By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor, Soccer America
The accolades and tributes you are reading in the aftermath of Lamar Hunt's death are incredible, staggering, almost incomprehensible. They suggest an entrepreneurial colossus, a gargantuan driven by ambition, burning with fervor, consumed by conquest.
Not so, not in the sense that a Jerry Jonesor George Steinbrenner or Don King suck up all surrounding light as would a flesh-and-blood black hole, so obsessed they are with their own personas. Those paeans to Lamar are spiced with poignant anecdotes, slice-of-life stories, heartfelt homages to his gentleness, his dignity, his kindness. Money is power, but life is much more, and despite the billions he controlled - and the millions he lost, much of it in soccer -- after talking with Lamar you came away not dazzled or humbled, but buoyant, your spirit refreshed, your psyche renewed.
In that spirit I offer a few tales, while confessing that outside of my own family and circle of closest friends and colleagues, very few people have touched me as deeply as Lamar Hunt, and though our meetings were infrequent, I will miss him terribly.
'A MOMENT OF WEAKNESS.' He couldn't recall precisely which hotel he was in, or who called him, but he remembered vividly the phone call that first lured him into professional soccer.
A day earlier, a delayed broadcast of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany had aired on American television. The drama, the pageantry, the passion, the patriotism, the historical and cultural impact of two warring nations meeting in a soccer match just 21 years later - it all deeply impressed him. As that phone call proved, in that regard he wasn't alone.
"A group of people, some baseball owners and some other people, were talking about starting a professional league in the United States," said Hunt. "Whoever was on the other end of the line asked me if I'd be interested, and in a moment of weakness, I said yes."
That moment of weakness would eventually cost him tens of millions of dollars. His stake in the United Soccer Association, the Dallas Tornado, morphed into a merger with a rival league, the National Professional Soccer League, after the leagues fought through a financially ruinous 1967 season. Out of the rubble emerged the North American Soccer League with 17 teams in 1968; a year later, only five were left. Investors bolted, Lamar stayed. While backing the Tornado, he propped up the league itself.
"A lot of people got out," he said. "Maybe they were smarter than me. But I'd made a commitment. I had to honor it."
Such loyalty was legendary. His entry into professional sports had come when he cobbled together enough businessmen to found the American Football League in 1960 after the NFL had twice denied his application to put a team in Dallas. Once it caught wind of the AFL, it tried to abort the new league by offering him a Dallas franchise, but he refused to abandon his new partners.
He did abandon Dallas, after the NFL Cowboys and AFL Texans had slugged it out for a few seasons. "I hated to leave, to disappoint so many people," he said. "It was a business decision."
Another business decision, pulling the plug on the Tornado, came in 1981. Three years later, the NASL folded. But when Alan Rothenbergbegan formulating plans for Major League Soccer a decade after the NASL's collapse, Lamar Hunt was first on board.
'DO YOU WANT A RIDE?' A day before Columbus Crew Stadium was to be christened with a match against New England, MLS officials were holding meetings at the downtown Adam's Mark Hotel. A tour of the stadium was scheduled for mid-afternoon and I stepped outside the hotel to get a taxi.
As I waited, the lobby doors opened behind me, and I heard a familiar voice politely ask the valet to fetch his car. I turned. It was Lamar. Alone. We chatted for a minute, during which time two other people came out of the hotel, and stood waiting.
Lamar's car pulled up. No limo, no chauffeur. A rental car. "Do you want a ride?" he asked me. I thanked him, and got in the passenger's side. As I did, he called out to the pair waiting, "Are you going to the stadium?" They nodded, and he said, "Well, come with us."
As we pulled away from the hotel, I asked if the meetings were finished. He laughed and said, "Oh no, it seems like they never end, but I have to be there for the tour, and anyway, any reason to leave a meeting is a good one."
He led the stadium tour as would a proud papa. He chatted amiably and enthusiastically about what it meant for MLS and soccer in America. Other billionaires erect monoliths that are in many ways extensions of themselves, Lamar talked about everybody and everything but himself.
Someone asked about a large rock, to be touched by Crew players for luck as they entered the field, nestled next to a walkway they would take from the locker room. Lamar launched into a discourse about the rock's probable origins and it's significance in the local topography. The detail was astonishing, the delivery concise.
Once a geology major at SMU, always a geology major.
'THIS IS NICE.' Three years later, on my way back to California after attending MLS Cup 2002 at brand-new Gillette Stadium, where the hometown Revs had lost to the Galaxy, 1-0, I flew to Columbus for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final.
Lamar, of course, hadn't lobbied for U.S. Soccer to put his name on its trophy. He was somewhat embarrassed by it. "I can assure you it wasn't my idea," he said.
I'd bumped into Lamar twice a few months earlier, at the 2002 World Cup. After a thunderous opening ceremony featuring thousands of mock soldiers waging mock battles, dancers and flag-wavers flooding the field in colorful waves, and drummers hammering a deafening din, he remarked drily "I thought it was a bit understated." Sense of humor, yes.
I saw him again at a U.S. game a few days later, an hour before kickoff, again by himself, just wandering, eyeing the scene outside the stadium, noting architecture and aesthetics, but just as intently observing how quickly and efficiently vehicles and fans and workers were moving. During the tournament, he would visit every one of the 20 stadiums that staged matches in South Korea and Japan. Since watching that 1966 final on television, he'd attended every World Cup except the 1978 tournament in Argentina.
I introduced him to my friend Eddie, whose profuse thanks for his vast contributions to soccer yielded modest thank-yous. Eddie asked him to pose for a picture. He graciously agreed. Eddie thanked him. Lamar thanked Eddie for traveling so far to support the American team.
The mood was rowdier four months later when he and his son, Clark, posed for pictures with jubilant Columbus players and coaches after they'd beaten Los Angeles, 1-0, in the Open Cup final. He was happy, but hardly giddy. As the group slowly dispersed, I congratulated him, then asked if his days as a third-string receiver at SMU perhaps spurred his love of the underdog and fascination with competitive sports and ultimately, winning.
"Well that was a long time ago, and really this is more about the players and coaches and staff and all their hard work. And our fans, they deserve it, too," he said.
Then he paused and looked around, at the vision of a stadium he transformed into reality, and at those fans -- adults and teenagers and children, clad in the team colors of yellow and black, who'd stayed and shivered in the damp cold to share the joy of a championship -- and at the trophy bearing his name, and added, "But I have to admit, this is nice."
A memorial service open to the public for Lamar Hunt takes place on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 1:00 pm CT at Moody Coliseum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Arrangements are being finalized for a follow-up memorial service in Kansas City.