Why Chiefs QB Len Dawson was smoking at halftime of Super Bowl I, and how it became immortalized

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s no shortage of photos in the office of Kansas City Chiefs team president Mark Donovan. Of his family, of Chiefs memorabilia — fairly standard stuff.

But there’s also one small picture, located in a frame behind his desk, that stands out. There’s a man with fussy brown hair in a smeared white uniform, a red No. 16 adorning his chest, sitting in a cheap, gray folding chair. There’s a green Fresca bottle between his feet, and in between his right thumb and index finger, a lit cigarette pulled closely to his lips, captured precisely with his cheeks sucked in, mid-drag.

The man is Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, and the photo is from halftime of the very first Super Bowl, played way back on Jan. 15, 1967. And when Donovan noticed that a colleague down the hall had placed a larger version of this photo — one that has gained more life in recent years — on top of a credenza a few years back, Donovan knew he had to have one, too.

“It’s one of my favorite photos,” Donovan told Yahoo Sports, flashing a wide-eyed smile. “There’s a lot of reasons why it’s there.”

For starters, the photo includes Dawson, a Chiefs legend. 

LIFE Magazine's iconic photo of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson smoking at halftime of Super Bowl I. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Another reason he chose it is because of his love for football history and the oddball way the photo captures a time when the game was very, very different. So different that any Chiefs or San Francisco 49ers player caught smoking during Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 would be excoriated, not celebrated.

“It’s got so much to it that makes that photo so special,” Donovan said.

The origins of the classic Len Dawson photo

Fred Arbanas doesn’t remember a whole lot about halftime of Super Bowl I. Too many years have gone by for the former tight end who played for the Chiefs from 1962-1970. But he can tell you one thing: Dawson wasn’t the only player smoking during halftime of that game, when the Chiefs, who went on to lose 35-10, trailed the Green Bay Packers by only four points at the break.

“I’d smoke a cigar, and probably more than half the guys smoked cigarettes back then,” Arbanas, a Chiefs Hall of Famer, told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of times, you’d come into our locker room and you could hardly see, it’d be so smoky in there. There were plenty of other guys smoking cigarettes, too, but Lenny’s the quarterback — he’s the one that they snapped.”

While other Chiefs remember it differently — “You might see one or two guys … the whole locker room wouldn’t be that way,” said Hall of Fame linebacker and devout non-smoker Bobby Bell — smoking was at least common enough that this particular photo, taken by LIFE Magazine’s Bill Ray, was considered so unremarkable that LIFE never used it in print. 

It has gained popularity in recent years, ever since Time posted 28 of Ray’s unpublished photos from the event on Jan. 1, 2014. Ever since then, the Chiefs who were around back then have found themselves fielding questions about how a football player could have been smoking in the middle of what would eventually become one of sport’s biggest and most physically demanding spectacles.

“I’ve had people make comments about it, and I give them the same answer I just gave you about all the smoking that went on at halftime,” Arbanas said. “Nothing bad had been brought up about cigarette smoking, or any type of smoking, back then. Guys would be smoking cigarettes to relax, and most of the people our age started smoking when they were like 12 years old back then. It wasn’t a health issue at that time.”

Athletes Smoking Cigarettes

Smoking in NFL was ‘accepted’ just like in society

While the concept of smoking during a game might seem outrageous now, Arbanas’ assertion is backed up by Chiefs historian Bob Moore, who joined the team in 1989 and spent two decades as its public relations director. 

“Back in the ’60s, guys grew up in an environment where people smoked — men and women — and people grew up in families that smoked,” Moore said. “It wasn’t unusual, it wasn’t looked down upon … there were medical people telling people to smoke cigarettes because they were mentholated and represented a cooling for your throat. The thought of that today would be outrageous.”

The Chiefs trailed 14-10 at halftime of Super Bowl I but lost to the Green Bay Packers 35-10. (1967 Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images)

Moore, 72, says that the shock value of the photo is part of what has led to its increased popularity.

“The fact that it’s so unusual, so out of the question now — that’s what grabs them. [People are like] I can’t believe it! He’s in his uniform!” Moore said. “If you were to capture a cultural moment on the change that’s taken place, that’s as good as any, because we’re very health conscious today. Certainly cigarettes have a stigma, and then to equate it with an athlete and then equate it with a quarterback and then equate it with a guy in the Hall of Fame ... you have all the elements that make it interesting and intriguing.”

Additionally, the fact Ray was even allowed in the locker room to take the photo in the first place adds to its iconic nature. The decision by Chiefs head coach Hank Stram to give the photographer access — he reportedly struck a deal with the magazine to do so — was highly unusual, even for that era.

Hall of Famer kicker Jan Stenerud joined the Chiefs the season after the photo was shot. Stenerud witnessed Dawson’s habit almost immediately. Shortly before he signed with the Chiefs, the club flew Stenerud to Miami before a December 1966 game against the Dolphins for what amounted to a tryout. And Stenerud, a non-smoker himself, never forgot his first glimpse of the star quarterback.

“I remember that Lenny came out and watched,” Stenerud said, “and he was smoking a cigarette then.”

How smoking was phased out of the NFL

By Stenerud’s sixth season in Kansas City, smoking was still a big enough part of pro football culture, with players puffing away on the sideline and in the locker room. All the locker room stalls at Arrowhead Stadium came with ashtrays when it opened in 1972.

“But by that time,” Stenerud recalled, “there was less and less smoking because we learned that it wasn’t really healthy for you, anyway.”

In 1970, all cigarette packages started including a surgeon general’s warning. That same year, cigarette commercials stopped appearing on television, resulting in a steadily dwindling number of smokers. Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier noticed the change.

“They probably did it more before I got here,” said Lanier, who played for the Chiefs from 1967-1977. “It wasn’t like people did it all the time.”

Even Dawson, whom Moore says wasn’t one of the team’s heaviest smokers, eventually gave up the habit.

“Len never smoked when I knew him — I never saw him smoke a cigarette, ever,” Moore said. “I don’t remember seeing anybody smoking a cigarette in the locker room from the end of the ’80s, into the ’90s.”

Will Patrick Mahomes get the chance to recreate Len Dawson's iconic picture? (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

Will Len Dawson’s Super Bowl smoking photo get a reboot?

Smoking in NFL locker rooms may be a remnant of the past, but it’s surprising to see the amount of joy that the Dawson photo taken by Ray — who died this month at the age of 84 — still brings to the faces of Chiefs on the current roster, the oldest of whom (punter Dustin Colquitt) wasn’t even born until 1982.

“[It’s great] because he’s just treating it like another game,” Colquitt told Yahoo Sports. “He’s doing it for Kansas City, and he’s not going to change because he’s on the biggest stage. He’s still Len Dawson. He’s being himself.”

To tight end Travis Kelce, who chuckled before saying the photo “just screams hard-working man.”

The photo also screams something else.

“Cultural, um … evolution,” Kelce told Yahoo Sports with a huge grin. “There isn’t a second in a day I could post a picture, whether it’s in game or out of game, that has [smoking] in the picture. It just tells you how much we’re evolving as the world goes around.”

Evolving, yes. But our society loves throwbacks — be it jerseys, old games, etc. — and after seeing the photo, receiver Tyreek Hill shared an idea.

Provided the Chiefs win the upcoming Super Bowl, of course.

“Pat [Mahomes] should do that — that would be golden,” Hill told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “But don’t ask him to actually smoke the cigarette though. That’s like, iconic, man.”

It’s not like the Chiefs’ MVP quarterback isn’t aware of the photo. Before a game last year, Mahomes wore a red hoodie with the photo screen-printed on the back.

“That would be sweet,” Colquitt said. “I think in the eyes of a lot of our fans, that are diehard and passionate, a championship back in our city would be a huge deal. And with the type of celebrities that have grown up in and around the Kansas City area, [Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Eric Stonestreet] and stuff, there’s gonna be stuff going on, I’m sure, some shenanigans. And it’s a way to honor our fans and past legends that came before us. So, I think it would be cool.”

Even if Mahomes or another Chiefs player was to somehow recreate the photo, it’s safe to say the 1967 original, which will remain prominently displayed behind team president Mark Donovan’s desk for the foreseeable future, will always be Kansas City’s most iconic football photo.

“Yeah,” Donovan said, a smile crossing his face once again. “That’s a special one.”

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