When a football player reaches the pinnacle of his career — becoming a pro — his life becomes very challenging, yet exciting. For most it is a whirlwind of cheering fans, regimented schedules, recognition off the field, signing autographs, making appearances at special events and being dubbed celebrities. That time in his life is pegged as “the glory days.” However, for most players the glory is short-lived, with an average career of 3.3 years. The majority of “retired” players are only in their early 30s.
Walter White is a former Kansas City Chief tight end and one of the founders and first president of the Chiefs Ambassadors who served for 10 years. He can regale an audience with hundreds of vignettes about his college and pro football life. He first played for the University of Maryland where he received a Bachelor of Science degree, and was the third leading receiver in the school’s history. In 1975, White was a third-round draft choice by the Pittsburg Steelers. However, he was cut the first day, but picked up the next day by the Chiefs. Short rollercoaster ride! His first game was four days later against the Denver Broncos.
Although White wasn’t a starter, when he was put in it was third and one. On his first play, there was a fake action pass and all of a sudden he was wide open. He got the ball and ran 69 yards for a touchdown! White played for the Chiefs for five years, 1975-1979. He had an outstanding career, and led the team in receiving in 1977 with more than 160 receptions — he averaged 14.9 yards. He may have played only 63 games, but is considered among the top five tight ends in Chiefs history. He left the game at age 29.
The downside of leaving pro ball, White says, is the feeling of isolation. “There is very little contact with active players afterward except for being recognized at halftime for an alumni event.” In 1989, White was asked to a meeting with Tim Conley, the then new marketing director of the Chiefs who remembered White from his college playing days. Also at the meeting were Ed Lothamer — defensive tackle 1964-1969 and 1971-1972; Ken Kremer — nose tackle 1979-1984; and Pro Football Hall of Famer Buck Buchanan — defensive tackle 1963-1975.
Conley was aware that many former players had stayed in the Kansas City area, and wanted to get a group together to promote the Chiefs and provide camaraderie with the rookie players. Because the team had gone through several losing seasons, ticket sales were down. This new group could become the bridge between the Chiefs organization and the community. It also would give the retired football players face time in the community.
The four men loved the idea. White thought for a moment and came up with the name the Ambassadors. Conley loved it, and thus, in the fall of 1989 an initial group of nine men became the first emissaries for the Chiefs.
To this day, the Ambassadors are the only group of its kind in the NFL. Every potential new member is handpicked. The candidate must have been a Chiefs player for at least three years, live in the Kansas City area and agree to attend monthly meetings. Finally, each candidate must be approved by the Chiefs organization. “We are a brand,” White says. Once selected, the new member serves a one-year apprenticeship.
In the early years, the Ambassadors were mentors to the rookie players, showing up in the locker room offering advice. “We had pizza and beer every Thursday night,” says Larry Marshall, who joined the Ambassadors in 1991.
The Ambassadors would join the rookies for a “big huddle” at the end of practice. “Every week we would give three player-of-the-week awards — defense, offense and special teams,” Marshall says. Each recipient would receive a big color photo of themselves in action from the previous game.
Tailgating was a huge draw. The Ambassadors had a tent right outside the stadium where they hosted sponsors, players’ wives and other guests. There was food, libations and a live band. As an added bonus, White would belt out a few tunes. His signature song was “My Girl.”
On any given game day there would be between 400 and 500 people partying in the tent. “It was the place to be,” Marshall says. Television and Hollywood stars, such as Kevin Costner and Joe Piscopo, would make an appearance and even perform. Tailgatingin the tent was also a major source of fundraising for the organization’s charitable activities. When the stadium was remodeled six years ago everything moved inside, and the Ambassadors can now be seen in the Founders Club.
Their reach has touched several states. About eight to 10 Ambassadors teamed up with the Denver Broncos for a hospital charity golf tournament in Goodland, Kansas. “The hospital was the only one for hundreds of miles,” Marshall says. At the Friday night party, the football players were auctioned off to play golf with the highest bidder.
White remembers being “sold” for $3,200, but says Larry Brunson, who was a wide receiver for both the Chiefs and the Broncos, was purchased for a whopping $5,000. Marshall says that over the years the Ambassadors have helped raise more than $1 million for the hospital.
The Ambassadors also have been a part of the Annual HK’s Hospital Golf Tournament since the early ’90s. This is the 40th year for the tournament, held at the Lodge of Four Seasons. Over the years the tournament has raised more than $3.3 million for the Lake’s local Lake Regional Health System. In addition to donating $2,500, White and a dozen or more Ambassadors and current players golf in the tournament, and also are present throughout the weekend. They greet sponsors and guests, and never tire of signing autographs and smiling for selfies.
Every year the top sponsors are given a special gift. One year it was a Chiefs helmet that had been signed by the entire team, another year it was an MU signed helmet. But White is very proud of the beautifully carved solid-wood football he helped create.
The Ambassadors also provide items for the live and silent auctions.
In addition to the usual Chiefs paraphernalia, they give Chiefs packages with tickets to a game, hotel accommodations and on-the-field access White, who has been dubbed Mr. Personality, loves to entertain.
One year he decided to have a group lip-synch the iconic song YMCA dressed as the Village People. He was able to convince a reluctant Coach Gary Pinkel and player Chase Daniels to perform along with fellow Ambassador Ed Budde. Every year, the golfing event fills two flights and raises nearly $200,000 for Lake Regional Health System.
In the late ’90s, the Ambassadors started a scholarship program for high school students in the Kansas City area. They didn’t want the students to write essays; instead the entrants answered a few questions. The top five were interviewed in person. The Ambassadors gave one female and one male each a scholarship of $1,000. That was 15 years ago; now in a slightly different format they give 25, $2,000 scholarships. “The scholarships are a really big deal,” Marshall says. “We have a banquet, and have a group photo of the winners.”
The Ambassadors, now 47 strong, give of their time throughout the Kansas City area and are regular visitors to the University of Kansas Health Systems. You’ll always find one or more at events for the Ronald McDonald House and Big Brothers Big Sisters. One of their main beneficiaries is Camp Quality, which serves children with cancer. “We hold football camp and spend the day with the kids,” Deron Cherry says.
The current president, now called director, is Keith Cash. He says it is his job to “lay out the vision to keep growing and moving forward.” At every monthly Ambassadors meeting they go through a list of requests for monetary support. They vote on the amount and time frame. For example, they recently voted to give Big Brothers Big Sisters $15,000 a year for three years. They raise between $100,000 and $160,000 every year to support their charities with an annual golf tournament held in September in Overland Park.
The KC Chiefs Ambassadors are not like your ordinary civic organization gathering for a weekly lunch meeting. These are Hall of Famers and Pro Football Players whose names and numbers appear on the side of Arrowhead Stadium. Their legend and stardom lives on as millions of fans still seek autographs and photos at charitable events.
Their team efforts are now measured by giving to those in need. Their winning is still happening, just on a bigger field called community. “I am so proud of this group,” White says. “We are a hidden treasure.” •