Purdue ICONS #12: Len Dawson

He was there before Kyle Orton. He was there before Drew Brees. Mark Herrmann, Mike Phipps, and Bob Griese all came after our current ICON, who is considered by many to be the Father of the Cradle of Quarterbacks. Len Dawson was one of the AFL's great quarterbacks at the time of the NFL-AFL merger. He later became a Super Bowl MVP and was the first of three Boilermaker quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl, setting Purdue to be one of only two schools to boast three  QB Alumni as Super Bowl Champions. With 346 votes, the first player to crack the 300 point barrier in the poll, Len Dawson is out #12 Purdue ICON.

Before Purdue

We should consider ourselves lucky that the legendary Woody Hayes was as afraid of the forward pass as Terrelle Pryor is of declaring a major. Coming out of Alliance, Ohio, Dawson should have been a lock at Ohio State. The Buckeyes wanted him, but Dawson did not really want to run the split-T offense where he wouldn't throw much.

Assistant coach Hank Stram, who came in 43rd on this list, was instrumental in recruiting Dawson to Purdue. They formed a friendship during the recruiting process that would last for nearly half a century. He wanted to pass in college, and Purdue was the place for him to do so.

Purdue career

Dawson was immediately successful as Purdue's quarterback. On September 25, 1954, Dawson took over as Purdue's starting quarterback and earned UPI Back of the Week honors nationally when he threw for four touchdown passes and 185 yards on 11 completions in a 31-0 win over Missouri. A trip to #1 Notre Dame followed the next week, and Dawson silenced the Fighting Irish with four more touchdown passes in a 27-14 victory. It was Notre Dame's only loss of the season, and Purdue took only two weeks to match their win total from the previous year.

It looked as if Purdue had a chance to make some noise in the Big Ten and make its first Rose Bowl after the win over the Irish, but a 13-13 tie in week three against Duke brought Purdue back to earth. The Boilermakers would only go 3-3 in the Big Ten, including a 28-6 loss to undefeated Ohio State later in the season. Dawson struggled, throwing only seven touchdown passes in the final seven games after throwing eight in the first two games. He still led the nation in TD passes and passing efficiency. That was good enough for All-Big Ten honors.

His junior year saw him limited with a thumb injury as Purdue went 5-3-1 for the second straight season. One of the victories included a 6-4 win over Indiana in what had to be one of the ugliest games during the history of the Old Oaken Bucket. Dawson led the conference in passing (76 completions in 134 attempts for 901 yards), but threw only six touchdowns.

Dawson's senior season saw him become the first player in Big Ten history to lead the Big Ten in total offense and passing for three straight seasons. He finished with 3,325 career passing yards and 29 touchdowns, both school records at the time. In today's college football world his career is one good season, but at the time the forward pass was still in its infancy. On the field Purdue struggled to a 3-4-2 record, but defeated Notre Dame in South Bend for a second straight time 28-14. Dawson also made sure he never lost the Bucket during his career with a 39-20 win over Indiana to close the season.

Pro Career:

Dawson was a first round selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers out of college, but despite his stellar college numbers he struggled to find playing time. The first five seasons of his NFL career were uneventful. He played in just 27 games and threw two touchdown passes against five interceptions for both the Steelers and Cleveland Browns. He also had barely more than 200 yards passing.

That is when Hank Stram came in to once again save the day. Stram saw Dawson doing very little on the bench in Cleveland and picked him up for the Dallas Texans of the AFL once the Browns released him. Stram immediately made him the starting quarterback, and an eventual Hall of Fame career finally began.

In his first season Dawson led the AFL in touchdowns with 29 and threw for 2,759 yards. He was named AFL MVP. The Texans won the AFL championship in a double overtime victory over the Houston Oilers. After the season Dallas became the Kansas City Chiefs, but the change of venue didn't slow down Dawson.

Dawson would go on to lead the Chiefs to two more AFL titles in 1966 and 1969. He would win four AFL passing titles and was selected as a league All-Star six times, ending the 10-year run of the league as its highest-rated career passer. Now one threw more TD passes in professional football from 1962-69, and his second AFL title in 1966 set the Chiefs up for yet another first.

Super Bowl I

Today the Super Bowl is the biggest event on the American sports calendar, with only the UEFA Champions League Final rivaling it world-wide in terms of audience. In 1966, it was almost an afterthought. The AFL and NFL were still completely separate leagues, and the idea of the two champions playing was considered to be a major advantage for the established NFL. The game took place on January 15, 1967, just two weeks after Purdue's first Rose Bowl appearance. It wasn't even called the Super Bowl back then, as it was called the First World Championship.

The Green Bay Packers dominated the second half in a 35-10 win, but Dawson acquitted himself quite well. Dawson threw the second touchdown pass in Super Bowl history, and had 211 yards on 16 completions with only one interception.

Super Bowl IV

While the first Super Bowl was a blowout in favor of the NFL, it did not take long for the AFL to catch up. The younger league got its first Super Bowl win in Super Bowl III, and Super Bowl IV was further proof that the younger league deserved to be treated as an equal in the impending merger. Once again the underdog, the Chiefs shocked the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 by leading 16-0 at the half and never looking back. Dawson was excellent in guiding the Kansas City offense, going  12 for 17 with 142 yards and a touchdown and an interception. He also rushed for 11 yards. That was enough for him to be named the fourth straight quarterback as Super Bowl MVP, a feat repeated 40 years later by Brees. 

What made Dawson's 1969 season even more stunning is that he suffered what was thought to be a season-ending knee injury in game 2. He missed five games, but won road playoff games against the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders before even playing in the Super Bowl.

Further career

The modern NFL emerged in the year after Dawson's Super Bowl triumph. The AFL and NFL merged, allowing Dawson to play for another six seasons. He never led the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl, but he remains one of the most revered players in franchise history after leading them to their only championships.

Dawson could have won a second straight NFL title in 1970, but a strange incident cost them a victory over the Raiders that would have put them in the playoffs. On November 1, 1970, the Chiefs led 17-14 late in the fourth quarter. Facing third and long, a run by Dawson apparently sealed victory for the Chiefs, but as Dawson lay on the ground, he was speared by Raiders' defensive end Ben Davidson who dove into Dawson with his helmet. Receiver Otis Taylor retaliated, starting a bench-clearing brawl, offsetting penalties were called, nullifying the first down under the rules in effect at that time. The Chiefs were obliged to punt, and the Raiders tied the game on a field goal with eight seconds to play. Taylor's retaliation against Davidson not only cost the Chiefs a win, but Oakland won the AFC West with a season record of 8-4-2, while Kansas City finished 7-5-2 and out of the playoffs.

During his career, he completed 2,136 of 3,741 passes for 28,711 yards and 239 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,293 yards before retiring after the 1975 season. He was the NFL's Man of the Year in 1973 and voted onto the Second Team All-Time AFL squad. The Chiefs have retired his #16 jersey and he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Dawson began a long TV career in 1966 during what may have been his best AFL season. He was named as the sports director of Kansas City's KMBC-TV, a post he would hold until 2009, though he still fills in on occasion. He was a longtime analyst from 1977-2001for HBO's Inside the NFL, even after defeating prostate cancer in 1994.

If anything, one of Purdue Football's proudest moments came on February 7, 2010. Just after Brees led the New Orleans Saints to a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV Dawson was on hand to present the Lombardi Trophy to the victors. The moment of the Father of the Cradle of Quarterbacks presenting the Lombardi Trophy to the most celebrated member made Purdue fans around the world beam with pride.

It is an honor to include Dawson on this list. Seven quarterbacks received votes in the poll. Of them, it is safe to say that we're not called the Cradle of Quarterbacks if not for Dawson. He continues to be a shining example for Purdue even now at 76 years of age.

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