Why ‘First Lady of Football’ Norma Hunt looms large over first Super Bowl without her

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When the Chiefs in 2020 reached their first Super Bowl since he was a 4-year-old, Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt recalled a nudge a few years before from his mother, Norma.

While she was being celebrated for having attended the first 50 Super Bowls, she told him, “Clark, it sure would be nice if we could play in this game while I’m still able to go.”

So they did for Super Bowl LIV, a wedge-buster that stands now at four in five years.

Alas, though, this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers comes with a poignant twist:

After all the decades Norma Hunt attended the Super Bowl but the Chiefs didn’t make it, this week marks the first time they’re here and she’s not for the game whose very name she set into motion and lent her grace for 57 years.

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Norma Hunt died in June at age 85 with an abiding legacy of warmth, vivacity and love for sports that helped make her a felicitous match for her late husband, Lamar — and a remarkable asset to his greatest passion: the franchise he moved from Dallas to Kansas City in 1963.

Her absence is why Chiefs president Mark Donovan said Wednesday that she is “what we should be talking about this week.”

While much of the talk is focused on the Chiefs trying to become the first NFL team to repeat in nearly two decades and Patrick Mahomes and the Travis Kelce-Taylor Swift relationship and so-called Swift Effect … let’s remember this:

The Norma Effect was a phenomenon of its own in the history of the Chiefs and NFL.

“Her death severs one of the last remaining links between what professional football once was and how it became the nation’s preeminent sport,” Chiefs historian Bob Moore wrote last summer.

The ‘secret weapon’

That wasn’t simply because of her role in the naming of this game, though that’s a telling story in itself that we’ll circle back to.

It was something far more fundamental and personal when it came to the “First Lady of Football,” whom Clark Hunt said Tuesday will be recognized by the NFL in such a way “that her memory is front and center” on Sunday.

That will be fitting for someone who had a gift for making others feel front and center with her constant smile, attentiveness and empathy.

Longtime Star writer Randy Covitz always appreciated her sincerity and that she invariably “greeted you by first name and with an outstretched hand.”

And her delightfulness was extended to all.

“Women liked her, men were drawn to her,” Michael MacCambridge wrote in his biography of Lamar Hunt (“Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports”), “and she became adept at putting people at ease, often while talking about sports.”

In an email Thursday, MacCambridge added a dimension to the point.

“They’ll say that Norma loved sports, which was certainly true,” he wrote. “But for me, she was so far ahead of her time, someone who already by the early 1960s was fully conversant in the realm of sports — intent, involved, insightful — when that was exceedingly rare for a woman. In 1963, she and Lamar once attended five football games in a single weekend, and it wasn’t like he had to twist her arm to get her to go along.

“When I was writing the … biography, I can’t tell you how many football people who knew them back in the ‘60s would volunteer to me, ‘And Norma really knew football!’ They recognized what a trail-blazer she was.”

That was still evident when Donovan joined the Chiefs in 2009, three years after Lamar’s death.

Donovan soon saw her as “my secret weapon.”

When he and his staff were cultivating corporate sponsorships, they’d typically bring visitors to a stadium suite “to come meet the ‘First Lady of Football.’” Donovan smiled as he remembered bringing in three of the biggest Ford dealers in the Kansas City area and her immediate engagement with them — including asking directly about some business elements.

“’So let’s talk about your stock: I’ve owned it (for a long time), and it’s gone up and down …’” Donovan recalled her saying, noting she asked about material purchases and so forth.

Afterward, he said, “The three dealers were like, ‘That was amazing.’”

No wonder she had an impact, he said, “on every single one of us.”

No kinder person

That included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who issued a statement upon her death noting her “significant presence in the NFL for the last seven decades” and his fortune to have known her for nearly 40 years.

Her substantial stature led to her being part of the focus of a 2019 NFL Films documentary, “A Lifetime of Sundays” featuring four female owners paramount in the history of the game.

Revealing in its own way, she even had an impact on sworn competitors such as Raiders owner Mark Davis and others in the AFC West.

On Monday at Super Bowl LVIII Opening Night at Allegiant Stadium, Davis said he loved the classy and “wonderful, wonderful woman” who was always so sweet to him.

Those gestures included sending him wine that apparently came from the vineyard she acquired and dedicated herself to, per her obituary, by immersing herself in “the art, science and challenge of winemaking.”

Then there’s her ongoing impact on so many in the Chiefs organization, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He moved Clark Hunt deeply when he suggested on stage after the AFC Championship Game in Baltimore that the Chiefs had been inspired to win the attached Lamar Hunt Trophy all the more in a season when they were wearing jersey patches honoring Norma.

“There’s not been a kinder person that God’s put on the face of the Earth than Norma Hunt. Even though she drove a red Corvette,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, smiling, as he thought of her. “She was the epitome of just a special, special, blessed person, and she allowed that to go to everybody else. She dropped a little bit of that on each one of us.”

On no one, naturally, more than her family.

“It’s going to be a very emotional week for us,” Clark Hunt said, “not having my mom with us.”

He thought, too, of his parents going to the first 40 Super Bowls together before his father’s death in 2006.

“They would enjoy it more now,” he said, smiling, “since we’re in the game.”

The streak

The streak that Norma Hunt maintained as the only woman to attend every Super Bowl was “never all that important to me,” she told The Star in one of her last interviews, via email, in 2020.

It was important to Lamar, though, so it became meaningful for her as it grew and grew — even if she came to tell Lamar if he were to keep telling people she’d been to every Super Bowl “then he better tell them I started when I was 8 years old!”

In certain ways, the streak became more meaningful to her after Lamar died in 2006. Perhaps all the more so since in his final days he asked Clark and brother Daniel to help her keep it going.

That began in 2007, when Goodell asked her to be part of the pre-game coin-toss with Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino.

Honored as she was, she liked to joke, “I’m sure all of those fans in Miami were thinking, ‘Who is that lady with Dan Marino?’”

That lady was many, many things, including a high school basketball player, an honors graduate and Woman of the Year at North Texas State. After a year of study in Dublin, she became a high school American history teacher who developed a passion for art and antiques along with her husband in a world nonetheless revolving around sports.

Family lore has it that the so-called “fipple-header” of the five-football-game weekend — including a trip to Kansas City to see Lamar’s team play — sealed the courtship. And the role of sports in their lives was nicely punctuated by the fact they honeymooned at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

As described in the obituary, that’s where they learned that the AFL (founded by Hunt) had secured a breakthrough television-rights agreement that figured in the eventual merger with the NFL.

That deal also figured in the formation of a game initially clunkily dubbed by then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle as ”the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”

The name of the game

Enter Norma’s Christmas 1965 visit to a Dallas toy store.

At the checkout line, she told The Star in 2016, she was struck by a cardboard display of the Wham-O Superball.

“Those pictures made you believe these balls could bounce over a small house, and I thought, ‘Our kids will love these,’” she said.

Right she was. Enough so that their father heard plenty about them.

And as a man inclined to apply the word “super” to things he was enthusiastic about, the term “Super Bowl” lodged in Lamar Hunt’s mind.

Perhaps especially since he was seeking something. As Norma put it in 2016, he “absolutely despised the name ‘AFL-NFL World Championship Game.’ He literally thought it was the most boring thing he’d ever heard in his life.”

Trouble was, some seemed to think it was the silliest thing they’d ever heard in their lives when he first broached the “Super Bowl” term at a meeting in the summer of 1966.

Laughter filled the room, and in a letter dated July 26, 1966, Hunt suggested he had “kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.”

But something about the name started to catch, and stick.

While the tickets to that first meeting in January 1967 highlighted the term “World Championship Game,” The Star, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times (surely among others) referred to the premiere game as “Super Bowl.”

The game Norma came to call “Lamar’s Baby” became something to which she’ll be forever connected, too, as an essential part of the NFL and Chiefs story.

“Mrs. Norma was the best,” Mahomes wrote on social media last summer. “Glad to be a part of this special organization she helped build. She will be missed!”