KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Midway through the funeral of Otis Taylor on Wednesday, a highlight video of his superb career with the Chiefs evoked oohs and cheers and surely some tears among the several hundred in attendance at the Friendship Baptist Church.
When it was over, Pastor Michael C. Phillips of Paradise Missionary Baptist Church epitomized a recurring theme of the day when he suggested the content of the work by Red Tribe Cinema made for compelling evidence of the place Taylor deserves in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Amen, that was awesome …” he said. “We need to do what we need to do to get him in the Hall of Fame. Amen.”
Loving speaker after loving speaker, including Bobby Bell and George Gates and Frank White, alluded to that in some way or another at the celebration service where a print of the stirring image of Otis drawing a play in the dirt for Len Dawson was displayed near his casket.
That memory was touching and apt on so many levels.
Beyond the crucial play that impromptu sketch led to in a December 1969 playoff game against the Jets, the duo was entwined in animating and enabling the vision of Hank Stram’s offense.
Harkening to a play a week later in the AFL Championship Game, Lamar Hunt Jr. reminisced about Otis’ astounding third-and-14 catch from the Chiefs 2-yard-line feathered into triple coverage by Dawson. The catch sparked a touchdown drive that put the Chiefs ahead for good in a 17-7 victory that led to their first Super Bowl triumph.
And the play reflected why, Hunt said, Len Dawson Jr. says “Otis Taylor is the reason my father is in the Hall of Fame.”
Conversely, Hunt added, “Len Dawson is why Otis Taylor should be in the Hall of Fame.”
And he should be. I’ll always think that.
In the wake of his death on March 9 after being enshrouded in illness for so long, now more than ever I wish he had been enshrined after the seniors committee voted last year voted him one of 25 senior semifinalists only for him to fall short.
We’ll get back to that.
But there were far more meaningful undercurrents about Otis on Wednesday in the observations shared through the speakers but also self-evident about his ethereal being.
First, let’s stipulate that Otis’ career was no less significant or eternal without the perceived validation or lack thereof from one Hall of Fame.
He will always be the “incomparable Otis Taylor,” as Gates put it.
“ ‘Incomparable.’ That was (announcer) Howard Cosell talking,” said Gates, who considered Otis a big brother and hero. “That word meant a lot to me. Incomparable.”
The more he studied the word, he said, the more “it seemed to define Otis Taylor.”
With such meanings as “without equal.” And “unparalleled.” Or “beyond comparison.” And “supreme.”
More importantly, Gates didn’t mean just on the field — which was the most visible work that Otis did but not the measure of who he was.
That’s what Wednesday served to remind most poignantly.
Because the service was most of all about a legacy of love and lives touched that extended beyond and deeper than his legion of fans near and far.
That abiding message is best encapsulated in what Otis gave and inspired in friends, family and the former teammates who were something of both.
“Otis transcended football,” said Kevin Regan, his longtime friend and attorney. “He transcends grace. He transcended social class. He was a shining prince in the Chiefs Kingdom.”
You could feel that in how the anguished Bell, among a Chiefs entourage of dozens that included chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, spoke about the “brother” he went to see and checked in on so many times after Otis descended into debilitating illness.
You could see it in how his agonized son, Otis III, spoke of always wanting to be just like him.
And you could hear it in how Regan praised his devotion to charities such as the Derrick Thomas & Neil Smith Third and Long Foundation and Will McCarther pointed to his role with The Enshriners.
Perhaps most of all, though, you could understand what he meant to others through the unfathomable loving care of his wife, Regina, his sister, Odell and Otis III.
“You are truly saints for the care you extended your spouse, brother and father,” Hunt Jr. said as he looked toward the family.
Otis and his family contending with his disability from complications of Parkinson’s disease and associated dementia for nearly 20 years. He spent well over the last decade of his life non-verbal, bedridden and on a feeding tube.
Admiringly focusing the crowd on his mother, Otis III said, “When she said til death do us part, she meant it.”
As Regan reflected on his relationship with Taylor, he remembered a remarkable scene when Muhammad Ali was in Kansas City to speak at a Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City fundraiser.
Between Ali confidant Lloyd Wells, the scout who signed Taylor for the then-AFL team in 965 by luring him out the window of a hotel away from so-called NFL babysitters, and Stram, who was close to Ali, Taylor had developed something of a friendship with him.
At least enough of one to take Regan with him to try to go see Ali at the hotel. After initially being told “the champ’s not seeing anybody” because he’s not feeling well, Regan recalled, Otis replied, “Tell him Otis Taylor and his white lawyer friend are here.”
Moments later, the guard returned and said, “The champ will see you.”
Regan told the story because it was one of his favorite memories.
But he also told it because he came to believe that when Ali and Otis met separately for some 30 minutes it was because Otis was experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s in his hands and with his speech and wanted to get advice from Ali — who suffered from the disease.
As Otis’ deterioration became evident in the early 2000s, Odell, a licensed vocational nurse since 1959, left her life and home in Houston to attend to him virtually ever since.
Visitors would marvel over how pristine and unblemished he was by typical telltale signs of age over the course of so many years.
“God bless you guys,” Bell said. “I mean, 19 years is a long time, guys. A long time.”
Regan admired how much Taylor’s former teammates, “a true band of brothers,” came to visit and tell stories and have Otis “crying and laughing” before he became less responsive over the last years.
And the selfless family love, he said, was the stuff of a Hallmark movie.
“When you went to see Otis, it would feed your soul,” Regan said. “Visits weren’t really your gift to Otis …
“They were Otis and God’s gifts to you.”
Indeed, Otis’ gifts weren’t limited to football … but they sure included his substantial role in the game.
While we accept that there are dozens of deserving senior candidates who aren’t in the Hall and that the seniors committee has an enormous challenge it takes on with great integrity, it’s also true that Otis’ case is not just spectacular but multi-tiered.
Simply put, this is the argument I’ve made: I don’t believe you can tell the story of pro football without a chapter on the Chiefs of the late 1960s — and now the modern Chiefs, for that matter.
And you can’t tell the story of those Chiefs without Otis, who was at the forefront of profound changes in the game despite statistics (410 catches for 7,308 yards and 57 touchdowns in an 11-season career) that don’t adequately translate to the context of today’s game.
With an awe-inspiring skill-set melding acrobatics, speed and power, Otis foreshadowed what the receiver would mean to the modern game. And he was essential to the Chiefs playing in two of the first four Super Bowls and winning Super Bowl IV with his iconic 46-yard touchdown reception that sealed a 23-7 victory over Minnesota.
He otherwise embodied the rise of the AFL and steps toward the AFL-NFL merger by signing with the Chiefs instead of the Eagles through the cloak-and-dagger theatrics of Wells, the superscout who convinced Otis to join the Chiefs instead of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Amid the civil rights movement, that signing reflected a pioneering effort by the Chiefs (as well as other AFL teams) and owner Lamar Hunt to make opportunities for African American players — including from Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Taylor’s alma mater, Prairie View A&M.
All momentous stuff in Otis’ career — to say nothing of so many incredible moments along the way.
In an episode of Jason Watkins’ “Way Past Due” podcast series dedicated to Taylor’s Hall of Fame candidacy, Taylor’s game-changing ability is perhaps best summarized by Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston. Calling Taylor the best he played against and suggesting he could match up with anybody now, Houston concluded, “He was impossible.”
Never mind that his Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy seemed to become equally impossible over time.
If you’re like so many of the speakers on Wednesday, you can take comfort in the image of him entering what Gates called “the ultimate Hall of Fame” now.
A place where close friend Betty Brown of the Third and Long Foundation reckons Otis was being summoned by late longtime friends Buck Buchanan, Walter White, Derrick Thomas and, finally, Dawson.
The enduring connection with Dawson, who died last year, includes what Hunt Jr. referred to as Otis’ “battle for justice to protect his beloved quarterback” when he swooped in on Oakland’s Ben Davidson after Davidson speared Dawson in 1970.
And it features hundreds of highlight plays — among which was that 61-yard pass against the Jets after Otis drew it up in the dirt.
On the play, Dawson would later say he thought he had overthrown it and could only hope Otis would catch up to it.
Just like Brown figured Dawson was urging on the night Otis died.
This time, she pictured Lenny drawing something on the ground and Otis wondering what the play was.
Then she envisioned Otis moving freely once more and Lenny urging him to “keep running, keep running” …
To peace at last — and a legacy that is about much more than the game he helped make what it is today.