Kansas City's "Salute to Professional Football" Celebrates 45 Years this Weekend

The 101 Awards celebrates its 45th anniversary at the Westin Crown Center Hotel

Lamar Hunt always had a penchant for creating big moments, whether it was a championship game that would become known as the Super Bowl, or something as seemingly simple as how his team's lineup should be announced to a boisterous stadium crowd before the start of one of the Chiefs' games.

As fans took to Hunt's new enterprise in Kansas City, he quickly began to make plans to gain more attention for the city and its new team through the creation of a special season-ending banquet, recognizing not only the Chiefs success, but that of professional football.

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He called it "Kansas City's Salute to Professional Football." In a town with a rather limited reputation in professional sports, Hunt's intent was to make it major league worthy.

A "Committee of 101" comprised of 101 sportswriters and sportscasters who, among their duties, covered the NFL. All were mailed a ballot and asked to vote for various categories to include the top offensive and defensive player and coach of the AFC and the NFC.

Through the initiative and cooperation of community leaders like Jack Wheeler, the annual 101 awards, as the event came to be called, became a grand affair with winners from around the AFC and NFC gathered in black tie in Kansas City to accept their awards in what became known nationwide as a gala event.

The "101," as it was simply referenced, began in 1969 and ironically the Chiefs own Bobby Bell, a future Pro Football hall of famer, was the recipient of the first AFC defensive player of the year award. 

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The highlight of what became a long night in the early days was the announcement of the Chiefs Hall of Fame player, a designated award that began in 1970. To no surprise, Hunt, a modest man to be sure, was the first person to be so honored. From that point on, a new hall of fame player was added every year. Later, in an effort to abbreviate a ceremony that had become too long, that portion of the "101" was limited to his announcement only. A more formal ceremony of induction for the hall of fame recipient was put off to later in the regular season.

Crowds grew as the "101's" stature did. Elaborate sets welcomed guests in black tie and women in Oscar-worthy finery as they poured into the ballrooms of the city's largest downtown hotels. Elaborate sets greeted them and Tony DiPardo's orchestra provided the music. Up until the early 1990s a dance followed the formal ceremonies.

Players who were honored soon spoke of the event and how well they were treated and the "101" continued to draw praise as the one awards ceremony to attend. Soon, other organizations hoping to build their own events, sent representatives to study the "101" and events like it became all the rage nationwide. Even an organization as prestigious as the Maxwell Club took its cues from the "101."

As the "101" grew in stature, planners altered the formalities to create a more casual approach – more in the nature of a late night show format with couches and easy chairs on an expansive dais. Presenters of awards – men who were often as famous as the players and coaches they were introducing – eventually accompanied winners to a set where the evening's host could engage in informal questioning or banter. Video clips produced locally or by award-winning NFL Films added more color to the night.

As the years passed, new categories were added to include the "Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football" to recognize an individual's impact on the game. The category's first winner was "The Foolish Club," a name given to the original owners of eight American Football League franchises. In accepting the award, Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills and Barron Hilton, the original owner of the Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers, were in attendance.

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Local charities were feted and proceeds from the night favored them with donations from the banquet.

 Lamar Hunt's enthusiasm for the "101" never wavered, even after awards shows became quite common especially on ESPN and in cities larger than Kansas City. Still, the players and coaches came and were treated with the high level of respect and recognition to keep some of the repeat honorees happy to come back again and again.

One player who was so-honored five times was Peyton Manning. Even when faced with a competing award in a distant city, he organized his schedule so to be in Kansas City to receive his "101" award.

"It is the premier football banquet in the country," Manning said. "The players and coaches know it," he admitted, "and that's why we're all here."

Even someone who makes no bones about his dislike for attending awards banquets or making public statements, Bill Belichick, was not shy in extolling the "101's" allure.

"Take it from a 30-year veteran of such events," he said, "you have truly set the standard for class and hospitality."

That class remains a driving force behind the continued success of a banquet now in its 45th year.

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