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SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/Families In Sports Fathers And Sons
For Hunts, a bond forged on the field
Published June 12, 2006
Norma Hunt’s eyes still glisten with the preface to tears when she tells the story of Mother’s Day, 1972, when her 7-year-old son went tumbling from a stone urn while playing on the back porch of their Dallas home.
The small boy with the father who paid large men to run fast went home in a wheelchair.
Six months later, he was back on his feet, but not fully healed. And yet his father, Lamar, the son of an oil baron and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, had an idea to press the bounds of his boy’s rehab.
He wanted Clark to run with him in a Thanksgiving Day road race called the Turkey Trot.
An eight-mile run.
“His mother sort of came unglued, and of course the doctors told her we shouldn’t do it,” Lamar Hunt says today, sharing a favorite story. “Clark had an oozing wound. And I’d never run eight miles in my life.”
Still, Hunt and son entered. They followed a plan meant to give Clark the best chance of finishing, alternating between running and walking at two minute intervals. Norma Hunt parked the car near the start/finish line and met them along the course with cups of water.
The design called for them to cover two miles out along the lake, then double back to their starting point. Then, they would head two miles out in the opposite direction and come two miles back to the finish.
Clark Hunt made the first two miles without pain, but began to struggle on the way back. As they passed the five mile marker, the boy’s pain persisted. They were headed outbound along the lake, away from his mother and the car. Lamar Hunt remembers that it was cold and windy. He kept encouraging his son, but the boy began to cry.
“We can do it, Clark,” Lamar said time and again. “We can do it.”
As they made the final turn the boy looked up, sobbing, but still trudging forward.
“We’ve got to do it, Dad,” Clark Hunt said, “because up there is where the car is parked.”
Lamar Hunt smiles as he leans forward in an armchair at his son’s Dallas home, where they have rendezvoused before heading off to watch the Major League Soccer team that the family owns, FC Dallas. His eyes fire as he tells the story of the Turkey Trot all these years later.
Hunt is quick to point out that he is proud of all four of his children, but it is Clark who has taken the path most similar to his, first as an athlete at SMU, then as an executive in the soccer league they helped launch and, most recently, as chairman of the board with the Chiefs.
“There’s a great determination that Clark showed on that run that he has exhibited again and again since then,” Lamar Hunt said. “I believe it sets him apart. He has always had great determination from an athletic and academic standpoint, and now he has it in business.”
Both of his parents trace it back to the foot injury, and an eight-mile trek that could have harmed a fragile body, but instead ignited a young spirit.
“I think it showed Clark that you can overcome tremendous obstacles,” said Norma Hunt, who is a fixture alongside her husband and son in the family’s box at FC Dallas games, just as she has been for decades at Chiefs games. “Despite all that he went through, he was able to be successful on the athletic field. Like his father, he’s been successful in so many ways. He believes that whatever is put in front of him, he can truly overcome it.
“Sometimes, very good things come out of bad things.”
Playing catch on the field
It is worth noting that, for all the gilded memories that are unique to Clark Hunt, all the sideline passes and big-game perks that were part of his childhood, the cherished moment that comes to his mind first is set in an empty NFL stadium.
That’s where he played catch with his dad.
Typically, the family would fly to Kansas City from Dallas on a Saturday and head directly to Arrowhead Stadium, where Lamar and Norma Hunt turned the owner’s suite into an elaborate, two-story apartment, replete with choir stalls from Spain, a fireplace from France and sports-themed artwork collected on trips around the world.
After settling in, Lamar Hunt would take his son down to the field, where they’d break out a bag of footballs, often alone.
“As a kid, to have the chance to be up there when there wasn’t a game going on — wow,” Clark Hunt said. “On those Saturdays, I could get down on the field and throw the ball with my father. He was great about that.”
Lamar Hunt crafted a game in which he and his son would trade punts, each of them trying to kick a perfect spiral that would nose over and then land, accurately, in the other’s hands. When Clark became a quarterback in high school, Lamar worked with him on passing.
“It’s an extremely special memory,” Clark Hunt said. “It’s something I’ll associate forever with my father.”
When Clark Hunt was considering colleges, his father joined him at each of the seven schools he visited. He chose SMU, but says Lamar Hunt never pushed him in that direction. Clark went with the intention of playing football, but wound up on the soccer team, which he eventually captained.
Lamar Hunt has missed only 19 games in 46 seasons as owner of the Chiefs and their predecessors, the Dallas Texans. He’d missed only three regular-season games when Clark started college: one for a funeral, one for a wedding and one for the birth of his first son, Lamar Jr.
Hunt missed three games in four years to watch Clark play soccer at SMU.
“He picked my games over Chiefs games, which meant a lot to me,” Clark Hunt said. “And it means even more to me now.”
For all his success, Lamar Hunt paints his time at SMU as a one of vast fun, but little achievement. “I was such a mediocre student, it’s embarrassing,” Lamar Hunt said. He spent four years on the football team, but never lettered.
Clark Hunt graduated atop his class at SMU in 1987, an achievement that he attributes more to work and desire than to innate intellect, although he clearly has the latter.
“I figured out how to be a good student because I was motivated to win,” Clark Hunt said. “Same thing with soccer. I was a mediocre soccer player who worked hard enough to become a starter on a nationally ranked team. It was not a talent that I was born with. And it’s not something your family can give you.”
That’s a distinction Clark Hunt points out at several stops on this guided tour of his life, and that Lamar echoes in a separate conversation. Clark Hunt’s first job after school was a plum one at Goldman Sachs in New York, an investment banking firm where his father says he had no connections. He spent two years there before returning to a slot in the Hunt family’s conglomerate.
He had little to do with the sports teams, focusing instead on investment strategies. While working with the family holdings, he started his own financial services business, which he says has been a success.
The 1994 World Cup, held in the U.S., changed his course. The event was a rousing hit. An idea for a major U.S. pro league percolated. Lamar Hunt, a longtime soccer proponent who owned the Dallas franchise in the NASL, but was admittedly gun-shy about doing it again, found himself sucked in by the momentum.
He invited — or, in Clark Hunt’s words “dragged in” — his son to join him in the endeavor, assigning him to assess a unique approach to ownership that the league was floating: a single-entity structure that would allow investors to share all the franchises, rather than parceling them out.
“We needed the expertise that he had, not because he played soccer, but because he knew how to analyze a business,” Lamar Hunt said. “The whole single-entity approach was new. Somebody had to really analyze it to determine whether it could work.”
Clark Hunt was intrigued, but he wasn’t sure his father should open his heart and wallet to another go-round with so fickle a temptress. Lamar Hunt also was making noise about spending millions to build soccer-specific stadiums, and his son clearly thought that was too risky a venture.
Still, Lamar Hunt had a track record. There had been failures. The NASL collapsed under the weight of its stars’ salaries. World Team Tennis, another Hunt signature, has survived for 30 years in varied states of health, but never captured a large national audience. But his idea for the AFL was akin to Columbus choosing to sail west, and after that, don’t you have to follow the man anywhere?
The Hunts went to work, side by side, to build the MLS.
“Lamar is the father of new sports leagues in this country,” Clark Hunt said. “There is nobody like him in that regard. And I had a chance to be there with him on the ground floor with one of them.”
That was neither his expectation, nor his plan. Clark Hunt says that, like his father, who has carried the nickname “Games” since childhood, he always has loved sports. But there are many tentacles to the Hunt’s family business, and Clark Hunt says he never thought sports would be the one to grab him.
MLS changed that. Involved since its inception, he feels connected to it, much as his father does to the NFL. Five years ago, Clark Hunt started upping his engagement with management of the Chiefs, prompted by Jack Steadman, then-chairman of the team’s board of directors, and confidant to Lamar Hunt since before he founded the franchise.
“None of us are getting any younger,” Steadman reminded Lamar Hunt.
Clark Hunt already was attending league meetings and Chiefs upper management sessions, but he was there without portfolio. Steadman suggested he take more responsibility. They named Clark Hunt vice chairman.
His progression came as the Chiefs were in the midst of negotiations for a stadium renovation. The first vote for public funding failed. It came to the ballot again in April, this time split into two measures: one that would renovate the stadiums for the Chiefs and Royals and another that would incorporate a “rolling roof” that would allow Kansas City to host a Super Bowl.
The voters delivered a split decision that had to be considered a victory, but was bittersweet for the Hunts. The renovation was approved, but the voters refused the roof, which had been a dream of the Chiefs’ patriarch, going back to the original plans for the sports complex that opened in 1972.
“For my father, whose legacy — he is so closely intertwined with the Super Bowl,” Clark Hunt said. “To not be able to bring his baby home for him was a disappointment. But he took it like a gentleman, like he always does. He was a very celebratory part of the party.”
Neither flies to the spotlight, but Lamar Hunt is even more understated, publicly, than is his son. He eschews titles, insisting that he be referred to as founder, rather than owner. For most of his life, he insisted on flying commercial, in coach, agreeing to book in first class only when traveling with wife Norma, a grudging concession that she refers to as a “gift.” Recently, Clark Hunt convinced his father to use the family’s private jet in deference to failing health.
“Lamar is as humble and unassuming as they come,” Clark Hunt said. “He has given me plenty of room to be my own person and shape my own way. As I look 30 or 40 years down the road from now, thinking about my own son, I wonder if it would work the same way, and I have a hard time seeing it.
“If my son came in and shared his thoughts sometimes like I do with Lamar, I’d think: ‘What in the world is he doing as part of this business?’”
If Lamar Hunt has thought that, he’s never said it. He gushes about the acumen that Clark Hunt has brought to the enterprise, which he describes as different from his own.
“The entertainment piece of the business is really what I was infected with: the marketing and ticket sales,” said Lamar Hunt, who spent much of that Saturday afternoon before the FC Dallas game jotting down ideas to better promote the team. “That’s not as much Clark’s bent.”
Lamar Hunt’s interests are most evident in the content of 50- and 60-item memos that he will craft after a game, based on observations that he accumulates through the day, which invariably begins for him with a walk-through of the stadium. He never takes notes, yet he opines in detail, with accuracy.
Clark Hunt says he focuses more on finance, asset values, organizational structure and making key hires. The sports franchises capture more of his attention than they used to, but he remains engaged in the family’s other businesses in ways his father rarely did.
Lately, Clark Hunt has begun to think of the sports properties as intertwined in something that his father steadfastly refuses to acknowledge: the Lamar Hunt legacy.
“A huge responsibility that I think about all the time is that he has a legacy in sports that no one else in this country has, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that that’s maintained for many, many years to come,” Clark Hunt said. “In the context of the decisions we make, I have to consider how it will affect his legacy. He won’t think about it that way. He’s not interested in creating a legacy. So those of us around him need to think about it and take it seriously.”
A mother's last word
It is story time in the owner’s box at the FC Dallas game, and, prompted by a few questions, Norma Hunt has shifted into a gear reserved for carnival barkers and mothers of sons.
There is more to the story of the rehabilitation from Clark’s foot injury — a supremely painful ordeal which, by the way, Clark Hunt never mentioned during a three-hour conversation that made multiple swings through his childhood.
“Of course they told you about the geese,” Norma Hunt says matter-of-factly, stopping the conversation dead.
The geese? Her son rolls his eyes.
It seems that soon after Clark Hunt returned from the hospital, while he was still confined to a wheelchair, his father came home one afternoon with a dozen baby geese, and a plan to keep his son occupied through the blazing Dallas summer.
Clark would help raise the hatchlings, and when they were ready to live on their own, the family would hold a ceremony. Then, they would march the baby geese through the yard, into a pond, and on to self-sufficiency.
“Clark was still in the wheelchair when we had the parade,” Norma Hunt said.
But not for long after it.