The Kansas City Chiefs last played in the Super Bowl 50 years ago, famously defeating the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in New Orleans at Tulane Stadium, which no longer exists.
What follows are three unconnected Mississippi stories you hopefully will find interesting from that fourth Super Bowl:
• Jacksonian Noland Smith, famously nicknamed “Super Gnat” and one of the most exciting kick returners in the history of the sport, has a Super Bowl championship ring from that game, even though he was no longer a Kansas City Chief when it was played.
• Madison resident Jim Walker is the proud owner of two perfectly preserved 45-yard-line tickets from that game. The tickets were never used.
• Super Bowl IV was the only Super Bowl my late mother, Carrie Cleveland, ever attended. But I am not certain she actually watched a single play.
And so we begin with Super Gnat. You look at Noland Smith and you wonder how in the world this man could have played professional football. He stands 5-feet-6 inches short. He weighs only a few pounds over his playing weight of 154 pounds. He is now 76 years old, retired after putting in 44 years working for the city of Jackson’s recreation department.
Smith was one of the tiniest players in pro football history. “It has been written that I was the smallest to have played,” he said over a cup of coffee earlier this week. “I can’t say for sure.”
Again, it is hard to imagine one smaller. But Smith was a pocket rocket. He could fly. His high school (Brinkley) and college (Tennessee State) nickname was “Jet.” He once ran a 9.4 100-yard dash. He could change directions quicker than you can bat an eye.
Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs’ owner, gave him the nickname that stuck. “He looks like a gnat out there among all those giants,” Hunt said. “Let’s call him Super Gnat.”
In those pre-integration days, Smith had signed with Jackson State after his senior season at Brinkley. But then Jackson State coach John Merritt hired on at Tennessee State and Smith followed. He was a sensation at Tennessee State, where, by chance, legendary Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram happened to see him play in a spring intra-squad game. Stram had gone to look at three other Tennessee State players. He came away much more impressed by Smith. At Stram’s insistence, the Chiefs drafted him in the sixth round of the 1967 draft.
Smith was an instant hit. In his first preseason game, the first time he touched the ball, he returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown. He wore jersey number 46 in that game, the same number he had worn at Tennessee State.
When he went to his locker for the next game, he found jersey No. 1.
“What’s this?” he asked the equipment man.
“Mr. Hunt wants you to wear No. 1,” the guy replied.
Smith took that as a good sign. Of course the KC publicity guy had a different spin. He told reporters that No. 1 was the only number that would fit on Smith’s jersey.
Whatever, Smith led the league in kickoff return yards and average as a rookie, returning one kickoff a record 106 yards for a touchdown. He was also a terror on punt returns and also played as a backup wide receiver. He continued to dazzle in 1968, averaging a league-leading 15 yards per punt return and returning one 80 yards for a score, while also continuing as a kickoff return ace.
Two factors derailed Smith in 1969, Kansas City’s Super Bowl Championship season. One, the NFL then had a 40-man roster limit (as opposed to 53 now), which left little room for return specialists. Two, he suffered a dangerous injury in a game against Cincinnati when he was “clothes-lined” by an opponent on a punt return, breaking facial bones and causing him to have triple vision in his left eye.
It’s hard enough to catch a punt when men nearly twice your size are barreling down the field aiming to maim you. But try doing it when you look up and see three footballs.
Not long afterward, the Chiefs traded Smith to the San Francisco 49ers at mid-season. Thus, he wasn’t there for the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run.
When the Chiefs did make the Super Bowl, Smith could have gone to the game. He was back in Kansas City by then, working at his off-season job at a beer distributorship. But the owner of the company was putting on a big Super Bowl party and asked Smith to come schmooze with his guests. And he did that.
Yes, Smith says, he pulled for his former teammates, many of whom remain his pals to this day.
“We really were like a family with the Chiefs,” he said. “We did everything together, not just football. When I got to the 49ers it was so different. You didn’t see each other except at practice. The Chiefs were family.”
And the Chiefs rewarded their Super Gnat for his role in the championship season. He received not only his Super Bowl ring, but Super Bowl cuff links, a tie clasp and necklace, all replete with diamonds. He also received half a winner’s share for the KC victory, which amounted to $7,500.
That was a lot of money for someone who was making the league minimum salary ($12,000 at the time).
That turned out to be Smith’s last season in football. He still ranks 16th on the NFL’s all-time list for kick return average (26.6 yards per return). He still goes to the Chiefs’ alumni reunion every year and stays in close touch with many of his teammates including Jan Stenerud, Mike Garrett and Otis Taylor.
“No regrets,” he says. “I loved every minute of it. I loved the challenge of returning punts and kickoffs. Yeah, it was dangerous, but I loved the challenge.”
Madison’s Jim Walker grew up in Gulfport, 700 feet from the beach. In 1969, when he was an eighth-grader, his mother worked for Gulfport mayor Billy Meadows, who came into possession of two Super Bowl tickets. Meadows gave the tickets to Walker’s mother. These were prime tickets, at about the 45-yard-line. Yet, face value was only $15. Tickets to Sunday’s Super Bowl are scaled from $1,000 to $5,000 and many folks are paying much higher scalper rates.
Walker says his parents, both football fans, had planned to attend. Walker was jealous. He was a big fan of Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson. But something came up. Walker doesn’t remember exactly what, but his parents could not go. Walker was too young to drive himself. The tickets went unused and Walker forgot about them.
Fast forward 35 years to 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, the beast that destroyed so much of the Gulf Coast, including the Walkers’ 47-year-old home. His parents, since deceased, drove to Madison as the storm neared. In the aftermath, Jim Walker drove to Gulfport to assess the damage.
The home was a total loss. As Walker rummaged through the remains, he found a box that hadn’t been flooded. He opened the box and found an envelope. He opened the envelope and found the 35-year-old Super Bowl tickets in mint condition. He also found a framed certificate decreeing Jayne Mansfield, famous actress and entertainer, an honorary citizen of Gulfport. Mansfield had been performing regularly on the Coast before she was killed in a tragic automobile accident. The Gulfport mayor never had a chance to make the presentation.
Now then, fast forward to 2017 when Jim Walker decided to see what those tickets might be worth. He sent them to a California company that grades and preserves such historic items and was instantly offered $4,000 for the pair. He didn’t sell.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to do with them,” he said. “I’ve still got ’em.”
He does know what team he will pull for Sunday. “The Chiefs, of course,” Walker said. A Len Dawson fan 50 years ago, he likes Patrick Mahomes these days.
I have first-hand knowledge of this next episode. My mother, Carrie Cleveland, was a huge football fan. She cared nothing for the X’s and O’s of the game, but she loved the pageantry of the sport. She loved the games. So when my father scored three tickets to the fourth Super Bowl, off we went. These were superb tickets, 45-yard line, fairly high up in Tulane Stadium, a great view.
We got there early on a gray, damp overcast day as I remember. My mother, my brother Bobby and I sat in the appointed seats. My dad went to the press box. We were all pulling for the Chiefs. Jerrell Wilson, the Chiefs punter had played at Southern Miss and was a friend of the family. Dad probably got those tickets from Wilson.
We were watching the pre-game ceremonies shortly before kickoff when Mama suddenly sat upright and seemed to try to catch her breath. Clearly, she was excited about something. She craned her neck, kept staring down at something.
This went on for a few seconds. Finally, I asked, “Mama, what is it?”
She still couldn’t talk. She just pointed, and Bobby and I looked in that direction.
And there we saw him, coming up the aisle – none other than Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper and Mr. Coffee, himself. Mama was a Yankees fan. We all were. DiMaggio was impeccably dressed, suit and tie, his salt and pepper hair perfectly in place. He looked as if he were walking right out of one of those Mr. Coffee commercials.
And he kept coming our way. And Mama kept getting more and more excited. And he kept coming until he turned into the row just below us and sat just a couple feet below Mama’s high heels.
But before he took his seat, he glanced at Mama – she was drop-dead gorgeous – and smiled.
I thought she might die, then and there. She would have died happy.
But she didn’t. The game began. Len Dawson and the Chiefs dominated. I thought Minnesota quarterback Joe Kapp might get decapitated before it was over. Occasionally, one of Jerrel Wilson’s punts would soar above us – and we were just a few rows from the top.
But I’m not sure Mama ever saw any of it. Neither is Bobby. Every time we glanced over at her, she was looking at Joe D.