A gen­er­a­tion of scarred Chiefs fans are anx­ious for a play­off vic­tory

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY SAM MCDOW­ELL sm­c­dow­[email protected]­star.com

The first thing Eli Water­man thought about was his fa­ther. In the mo­ments af­ter the Chiefs’ stun­ning loss to the Ti­tans in last year’s play­offs, Water­man cried in the Ar­row­head Sta­dium stands. “Bawled like a baby,” as he de­scribes it.

Back home, his 63-year-old fa­ther had watched the Chiefs for the last time, near­ing the fi­nal days of a bat­tle with lung can­cer. Water­man knew the end was close, and he con­sid­ered stay­ing home with the man who helped sprout his af­fec­tion for the Chiefs. But he thought there would be one more game.

“Be­ing a Chiefs fan, you’d think I’d know bet­ter than to be shocked, right?” Water­man says. “But I was shocked. And when re­al­ity set­tled in, know­ing I’d never watch an­other Chiefs game with him, you feel all these emo­tions.”

“I just let it out.”

Water­man, 33, a mu­si­cian who grew up in south Kansas City and now lives in Ray­town, fell in love with foot­ball along with his dad and brother. Sun­days were hol­i­days, ob­served with home­cooked meals and seats in front of the tele­vi­sion. Neigh­bors joked that they could tell whether the Chiefs were win­ning sim­ply by lis­ten­ing to the yells com­ing from in­side the home.

This is the quin­tes­sen­tial root of Kansas City Chiefs fan­dom, shared by a gen­er­a­tion of mil­len­ni­als who clas­sify them­selves as diehards. It’s their con­nec­tions with fam­ily, friends, co-work­ers, even strangers.

Oh, and there’s one more el­e­ment to be­ing a Chiefs fan.

Heart­break. How could we for­get? All the post­sea­son lows with­out the pay­off. The loy­alty with­out the re­ward.

These fans are out there, ready to share their 25 years of an­guish with any­one who will lis­ten. When The Star sent out a re­quest for mil­len­ni­alaged Chiefs fans to par­tic­i­pate in a story, we re­ceived more than 350 emails in the first hour alone.

These fans have cried. They’ve cursed. They have bro­ken house­hold items. They’ve dis­posed of jerseys and hats. They’ve even lost re­la­tion­ships.

But to their credit, they have never truly given up hope. They keep com­ing back for more, re­ju­ve­nated by the “What if?”

“It’s like a drug,” says Gabriel Ge­orge, 32. “You can’t quit.”

And so on Satur­day af­ter­noon, as nearly 80,000 peo­ple cram into the venue in which Chiefs have not won a play­off game in 25 years, Water­man and his brother will carry on a tra­di­tion that con­nects them to their fa­ther.

They will sit in front of the liv­ing room TV, their emo­tions hang­ing on ev­ery play, hop­ing that maybe— just maybe — this is the year.

ONE THING CHIEFS FANS WANT YOU TO KNOW is that it’s gen­er­a­tional. They did not choose this life of post­sea­son tor­ment. Sure, it’s great to sup­port the lo­cal team. The Chiefs are wo­ven into the fab­ric of the city. There’s a sense of pride when they see the foun­tains light up red at Crown Cen­ter or when they walk past the red flags at the Plaza.

But it’s not about that. Fan­dom was passed down to them. From moth­ers. From fa­thers. To sons. To daugh­ters.

For Gabriel Ge­orge, one of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries is his mom bundling him from head to toe, zip­ping him up in a sleep­ing bag and tak­ing him to the Colts-Chiefs play­off game in 1995. The Lin El­liott game. His mom wor­ried she had given her son frost­bite. Worse yet, she had sub­jected him to a life­long feel­ing of dis­ap­point­ment.

Ge­orge re­turned the fa­vor nearly two decades later, tak­ing his mom to the play­off game in In­di­anapo­lis in 2014. That was more dev­as­ta­tion.

“I just want this so bad for her,” said Ge­orge, 32, who lives in Kansas City. “She’s sunk a lot of re­sources into these guys. I want to see the light at the end of the tun­nel, but I re­ally want her to see the light at the end of the tun­nel one of these days.”

The fam­ily ties drew in 29-year-old Jesse Bates, too. His grand­par­ents raised him, and his grand­fa­ther never missed a game. In 1996, his grand­fa­ther suf­fered a stroke, ren­der­ing him un­able to talk. Still, ev­ery Sun­day, Bates sat next to him, and they watched the Chiefs.

“Even though he couldn’t talk or any­thing, you could tell how ex­cited he would get. He’d al­ways give the ‘OK’ sign when things were go­ing well,” Bates says.

Bates wants to be op­ti­mistic about the post­sea­son for a change. And he says the pres­ence of Pa­trick Ma­homes of­fers as­sis­tance. But “you can’t help but feel like the world is clos­ing in on you a lit­tle bit” when the play­offs be­gin.

He won’t stop root­ing. Even if this week­end goes poorly, he will be back next sea­son, ready to do it all over again. His grand­fa­ther taught perseverance.

The stroke hap­pened over a Thanks­giv­ing week­end. The Chiefs were on TV that day. His grand­fa­ther had just left the house to head to church. As he walked out the door, he turned back to his fam­ily and ut­tered what they be­lieve were his last words.

“Go Chiefs!” PA­TRICK SUDAC, 27, AT­TENDED CHIEFS GAMES ev­ery year of his child­hood, but his dad dropped sea­son tick­ets in 2004. Swore off the team af­ter the in­fa­mous nop­unt play­off loss against the Colts. His fa­ther had moved to Kansas City from Croa­tia as a teenager. Picked up the Chiefs as the best way to feel that he be­longed to a com­mu­nity that so clearly craved foot­ball.

Sudac lives in Bal­ti­more now, but he has never let go. “It’s heart­break­ing be­ing a Chiefs fan,” he says. “But it’s hard for me to give it up.”

In Jan­uary 2014, he thought he fi­nally had his re­ward. He watched the Chiefs’ play­off game in In­di­anapo­lis, a game they led 38-10 in the sec­ond half. Early into the third quar­ter, he told his girl­friend he wanted to go out to the bars af­ter the game. Wanted to cel­e­brate the end of a play­off curse with a few beers.

And, well, you know what hap­pened next. Just as An­drew Luck was leap­ing into the end zone for a touch­down on a fum­ble that bounced off his line­man’s hel­met, Sudac’s girl­friend walked into the liv­ing room, dressed and ready for the af­ter-party. Sudac can­celed the plans.

They broke up that night.

“She left,” Sudac says. “Packed up her stuff and left.”

This year feels dif­fer­ent, he says. Pa­trick Ma­homes

dif­fer­ent. He’s an MVP can­di­date, the owner of 50 touch­down passes. For once, the Chiefs have the bet­ter quar­ter­back in the game. But here’s the na­ture of be­ing a Chiefs fan. The worry. The pes­simism. He wouldn’t even men­tion Satur­day’s game. “I can’t talk about it be­cause I’ll get ner­vous. I find that I’m find­ing ev­ery rea­son why we won’t win this game. That’s what they’ve done to me.”

Sudac has a girl­friend in his new home in Bal­ti­more. She’ll be out of town for this week­end’s game.

THEY’RE READY FOR THE PAY­OFF. Antsy for some­thing — any­thing — to cel­e­brate.

The fans of this gen­er­a­tion were too young to re­mem­ber the last home post­sea­son vic­tory in Jan­uary 1994. They were in di­a­pers. They were in tod­dler-sized Joe Mon­tana or Der­rick Thomas jerseys.

Now, they’re mar­ket­ing sales­men. Lawyers. Mu­si­cians. They work for Cerner. They at­tended high school lo­cally. Went off to col­lege. Came back.

And still, in a city that boasts about its de­vel­op­ment, noth­ing with the foot­ball team has changed.

“I’m not ask­ing for a Su­per Bowl,” says Erin Wells, 28, who lives in Mid­town and will be in at­ten­dance Satur­day. “I just want a home play­off win. I want to be there one time, when the whole sta­dium is wait­ing on some­thing to go wrong, but for just once every­thing turns out to be OK.”

Wells has at­tended ev­ery home play­off game in the past 15 years. She was there for the no-punt game in 2004. The blowout cour­tesy of Bal­ti­more in 2011. The 2016 loss to the Steel­ers, de­spite Pitts­burgh not even scor­ing a touch­down. The loss to the Ti­tans last sea­son.

She’s not alone. These fans want to be there when it all fi­nally hap­pens, so they keep com­ing back. They want to cel­e­brate with 80,000 who un­der­stand what they’ve been through. Can you imag­ine what that would be like?

“I’m go­ing through the thick and thin be­cause if you go through this for 30 years, then it’s go­ing to be amaz­ing when it’s all worth it,” says Adam Un­gashick, 27, a Waldo res­i­dent. “That’s why you do it.”

It felt that way with the Roy­als’ cham­pi­onship in 2015, Un­gashick says. That was an­other lon­gawaited re­ward. But sup­port­ing the Chiefs has a dif­fer­ent feel­ing. “They pull you in and set up these ex­pec­ta­tions, then leave you at the al­tar. It’s just the most pun­ish­ing way to be a fan.”

The dis­ap­point­ment it­self has be­come part of the ex­pec­ta­tion. In their wed­ding vows, Aaron Karst’s wife told him she’d al­ways be there for him af­ter Chiefs losses. It wasn’t a joke.

You can sense it in­side the sta­dium. Brad Boan, a 32-year-old Olathe East grad­u­ate, has at­tended ev­ery home play­off game in the past 25 years. That’s six straight losses, five of them in bru­tal fash­ion.

The fans know. They’re aware of the his­tory. Heck, even Chiefs coach Andy Reid ac­knowl­edged it Thurs­day. He says it won’t play a fac­tor in­side the locker room, but it will in the stands. There’s an aura about Ar­row­head Sta­dium play­off games that will be ever present Satur­day.

“I think when you’re in that sta­dium, as soon as the first thing goes wrong, you start to feel like, ‘Here we go again,’” Boan says. “And I’m usu­ally a pretty op­ti­mistic per­son, but it’s the op­po­site when it comes to the Chiefs and things start go­ing south.”

Jay Hall, 27, says he has given up at­tend­ing play­off games. Not be­cause he’s done sup­port­ing his team. He’s just do­ing all he can to break the streak. Maybe it will take su­per­sti­tion, he says, so he’s watch­ing from home Satur­day.

Maybe it will take Pa­trick Ma­homes. If there’s op­ti­mism among this group, it lies there. With a man who broke ev­ery franchise pass­ing record in the book. Af­ter years of los­ing to the top quar­ter­backs in foot­ball, the Chiefs have one this time.

“It’s just a whole dif­fer­ent ex­cite­ment when you’ve got Ma­homes on your side,” says Justin Koehler, 29, a Rock­hurst High School grad­u­ate.

He’s bet­ting on it. A month ago, Koehler booked a trip to At­lanta for the Su­per Bowl. Bought a ticket for his wife, too.

RE­GARD­LESS OF WHAT HAP­PENS with the Chiefs on Satur­day, it will be an emo­tional week­end for Eli Water­man, the 33-year-old mu­si­cian re­sid­ing in Ray­town.

A week later will be the an­niver­sary of his fa­ther’s death. Two days ear­lier, his son will turn 2 years old.

He hopes to pass his fond­ness for the Chiefs on to his son, heart­break and all, but he in­sists, “I’ll leave that up to him.”

He re­cently bought his son, At­ti­cus, a cou­ple of gifts for his birth­day. He’s look­ing for­ward to see­ing him open one in par­tic­u­lar.

A brand-new Pa­trick Ma­homes jer­sey.

Sub­mit­ted photo

Eli Water­man, right, at­tended last year’s Chiefs play­off game against the Ti­tans at Ar­row­head Sta­dium. His dy­ing fa­ther missed it.

Sub­mit­ted photo

Jesse Bates and his wife, Hol­lie, are diehard Chiefs fans. Bates grew up watch­ing games with his grand­fa­ther.

Sub­mit­ted photo

Adam Un­gashick, right, has at­tended most of the Chiefs’ play­off losses dur­ing his life­time.

Sub­mit­ted photo

Gabriel Ge­orge, left, says it was his mother, Lana, who got him so heav­ily in­volved in root­ing for the Chiefs.

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