Lamar Hunt by David Sweet

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Sports writer and editor David Sweet doggedly gets down to the business of professional sports, especially the early days of pro football, soccer, and tennis, in his biographical Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports. Sweet’s account of the extraordinary son of Texas oil titan H.L. Hunt tracks his successes and failures and innovations. There are many of each.

One of them is Hunt’s founding of the defunct American Football League (AFL), forerunner to the American Football Conference (AFC) of the National Football League (NFL), with which the AFL merged to form the most successful sports league in American history. After requesting in-flight stationery from an American Airlines stewardess on a plane from Miami back to Dallas, 26-year-old Hunt jotted down his thoughts on formulating what he thought it would take to deliver pro football to Americans: three exhibition games, a 15-game schedule consisting of three teams playing eight home games and the other three teams competing in seven home games, a 60-40 split of gate revenues favoring the home team, with visiting teams choosing the larger of 40 percent or $35,000 and each football team reserving the right to two territorial draft choices. Hunt, joined by hotel businessman Barron Hilton, also planned to beat the NFL’s starting player salary by paying them ten percent more.

Chicago newspaper editor Sweet (a former and favorite editor of mine from my early newspaper days) reports these copious details, which occasionally overwhelm the narrative, with relish, marking each part of an understated career in the life of what one Sports Illustrated reporter called a “poor little rich boy”, whom he compared to someone standing up nervously in catechism class with neither force nor authority. The biography rolls out a stream of rarely discussed items from an industrial athletics archive, with such early football legends as George Blanda, George Halas, Howard Cosell, Len Dawson, Tom Landry, Don Meredith and Gale Sayers, quoted here as crediting Hunt for racial integration in pro sports.

Besides the AFL, which would have turned 50 last year, Hunt’s widely unknown achievements are impressive: the two-point conversion, the advancement of pro soccer in America, and creating the model for today’s professional tennis tour and innovative retail, amusement and stadium parks and properties. Hunt even designed the Kansas City Chiefs’ arrowhead logo, scribbling it on to a napkin. Sweet packs it all in, from Hunt’s connection to Kennedy assassin Oswald’s murderer Jack Ruby to his Christianity, which Sweet sees as providing a general moral compass that allowed him to nurture his virtues of honesty, integrity, and rationality.

Lamar Hunt combined selfish values, such as his abiding love of sports, with an ability to take risks, even when he was losing money, and earn enormous wealth, and David Sweet’s Lamar Hunt, with photos, notes and an index, capably and convincingly demonstrates that fact, though he doesn’t write it that way. Sweet credits what he calls Hunt’s humility, which is alternately supported and countered by the facts of his career in the sports industry. Clearly, the man who coined the term Super Bowl thought big, not small. So, when one former NFL commissioner asserts late in the game that Lamar Hunt did not have an ego, the reader, having consumed the abundant evidence, may conclude that Hunt merely had an ego that was healthy enough to be nourished by his own ample accomplishments.