Growing up at the Dallas Mount Vernon was, Lamar remembers, a fairly relaxed and uneventful experience, at least until the world discovered H. L. Hunt. "They were pretty easy on us," Lamar says. "My mother used to say she'd spanked herself out on Hassie and didn't have any spanking left for me. I can remember hiding from my father one day because I knew when he came home he was going to teach me to swim, but I was afraid of swimming, not of him." When Lamar entered Southern Methodist University in Dallas it was no longer a secret that he might have the richest father in the world. Some of his football teammates called him Poor Boy, an unimaginative nickname that Lamar endured with good humor. In one way the nickname was appropriate. Lamar seldom has any cash in his pocket.
Not long after graduating from SMU, where his athletic labors had lifted him to the position of third-string end, Lamar tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals, a pro football team, at a time when pro football was as foreign to Texas as downhill ski racing. Curiously, Clint Murchison Jr., son of probably the second-richest man in Dallas, tried to buy the same team at about the same time. Earlier Murchison had tried to buy the old Dallas Texans, who moved to Baltimore and became the Colts, and had been brushed off by National Football League Commissioner Bert Bell. Lamar and Clint did not know each other, had never even met, but within a few years each had a pro football team in Dallas—the Cowboys of the NFL for Clint and the Texans of the new American Football League for Lamar. For three seasons Dallas saw a sort of civil war, and a lot of businessmen didn't know which way to jump. The Murchisons were a more social family and had a more diverse empire. But it was very dangerous to underestimate the Hunts. One result was that a great many Dallas business firms declared themselves neutral and deprived themselves of football altogether, refusing to buy blocks of tickets to the games of either team.
The feelings ran so deep that even Lamar was sometimes uneasy about personal relationships. In 1960 he gave a party in honor of his first wife's dentist at the ordinary middle-class house in which Lamar then lived—a brick home with a broken dishwasher, an old car in the driveway and a basketball hoop above the garage door. One of the guests was Don McIlhenny, a former SMU teammate who later played for Green Bay and had just joined Murchison's Cowboys as a halfback. As McIlhenny was leaving the party, Lamar followed him out to the porch.
"Don, I hope you're not mad at me," Lamar said.
"For what?" asked McIlhenny.
"For starting this new league."
"I'm not mad at you. I think it's great," McIlhenny said.
"Swell!" said Lamar. "Come over again one evening and we'll shoot some baskets."
In the three seasons that Lamar's Texans competed with the NFL Cowboys for the Dallas audience, attendance at the Cotton Bowl was announced as "estimated" rather than by turnstile count. The announced attendance had very little to do with the number of people in the stands. Lamar gave away tickets with groceries and inside bags of potato chips. He sponsored a Friend of the Barber Day, which allowed any barber in a white jacket to enter the Cotton Bowl free, and it wound up with anybody in a white shirt being admitted. Once Lamar hired a number of girls and put them into a fleet of foreign cars to cruise the city selling tickets. One of these girls was a pretty schoolteacher, Norma Knobel, who later became Lamar's second wife. Lamar says now that in 1962, his team's last year in Dallas before moving to Kansas City, the genuine attendance average was 10,000 per game. "The Cowboys drew only 9,800," he says, "but we had a championship team and they were losing, so beating them was nothing to be proud of."
The two most discouraging times for Lamar in the early days of the AFL were when the Denver franchise almost folded in 1960 and when Lamar realized that Harry Wismer's New York Titans were a fiasco. Without a successful team in New York, the AFL faced extinction. The rumor was that Lamar's fortune kept the Denver and New York franchises alive. "The NFL people used to claim that I owned every team in the league," Lamar says. "It wasn't true. The only money I ever put into a team other than my own was when the AFL took over Wismer's franchise in 1962 and I contributed my share."