The streets were mostly empty as the sky turned gray over downtown Kansas City.
The temperature had dropped below freezing, and the voices of laughter could be heard from just a few feet away, echoing off the solid surface of the Ice Terrace skating rink at Crown Center.
I kept walking. My right hand holding a notepad and bearing the frozen temperature; my left hand tucked into my coat pocket; my shoulders jutting inward, pinching toward my shoulders — the posture of a man trying to escape the inescapable feeling of dry Midwestern cold.
I had been walking all day. Through shopping malls. Through parking lots. Through the streets of Kansas City. Now my three-hour journey was almost over; and I was craving the warmth of another shopping center.
The stores at Crown Center sit in the heart of 85 acres of offices and hotels and restaurants and retail. It’s one of the prime tourist attractions in Kansas City proper; and perhaps this says something about my city.
There is no beach in Kansas City. The skyline ranks somewhere between average and non-existent — sometimes you have to squint to realize that the collection of tall buildings in front of you is it.
Kansas City is a place to live; not a place to visit.
It’s a town of famous barbecue and fountains and shopping centers; It’s a town with depressing winters and blistering summers; fleeting falls and short-lived springs. A town with a baseball franchise that is major-league in name only. And a town with a world-class arena with no team to play in it.
And, of course, there is football.
The first floor of Crown Center was nearly deserted. It was a Sunday. And it was the afternoon.
I looked around for an ATM. I needed some cash for a caffeine fix, and my wallet was empty.
I walked past stores, past Fritz’s — a restaurant where they bring you your food on a train — and past a Z-Teca that looked like it belonged in 2001.
Finally, with cash in hand, I approached the counter of the coffee shop.
A small crowd had gathered in front of the counter. And their eyes were focused on the small HDTV perched next to the espresso makers and coffee mugs.
The game was in the fourth quarter by now. And in the background, you could hear the faint sound of radio broadcasters.
After a few moments, a family approached the scene with a stroller and a collective look of curiosity.
The man glanced up at the television and his eyes began to widen.
“Honey,” he said, breaking the silence. “How long were we eating?
His wife — her hands on the stroller and her attention on the baby — stayed silent.
“Honey,” the man said again. “The Chiefs were down three 30 minutes ago… now they’re down 20.”
I looked at the man, looked at another face of exasperation, and turned my head back to the television.
The thought and events of the past 72 hours aligned in my head. How did I get here, standing in a quiet and sober and artificial shopping center, watching the Chiefs lose another playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
It was their fourth straight home loss in the postseason, a dizzying feat of futility.
And, somehow, I had managed to miss them all.
The phone began to vibrate on Friday evening. I was steering my 2001 Ford Taurus through suburbia, on my way to cover a high school basketball game in South Kansas City.
I dug the phone out of my front pocket…
The voice on the other end of the line was one of my editors at The Kansas City Star.
The conversation could have been timed in seconds.
Editor: What are you doing this Sunday?
Me: Uh… nothing… why?
Editor: Well, we think we might have a story for you. We’re not sure, but something Chiefs related.
Me: … Like a fan story? Like go to a bar and watch the game?
Editor: Maybe. We’re still thinking about it… but are you free?
Me: Sure… I’m game for anything.
I pulled the phone down from my ear and clicked END. OK, I thought. I can handle this. Maybe I’ll watch the story at a bar. Maybe I’ll go to Arrowhead and interview some tailgaters. This could be cool.
I’ll still be able to watch the game. The streak will still end. This is the year.
Memories are a funny thing. Sometimes they’re sharp and clear, ready to be pulled from the shallowest recesses of your brain without hesitation, like the biggest folder in the file cabinet.
But, of course, sometimes they are shadowy and blurry, beaten and molded into new shapes … until they’re not even really memories anymore, just scenes in your mind, curious recollections of lost memories.
I feel like I should point this out. But I also feel like I should say this: I don’t know which category these following memories fall in.
I can’t remember not remembering them, nor can I remember forgetting them.
But still, something feels foreign about them, like I filled in the gaps with dreams or other stories from the past.
But here’s what I do know: When I was in the first grade, I sat in Ms. Bingham’s class at Nall Hills Elementary on a Monday morning and listened to my classmates talk about their weekend.
This was January of 1994 — a different time. And as I sat there, I remember looking across the room at a classmate named David. Now, this part may not be central to this story – but it is most central to my memory.
David didn’t talk. He wasn’t mute. And he wasn’t dumb. He was simply a small, rather sickly looking 1st grader with a fear of talking. So he didn’t.
For months that year, David didn’t say a word. Not at recess. Not at lunch. Not during reading class. Not a word. I don’t remember exactly how he managed to get by – but he did. He would write stuff down on a notebook. And he would do his work. And he was just the first grader who didn’t talk. Didn’t all elementary schools have one of those kids?
So on this Monday in January, another day of dry Midwestern cold, Ms. Bingham stood up in front of the class and asked us about what had happened the previous weekend? It was like current events for first graders.
Oh, you watched cartoons? Excellent. You went to your brother’s basketball game? Great. Your family went out to eat at Godfather’s? Wow.
So the discussion started, and after a few seconds, David scribbled something on his notebook and held it high in the air with two hands.
“Oh, David, what does that say,” Ms Bingham said, walking closer.
“The Chiefs… are going… to the… Super Bowl,” she said, reading David’s notebook.
“Well, not yet,” Ms Bingham said. “But they’re getting there.”
Yes, the Chiefs had just beaten the Houston Oilers in the AFC Divisional playoff round. They were heading to Buffalo to play the Bills in the AFC Championship Game. And in my mind, my innocent 7-year-old mind, they WERE going to the Super Bowl. They weren’t going to lose.
Even David knew it.
This is where the memory gets blurry. And I’m not sure what happened, or how much of the game I saw.
But I know this: I was inside the All-American Indoor Soccer center when I heard the news.
The Chiefs had lost.
Was I there to play a game? I don’t think so. I was only 7. Was I there to watch one of my older siblings. Probably. That must have been it.
But I can’t remember. All I can remember is the scene inside the building when the game was over. I can remember the glum faces. And the feeling of loss. No Super Bowl. Not this year.
And I remember the cherry icy sign at the concession stand. It was red and blue. And I think there was a white cat on the logo. Maybe not. My memory is hazy.
I woke up early on Sunday. I needed coffee. And I needed a plan.
I had received my assignment the night before.
Editor: Rustin, we want you to go around the city and talk to people who have to work during the game. Think about it this way: For three hours, Kansas City stood still… but some people still have to work.
As my editor explained the assignment, I began to think about David and the sign he’d held up in the air. It had been 17 years since the Chiefs had won a playoff game. 17 years since David had spoken up in the only way he knew how.
My memory began to play hopscotch. I remembered going to a 6 p.m. church service during the end of the Chiefs’ heartbreaking home loss to the Colts in the divisional round in 1995. But why? Why did my family skip playoff football for Church?
We’re Catholic. And we went to church every Sunday. But why did we feel we HAD to go during the Chiefs game.
I remembered riding along a dark and lonely I-70 in 1997, when the Chiefs had folded against John Elway and the Broncos at Arrowhead, another excruciating home loss in the divisional round. My dad and I were listening to the radio, on our way home from a weekend trip to Manhattan to see my grandparents, and the broadcast told the story.
I remember my heart stopping when Elvis Grbac danced around the pocket, looking for a miracle on the final play. The ball would fall to the turf. And I would turn the radio off.
Six years later, I would be trapped in an elementary school gymnasium, refereeing youth basketball as the Chiefs lost to the Colts in a shootout at Arrowhead after another 13-3 season and another bye.
This was Kansas City. Make the playoffs. Earn a bye. And lose.
In 2006, the narrative pushed along; the Chiefs would slide into the playoffs once more.
This time there was no bye. This time there was no home game. There was just a loss; an embarrassing performance against the Colts in Indianapolis.
And as then Chiefs coach Herm Edwards shook his head on the sidelines, dazed by the disastrous outcome, I sat inside an elementary school gym, officiating a Kindergarten girls basketball game, listening for updates from a father with portable radio headphones in his ears, missing my fifth Chiefs playoff game in a row.
The First Stop
The church parking lot was nearly empty when I pulled up. I opened the car door and looked for a sign of life.
A father and his daughter walked past me, nodding and smiling.
I had arrived at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Westport a few minutes past schedule.
This was my first stop. I had planned on searching for a few churchgoers — parishioners, in this case — as they entered church.
Mass started at 11 p.m. — one hour before the Chiefs were to kick off against the Baltimore Ravens — and I was searching for any sign of red; any sign that said Chiefs fan; any sign of a person planning his day around this town’s secular religion.
But I was late. And so, here was my choice. Leave without my interview — leave without any proof of Priest Holmes jerseys or Chiefs Starter jackets — or crash the service.
I walked inside.
I had a recorder in my jacket pocket. And I was here for business reasons. But, hey, maybe I could just look for signs of Chiefs jerseys and then leave. No harm, right?
I sat down in the back pew. The service had just begun. And in seconds, I came across the first sign: A young, girthy man, maybe 26 or 27, wearing a Tony Gonzalez jersey.
Red was everywhere. On young kids. On moms. Entire families bonded by a team.
And for some reason, I couldn’t leave. Maybe it was the weight of Catholic guilt stored up inside me. Maybe I realized I needed to talk to these people. At least one. So I stayed. Through the homily. Through communion. Through the final prayers.
After the final song, I walked out quickly and waited on the parish steps.
The young man from inside walked out behind me. His name was Josh, and his Tony Gonzalez jersey poked out from his coat.
He told me he was on his way to watch the game with friends. He walked fast. Down the street, a car with a Chiefs flag in the window drove by.
The Second Stop
Kayla Hathaway paced back and forth, a pizza cutter in her right hand and a Jamaal Charles jersey on her back.
She flipped open her cell phone, confirmed the news that had filtered from the kitchen and began to spin her blade over a piece of hot pie.
This was all she could do. The Chiefs were playing the Baltimore Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium, the first home playoff game in Kansas City in seven years, and Hathaway, an 18-year-old from Merriam, was stuck here, behind the counter of the Original Pizza at Oak Park Mall.
At Arrowhead Stadium, nearly 22 miles away, Charles had just run 41 yards for a touchdown, and the muffled sound of an energized Chiefs radio broadcast could be heard from inside the pizza stand’s kitchen.
“I love him,” Hathaway said.
And for a moment, Hathaway could almost envision the Chiefs’ first playoff victory in a generation — even if she was stuck at work, holding those feelings in, deprived of watching the biggest Chiefs game in years.
“I always have faith,” Hathaway said, the joy from Charles’ touchdown making the impending letdown even more demoralizing.
But on this Sunday afternoon, with the game still in the first half, and the pizza still hot, the Chiefs’ 30-7 loss to the Ravens was still a worst-case-scenario thought.
I left the mall, the sound of the radio broadcast playing in my ears.
The day wasn’t over. I still had time to watch this game; to finally witness the heartbreak on live and on television … on my own terms.
By the third quarter, Chiefs fan Orlester Jones was shaking his head inside Gates Bar-B-Q on Main Street.
“Business will pick up in a second,” Jones said, glancing at the almost empty dining room. “After the game.”
By the fourth quarter, the mood at the skate rental desk at the Crown Center Ice Terrace had become, well, cold and icy.
Even for a bitterly cold Sunday in January, business had been slow all day. A man named Alfred Baca stood behind the counter. He talked about missing the game. And about working at the ice terrace. And, well, what else could he talk about?
“I just heard about (Dexter) McCluster’s fumble and the turnovers,” Baca said, “so I’m pretty much done with that game.”
My Sunday journey through Kansas City was nearly complete. And from Oak Park Mall to Crown Center — from the heart of Westport to downtown — a feeling of gloom was setting in.
Still time, I thought. I can still see this game.
Maybe some day it will happen. Maybe some day, the Chiefs will make the playoffs again. Maybe next year. And maybe I’ll find myself a couch and a television — and I’ll watch every play.
But on another cold Sunday in Kansas City, I spent my day nibbling at the crumbs and leftovers of another playoff loss.
I was standing inside Crown Center, sipping on my turtle mocha, and I looked at the television with the gruesome image of failure, and I quickly realized one thing.
I still had work to do.
Just a few paces away, a middle-aged woman named Ronda stood behind the counter in The Best of Kansas City store.
The sound of a dispirited Len Dawson on the Chiefs radio broadcast echoed through the empty store, and Gentry just smiled and shrugged.
“They’ve fallen apart,” she said.
She had been forced to follow the game here; and after a surprising number of Chiefs fans had shown up on Saturday night to buy last-minute items for the game, she was actually rather excited about it.
But now she was alone in her store, surrounded by some of the ‘best’ this city has to offer: Famous barbecue sauces, upscale chocolate, posters of the some of Kansas City’s most idyllic views, and the sound of another Chiefs playoff loss didn’t match the surroundings.
“The third quarter sounded really ugly,” Gentry said. “At this point, I’m happy to have just heard it and not seen it.”