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Chapter Five: The Chiefs get their M(e)n

Keeping all sides happy

This is another in a series of season-long columns on the Kansas City Chiefs search for a franchise quarterback. It will appear weekly on Thursdays throughout the 2015 season.

When draft day arrived in the spring of 1979, Lamar Hunt and his president and general manager had come to the realization that, despite their best hopes, if the decision was to be left up to their head coach, Marv Levy, and his personnel director, Les Miller, it would be a defensive player taken with the team's first pick.

To Levy and Miller, Mike Bell was their coveted, "best available player" — typical coach-speak offered by club officials around draft time.

Quarterback Jack Thompson, "The Throwin' Samoan" out of Washington State and the local fan favorite, went to Cincinnati as the third pick and the Giants used their seventh pick to take Phil Simms. The Bills had taken Tom Cousineau and, as expected — and desired by Levy — the Chiefs had grabbed Bell.

By the time the first round wound down, the Chiefs believed Clemson's Steve Fuller would be gone to the 49ers, who had the first pick in the second round. It was shaping up to be the 1978 draft all over again when Kansas City had hoped to take quarterback Matt Cavanaugh and in 1977 Glen Carano, losing both to teams selecting just ahead of them.

But in a move that caught everyone off guard in Kansas City and elsewhere around the league, Chiefs GM Jim Schaaf swung a deal with Houston which put the team in position to draft Fuller later in the first round. The team swapped second round choices for 1979 and 1980 for the Oilers number 1 pick. Houston was 23rd in the selection process.


GM Jim Schaaf engineered a draft deal to land Clemson QB Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller was the 23rd quarterback selected by the Chiefs in all its years of drafting up to then, but he was only the second taken in the first round. The other was Pete Beathard.

The trade setting up Fuller to fall to Kansas City evoked memories of 1963 when the franchise nabbed Buck Buchanan and Ed Budde and later in 1968 when it picked up Mo Moorman and George Daney. 

While Chiefs management had been hot for Thompson, who it didn't get, it could certainly live with Fuller who it believed in time could turn into an attraction at the gate. "I think the quarterback is a rallying point for a franchise," Hunt maintained, "not so much with the players, but where fan interest is concerned." The pick tempered a fan base who never believed the franchise would ever return to the playoffs with Livingston at the helm.

Everyone inside and outside of the organization appeared ecstatic, even Levy, who was quick to emphasize in his comments that while "Mike Bell was going to be our first pick…when we had a chance to get Steve [Fuller] we had to take him.  We felt we needed to start preparing now," now free to fall in line with prior management comments.

As for Fuller, he liked the idea of playing in a run-oriented offense, admitting that "it's more fun for a quarterback to run out of the pocket. I'm not used to a straight drop back." This made perfect sense since Levy employed the Wing-T and its off-spring. 

Saying all the right things down the line, Hunt, Steadman, Schaaf and Levy repeatedly noted that it was Fuller all along who best fit the Chiefs plans. Thompson was immobile, had an injury. Simms was strictly drop-back.  Fuller could do everything the Chiefs needed.

He had rushed for 1,699 yards at Clemson, 1,551 coming in the last three seasons. He had been the 1978 ACC Player of the Year, MVP of the Gator Bowl, defeating Ohio State, 17-15. He had led the ACC in total offense with 2,164 yards.

Levy was more definitive in what he wanted in his quarterback play.  "For a long time, all that any team wanted from its quarterback was somebody who could pick out receivers, throw the ball and stay out of trouble," he said. "But in this era the demand is for a quarterback who can move.  We are using the Wing-T and our quarterback has to move."


Fuller's mobility was perfect for KC's "Wing-T" offense

The future was still somewhere down the road, to be sure, but everyone who spoke that day believed Fuller was, according to Hunt, "the most important choice for the future of the franchise."

The founder acknowledged that "getting a quarterback to build with is something we have delayed too long as a franchise." He said he had heard the rumblings and that "there was a feeling we weren't trying to improve our quarterback situation.  I think the fans will respond to what we have done."   

Replied Levy, with a bit of a smile, "the fans always like it when you take a quarterback in the first round."

Now, everyone would see just how soon the future would arrive. 

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