Hidden down in the depth charts of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, a future Hall of Fame quarterback toiled away.
Finally, six years into his pro career, Len Dawson was bestowed his first chance to be a bona fide starter with the Dallas Texans in 1962. Dawson and the soon-to-be Kansas City Chiefs franchise never looked back.
Dawson, who won three AFL championships and led Kansas City to its first Super Bowl victory, died Wednesday at the age of 87. Dawson was Super Bowl IV MVP when his Chiefs beat the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.
Dawson had entered hospice care, the Associated Press reported on Aug. 12, though no cause was given.
"My family and I are heartbroken," Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said in a statement on Wednesday. "Len Dawson is synonymous with the Kansas City Chiefs. Len embraced and came to embody Kansas City and the people that call it home. You would be hard-pressed to find a player who had a bigger impact in shaping the organization as we know it today than Len Dawson did."
Taken fifth overall in the 1957 NFL Draft by the Steelers, Dawson would go on to play 19 pro seasons. The two-time All-Pro led the league in completion percentage on a record eight occasions, and he paced the league in touchdown passes four times. One of the elite QBs of the 1960s, Dawson was overshadowed in history's hindsight by contemporaries Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Sonny Jurgensen.
Despite spending his first five pro seasons on the bench, Dawson went on to enjoy a marvelous career that saw him enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 after passing for 28,711 yards and 239 touchdowns in his career. His 28,507 yards and 237 TD passes as a Chief are still tops in franchise history. He went to six AFL all-star games and one Pro Bowl.
"Len grew up only a few miles from where the Pro Football Hall of Fame later was built, and fans in the area have always taken a special pride in seeing one of the greats from this region enshrined in Canton," Hall of Fame president Jim Porter said in a statement. "Fans connected with Len's story of perseverance, appreciating how he gave the game one more try after five nondescript seasons when many others would have quit.
"The American Football League, and Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram, gave Len a true opportunity, and he made the most of it, building the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender, and eventually a world champion."
Distinguished as Dawson's playing career was, for generations after he hung up the cleats, he was recognized for his work on HBO's seminal Inside The NFL, a weekly in-season show that took a deep dive into each NFL game of the week. Unlike most former players in that era, Dawson wasn't just an analyst -- he hosted the show, quarterbacking a cast that included Nick Buoniconti and Cris Collinsworth during its heyday. Though Dawson didn't join the show until its second season, he was very much the heartbeat of the program along with Buoniconti, co-hosting it for parts of four decades from 1978 to 2001. When Dawson joined the show, HBO was hardly the juggernaut it would become, but Inside the NFL was one of the network's early staples.
As a player, Dawson emerged following a stint as a seldom-used backup through three seasons in Pittsburgh and and two seasons in Cleveland. After he was released by the Browns, Dawson joined the AFL's Texans in 1962 and promptly led them to an AFL Championship Game victory over the Houston Oilers. Dawson was 9 of 14 for 88 yards and a TD in the win, surviving a six-sack onslaught to help his team prevail.
In the 1966 season, Dawson propelled the Chiefs to another AFL crown, as they defeated the Buffalo Bills en route to an appearance in Super Bowl I. The Chiefs were pummeled by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers on that day at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, 35-10. Still, Dawson performed admirably with a 211-yard showing and a TD pass. He was also his team's leading rusher on the day, with a team-best 24 yards serving as evidence of how difficult it was for Kansas City's offense to move the ball against Green Bay.
Dawson and the Chiefs triumphantly returned to the Super Bowl in the 1969 season and emerged victorious this time around, besting the Vikings. Dawson went 12 of 17 passing for 142 yards with a touchdown and an interception en route to MVP honors.
Dawson, who led the AFL in passer rating six times, retired following the 1975 season. Along the way, he'd become the AFL's all-time leader in QB wins, completion percentage, passer rating and touchdown passes. He was also named the 1973 NFL Man of the Year, a sign of his fineness on the field and his class and good nature off it.
Before Drew Brees was regaled for his pinpoint accuracy in the passing game, there was Dawson.
Before Patrick Mahomes became a wunderkind who produced jaw-dropping numbers and led the Chiefs to their second Super Bowl, there was Dawson.
He was an all-time great at quarterback enshrined in Canton and a legend locked in Chiefs history.