like Mike, but he could have at least let me go to training camp and compete." Rison turned down bargain-basement offers from the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders before the Chiefs came up with $1.8 million over two years.

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