Leistikow: In-depth with Ed Podolak, 50 years after Super Bowl season with Kansas City Chiefs
Even if you’re among the thousands upon thousands of loyal listeners to Iowa football radio broadcasts, there’s something that you’ve probably never noticed.
When the Hawkeye players are jogging onto the field in their signature swarm just before game time, you’ll hear Gary Dolphin’s booming voice.
But you won’t hear Ed Podolak’s.
"'Dolph' knows he can’t come to me, because I can’t talk," Podolak says of his broadcast partner of 22-plus years. "It’s a very emotional time."
In those moments, as Podolak scans the 69,000-plus fans at Kinnick Stadium from a press-box booth high above the 50-yard line — the swarm, the national anthem — his eyes inevitably begin to well with tears.
In those moments, a combination of Hawkeye pride from a storied alum and decades-old football memories come rushing through Podolak’s mind — which is still going strong in the booth at age 72.
It’s that passage of time that brings us to this interview.
Fifty years ago, Podolak was beginning his rookie year with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs after a three-year playing career at Iowa, where the pride of Atlantic was both a star quarterback and running back.
Those 1969 Chiefs won Super Bowl IV.
And, almost unbelievably, the hard-luck Chiefs haven’t been back to the big game since.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Des Moines Register, one of the most beloved figures among Hawkeye football fans discusses memories of his Chiefs glory days and what it would mean for that franchise to rule the NFL again ... how he became the 1980s version of today’s Tony Romo in the booth ... and his eventual plan to walk away from broadcasting Hawkeye football.
Has it really been 50 years?
Podolak holds up his Super Bowl ring, still latched to his left ring finger.
“To think it’s going to be 50 years old this year,” he says, “is really hard to believe.”
Although he was injured most of his rookie season, Podolak quickly became a Chiefs legend. The 1971 Christmas Day game, still the longest in NFL history, was his most famous performance — 350 all-purpose yards, still a playoff record. He would score the first touchdown in Arrowhead Stadium history. He became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher (he’s now No. 5), with 4,451 yards. And his No. 14 jersey was retired by the Chiefs in 1989.
For those less familiar with Podolak’s back story, he was a small-town Iowan who had become almost bigger than life in a small NFL market.
"The Chiefs had won a Super Bowl, and the town was on fire. ... People kind of knew you wherever you went," says Podolak, whose laid-back lifestyle and infectious personality could make him the life of any party. "Fortunately, there weren’t iPhone cameras around back then."
NFL money wasn’t even close to what it was today. Linemen made less than $50,000 a year. Even a star such as Podolak couldn’t crack six figures. He remains friends with an equipment employee for the Chiefs, who makes more now than Podolak did as an NFL running back then.
Podolak ended his NFL career after nine years. The losing seasons (four in a row, including a 2-12 record in 1977) got old. Even though new Chiefs coach Marv Levy offered him a three-year contract before the 1978 season, Podolak — with a newborn daughter, Emily, freshly in his life — retired from the NFL with 6,907 yards from scrimmage in 104 games.
"I just couldn’t stand the losing; getting beat up every weekend," Podolak says before delivering a signature one-liner: “And instead of people praising you when they saw you, they gave you the finger.”
“Kind of time to go,” he adds, still chuckling.
Another reason he retired: He didn't want to play for any team except the Chiefs, a reflection of his loyalty to that franchise that continues today.
Remarkably bad luck in Kansas City has persisted. Since Podolak was a 22-year-old rookie and that Super Bowl win against the Minnesota Vikings, the Chiefs have gone 5-17 in playoff games, including 3-8 at home. They've lost in the postseason in almost every painful way imaginable — three times by one point; by blowing second-half leads of 18 and 28 points; by fluky fumbles or foolish, AFC championship-spoiling penalties.
Or maybe, like the Chicago Cubs' rise in 2016 to a World Series title, the pain will be washed away in storybook fashion. That's what Podolak hopes and believes. He continues to watch his former team with great interest; usually, he returns for the Chiefs' annual “Ring of Honor” game but will miss this year's, as it conflicts with Iowa’s road trip to Michigan.
Even though the Chiefs once again fell short of the Super Bowl last season (in overtime, of course), a part of Podolak was OK with it.
As he sees it: What better story than if Kansas City was to win Super Bowl LIV — 50 years since Podolak’s rookie season? The Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs open their 2019 season Sunday at Jacksonville with the best Super Bowl odds of 32 NFL teams.
"This is the 100th year of the NFL, too. With (Chiefs founder) Lamar Hunt having started the AFL, it would be quite a celebration,” Podolak says. “And I think the Chiefs have really reloaded where they needed it.”
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Before Tony Romo, there was Ed Podolak
Podolak’s legendary status leaves him walking in circles most of us never will. He has been close friends with musician Jimmy Buffett for decades. He spends eight months a year in Costa Rica, where he’s developed a line of boutique hotel resorts.
But every August, he returns for the Iowa State Fair — where he, Dolphin and basketball analyst Bobby Hansen judge the annual “Mother Podolak” chili contest — and stays in West Des Moines through the football season.
These are his favorite four months of the year.
"I really enjoy being around the young men," Podolak says. "The weekends are special all through the fall."
Podolak has been calling Iowa games for so long, most of us under 50 don’t remember a time when he wasn’t on the air in Iowa City. Yet Podolak's 37 broadcasting years (and counting) never would've happened without the late Jim Zabel.
After his NFL retirement, Podolak had been introduced to a TV broadcasting career (first with NBC and later ESPN) with an assist from ex-Chiefs quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Len Dawson. But when Zabel, who called Iowa games for WHO radio in Des Moines, needed a new partner, he dialed Podolak — whom he covered during the dreary Hawkeye football seasons of the 1960s.
Privately, Podolak was fed up with the unpredictable TV travel and the networks’ rigid requirement to stay completely neutral during broadcasts. Fresh off of Iowa’s return to the 1982 Rose Bowl and prominence, Zabel’s invitation was a lifeline to come home.
"Well, Z,” Podolak remembers telling Zabel, "I don’t even have to sleep on that."
Podolak was a perfect complement to Zabel, whose imperfect accuracy and excitement for 2-yard gains was somewhat endearing. A sharp football mind, Podolak can often see plays happening before the rest of us, a knack he credits to being a college quarterback. Dawson also had that reputation as a longtime Chiefs broadcaster.
“Having been a quarterback … you see things that other people can’t see,” Podolak says. “I think that’s why Lenny and I fit so well together in the passing game: We had a lot of success because as I came out of the backfield I was reading the coverage just as he was."
While Romo dazzles TV viewers today with his ability to predict a play before it happens, Podolak was doing that on radio decades ago.
From his press-box perch, Podolak can detect if an offensive lineman is cheating on his gaps; or if a running back is inching one way or another before the snap.
One of Podolak’s other trade secrets?
“You always follow the guards,” he says. “They’ll lead you to every play.”
A perfect plan with 'Dolph': retiring together
When Iowa hosts Rutgers on Saturday, there will be another swarm, another anthem — and more emotion inside the home team’s radio booth.
Dolphin vividly describes the most emotional Podolak has ever been at a game — tears of joy streaming down his broadcast partner’s face after Iowa completed a 12-0 season with a win at Nebraska in 2015.
The pair relish these moments, but Podolak knows all too well that someday, they will end.
He's seen friends, former teammates and rivals deteriorate or die in recent years. Many of them, like Podolak, suffered concussions during their playing days.
Mike Reilly, a former NFL linebacker who played for the Hawkeyes in the 1960s, has lived with Alzheimer’s disease for more than a decade.
Longtime friend Nick Buoniconti, a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins in that Christmas Day 1971 game, died in July after battling dementia. Buoniconti's brain was donated for CTE research.
About a month ago, his fullback in Kansas City and dear friend MacArthur Lane died.
That's just a partial list.
Twice hospitalized for concussions while playing for the Hawkeyes, Podolak feels fortunate to still be sharp during broadcasts, but acknowledges that it’s “depressing” to think of friends he’s lost.
But one friend firmly by his side is Dolphin, who became Iowa’s play-by-play voice in 1997. On the first play of that season, the Hawkeyes scored a touchdown. It’s been a beautiful match ever since.
Off the air, the pair hang out and have a jovial time on road trips. On it, they have an enjoyable camaraderie and affectionately call each other "buddy boy."
“Gary Dolphin is the kindest man I’ve ever met,” Podolak says. “He gives so much of his time to I-Clubs and charities around Dubuque. Just call him, and he’ll come.”
This is their 23rd season together. They’d like to get to 25.
In an act of loyalty and friendship, Dolphin, 68, and Podolak have decided they’ll leave the booth at the same time, whenever that time comes.
"We’re still enjoying it. And when we feel the time is right, we want to go out together," Podolak says. “We’ve talked to the powers that be a little about that.”
This past Saturday’s season-opening win against Miami (Ohio) marked Dolphin’s first game broadcast since he was suspended from basketball games in February after using an inappropriate analogy about a black Maryland player. Podolak hoped from afar in Costa Rica that their radio partnership in football would not be affected. It wasn't, and Dolphin will be back for Iowa basketball this winter, too.
So there they were on Saturday, as the Hawkeyes came out in their swarm.
Dolphin and Podolak, together again.
“We all suffered with him through this period," Podolak says. "When I say ‘all,’ he has so many friends you can’t count them. We’re so happy we’re back in the booth together.
"We’re ready for that national anthem."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.