The paint was hardly dry on Arrowhead Stadium when the Eagles paid their first visit in October 1972. The Kansas City Chiefs had just moved into their beautiful new home that summer and when the Eagles arrived in Week 6 of the regular season, they were dragging along a five-game losing streak.
Actually, it was worse than that. The Eagles had lost the last four preseason games so when they started the regular season 0-5 they were on a nine-game skid that looked like it could extend through Christmas. They scored just 38 points in the five regular-season losses.
Veteran Pete Liske started the season at quarterback but after losses to Dallas and Cleveland, coach Ed Khayat switched to rookie John Reaves, the club's first-round draft pick. Reaves lost to the Giants, Washington, and the Los Angeles Rams - the last two without scoring a touchdown - so Khayat went back to Liske for the game in Kansas City.
"Just looking for a spark," Khayat said.
The game was a mismatch. The Chiefs still had the nucleus of the team that won Super Bowl IV. They had eight future Hall of Famers - coach Hank Stram, quarterback Len Dawson, kicker Jan Stenerud, defensive linemen Curley Cup and Buck Buchanan, linebackers Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell, and cornerback Emmitt Thomas. The Chiefs were off to a slow start at 3-2 but they figured to get well against the punchless Eagles.
Surprise, surprise. The Eagles won 21-20 in one of the craziest games I've ever seen.
It started before the opening kickoff when someone in the press box noticed the American flag atop the stadium was hung upside down. That is the international distress symbol and while it was an honest mistake by the stadium crew, it set the tone for a bizarre afternoon.
Also, there were 78,389 people in the stands. It was the second-largest crowd ever to see the Eagles play.
Early in the game, Liske threw deep downfield into double coverage. He was trying to get the ball to halfback Po James but two Kansas City defenders had James blanketed. It should have been an easy interception but the two Chiefs collided going for the ball. Safety Mike Sensibaugh did a cartwheel, the ball bounced off his foot and into the arms of the Eagles Ben Hawkins who was trailing the play. Hawkins raced 67 yards untouched to the end zone. A total fluke but the Eagles led 7-0.
A short time later, Liske dropped back again and found wide receiver Harold Jackson behind cornerback Jim Marsalis for a 36-yard touchdown. That wasn't a fluke and to prove it Liske did it again, hitting Jackson behind Marsalis for a 41-yard score. Incredibly, the Eagles who had not scored more than 17 points in any game that season had a 21-0 lead on the heavily favored Chiefs.
Jackson is one of the more underrated players in Eagles history. Twice in four seasons, Jackson led all NFL receivers in yardage. He had 65 catches for 1,116 yards and nine touchdowns in 1969 and he had 62 catches for 1,048 yards in 1972. Impressive stats especially when you consider the guys throwing to him were Norm Snead (1969), Liske and Reaves (1972). He was similar to DeSean Jackson, small and slight (5-10, 170 pounds) but very explosive. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds at Jackson State University. After the '72 season, he was traded to the Rams in the deal that brought Roman Gabriel to Philadelphia.
The Eagles led 21-3 at halftime. Chick McElrone, the Eagles' public relations assistant, had spent the week in Kansas City advancing the game. It was common practice in those days: a PR man traveled ahead of the team to distribute stats, photos, and other information to the local media. That week McElrone made his rounds in Kansas City, shrugging and acknowledging the Eagles weren't very good.
At halftime, the Kansas City PR director saw McElrone in the press lounge.
"I lied," McElrone said.
Both men cracked up laughing. It was that kind of day.
Stram ripped his team at halftime and the Chiefs, who looked like they were sleepwalking through the first 30 minutes, came out fully awake in the third quarter. Stenerud kicked another field goal then Ed Podolak scored on an 11-yard run. The score was cut to 21-13. The huge Arrowhead crowd was roaring and the Eagles were just trying to hang on.
Dawson threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Willie Frazier - he got behind cornerback Nate Ramsey and safety Leroy Keyes - and suddenly it was a 21-20 game. The Chiefs had a man dressed in buckskin with an Indian headdress riding a horse called War Paint around the field. It psyched up the fans back in 1972 but I don't think you could get away with it today.
Liske threw 12 passes that day, completing eight for 209 yards and three touchdowns but Tom Fears, the offensive coordinator, chose to keep the ball on the ground in the fourth quarter. It was probably the only time in Liske's two seasons with the Eagles that you could say he had a hot hand and still the coaches didn't trust him. Instead, Fears called for handoffs to the rookie James (24 carries for 65 yards).
The Kansas City defense, with four Hall of Famers in the front seven, stopped the Eagles cold so Dawson got the ball back at his own 33-yard line with two minutes to go. All the Chiefs had to do was get close enough for Stenerud, one of the all-time great kickers, to knock through the winning field goal. But it wasn't that kind of day.
The game was played in a steady rain so the ball was slick. Podolak fumbled a handoff from Dawson then kicked it backward setting off a wild scramble. The Chiefs recovered the fumble but the play lost 30 yards. Dawson tried one last desperation pass to Frazier but Robert Creech, a second-year linebacker, swatted the ball away and the Eagles came away with the victory. It was one of only two games the Eagles would win all season.
The Eagles and Chiefs did not play again until 1992, a 20-year span. They have only met seven times with the Eagles leading the series 4-3, but the first game in the sparkling new Arrowhead Stadium was one worth remembering.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.