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To understand a Kansas City Chiefs fan's blissful disbelief that their NFL team is playing in Sunday's Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, you have to follow them down the dark rabbit hole of the second-worst kind of despair in sports.
It's a well-worn path for the franchise's many loyal, tortured devotees in central Iowa.
The worst variety, to be clear, is rooting for a group so hapless that one abandons all hope each season. The Chiefs aren't that kind of team.
They have a Super Bowl triumph — in the fourth edition on Jan. 11, 1970, over the Minnesota Vikings, to go with a loss in Super Bowl I to Green Bay.
There were lean years, sure, with just one playoff appearance from 1972-89. From 1990 to 2018, however, Kansas City reached the postseason 15 times. Just one problem: There was no return trip to the biggest spectacle in American sport.
And oh, the ways they could fail when the lights were brightest.
A kicker would miss three field goals, and the Chiefs would lose.
Neither team would punt, and the Chiefs would lose.
Lose. Lose. Lose.
Last season, everything was finally going to change. Wunderkind quarterback Patrick Mahomes was the league's most valuable player. Even with the New England Patriots, sports' ultimate modern dynasty, in town, the Super Bowl appearance drought was about to end at 49 seasons.
Holding a late four-point lead, the team watched as legendary signal-caller Tom Brady threw an interception. The nightmare was over!
Hang on, though. Those aren't the Kansas City Chiefs.
A defensive player had lined up offside, negating a raucous Midwest celebration. The Patriots went on to score a touchdown and later win the game — in overtime, to boot, because why would a team with such a decorated record of face-palm failure want to wipe out in a conventional manner?
Those are the Kansas City Chiefs, you see, the crown princes of that second-worst grief — the team good enough to trick a fan into hope before ripping out their heart and then stomping on it for grins.
You may be at the get-to-the-point-wiseguy part of the story now, which is fair. But it's hard to appreciate the thoughts and tears and nerves and dreams of those ardent central Iowa Chiefs fans as they approach Sunday's Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers without understanding what brought them to this at-last joyous winter.
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'Maybe we're jinxed forever.' ... Or maybe not.
Those Kansas City Chiefs were crafting another grim tale in their first playoff game this season against the Houston Texans.
A bevy of mistakes had the team down 24-0 at Arrowhead Stadium with little more than one quarter in the books on Jan. 12.
Kristi Rullestad of Ankeny, who first bought season tickets in the late 1980s for $25 a pop when she resided in the Kansas City metro area, acknowledged she'd nearly given up.
"Here we go, typical Chiefs," she remembered thinking from her usual table at The Other Place sports bar in Ankeny. "They're gonna choke again. I was ready to stop watching."
Rob Jackson, who has kept his hometown roots alive as an owner of the Kansas City-themed Truman's Pizza Tavern in Des Moines' East Village, watched his normally boisterous bar go quiet.
"You hear a pin drop. It was deadly silent," he said, laughing now but not then. "I was guilty of it, too, once we got down 24. There was this sense of doom."
Clint Driftmier, a 36-year-old father of three from Norwalk who grew up in Clarinda catching the Chiefs on the closest radio and TV stations he could find, was ready to punch a hole in his wall and no doubt anger his wife, Daira.
"My thought going into this season was that if we don't make it (to the Super Bowl), then maybe we're jinxed forever," he said.
Even Ed Podolak — yes, Iowa football radio analyst who was a rookie on that Super Bowl IV-winning Chiefs team — said he was ready to bang his head against the wall of his West Des Moines home.
"I have my Chiefs flag out and everything, and I was going out to take the flags down," he said, before speaking aloud the only appropriate follow-up question. "How can this happen again?"
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All these folks came by their conditioned sadness honestly. Yet something uncharacteristic occurred this time around. All that went wrong early went improbably right in the span of 10 game minutes, as Mahomes led four touchdown drives to give the Chiefs a 28-24 lead by halftime.
They won the game 51-31 to complete what tied for the fourth-largest postseason comeback in NFL history and advanced to the AFC championship game for the second consecutive year.
Rich Schmadeke was among those Chiefs fans brave enough to be bold that day. The 47-year-old Pleasant Hill resident has followed Kansas City since the early 1990s, first attending by buying tickets outside the stadium on gamedays and later biting the bullet for a season seat.
He's had a special feeling about this year's team since he attended preseason training camp in St. Joseph, Missouri. He's been part of the 515 Tailgate Crew of central Iowans who avidly follow their Chiefs in person. What started as a one-tent pregame gathering has grown into three trucks' worth of food, grills, speakers and generators.
He wasn't ready to accept another letdown. Not with Mahomes' arm leading the way, not with Schmadeke's commemorative box of double-digit autographed Chiefs players on it.
"I was in shock, like everybody else, but basically I didn't give up hope at all," he said. "I knew what I had felt all season."
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'It's such a surreal moment'
Charlie Edrington encapsulates that simultaneous unease and optimism better than most.
"Nervous, but not completely bummed, because you have one-five," said the 41-year-old Des Moines resident, spelling out Mahomes' jersey number of 15 while referencing that Houston deficit.
Edrington is as die-hard for the Chiefs as it gets around these parts. His 2,000-piece shrine of memorabilia in his basement has a name (the Chiefs Temple) and a Facebook page.
He's had Mahomes' father, also named Patrick and a former Major League Baseball pitcher, over to his parking spot to tailgate. Edrington dresses in full garb, paints his face for many games, home or away, and he even has a custom-made jersey for the team with four digits on it — one of only two he knows of in existence.
The uniform boasts the number 142.2, for the Arrowhead decibel standard touted by the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium.
Edrington was at Arrowhead for the official Chiefs NFL Draft party the night the team drafted the younger Mahomes in 2017. He was back to complete the circle on Jan. 19 when the squad defeated the Tennessee Titans 35-24 to secure that first Super Bowl berth in half a century.
A season ticket-holder for 15 years, Edrington was in his seat for the first time since his father, a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, died unexpectedly in November.
"The organization is all about the fans. They reciprocate everything you give. ... And the whole experience at Arrowhead is a family-based deal. They support and help you. They stand by you," Edrington said.
"... Losing my dad this November was my lowest low, and to watch my team hoist the Lamar Hunt trophy (named for the Chiefs' late founding owner), it's such a surreal moment."
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Driftmier, of Norwalk, was in one of the end zones with his wife after the latter won tickets through a Hy-Vee employee drawing. When Mahomes made a highlight-reel scramble to score a touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half that gave the Chiefs the lead for good, he said it was the loudest he's ever heard a stadium.
"I don't like to use cliches, but it almost was deafening," he said. "I was screaming words to everyone around me and no one could hear anything."
Podolak, a member of the Chiefs' Ring of Honor for its all-time greats, was on the field for a pregame salute and in a suite during the conference title game. He preferred to sit inside and out of the single-degree wind chill. But as the minutes wound down and with victory all but assured, he had to go to a seat outside and soak in the moment.
"You just were wondering, 'When is this volcano gonna blow?'" the 72-year-old Podolak said.
The explosion for Schmadeke came throughout the fourth quarter, when a man "overwhelmed with joy" was brought to tears and a near loss for words multiple times.
"The river flowed," he said simply.
Podolak doesn't doubt that emotion.
"Looking out to that south side of the stadium, to people with all their heavy clothes on, as the seconds ticked down and to hear the place erupt, it was unbelievable," he said.
"We still have to go win the Super Bowl, but it was an incredible experience."
'A collective hallelujah'
Such incredible experiences brought about the unfamiliar challenges of what to do next.
Jackson, the Truman's tavern owner, didn't know how to release that immediate energy, so he took his Chiefs flag that hangs outside his bar and ran around with it for a bit. Then he thought about how his humble hangout that seats 80 could handle a Super Bowl bash.
The answer was, it couldn't, so he's filling the seats by taking reservations through some of his most loyal customers and directing everyone else to another sister property in the Full Court Press restaurant group once his place is full.
The limits of space don't detract from a couple of weeks of celebration.
"This year, that game is one of the greatest things I've been through. I'll remember it forever," he said. "... That night, people were staying, people were crying. It's the longest I've seen anyone hang out after a game.
"We're all just singing a collective hallelujah."
Rullestad stayed longer than she normally would have at her The Other Place spot, considering it was a Sunday. She'll be back among the Iowa and Kansas City-area chain of locations that was founded by Waterloo's Troy Stedman — who, naturally, was drafted in 1988 by the Chiefs.
She hopes she's early enough to be in her same lucky gear and grab her same lucky seat to be among some newfound playoff friends.
"I think of the Hunt family, of (Chiefs coach) Andy Reid and all's he has gone through in (his 21) years of coaching, and they are first-class, class acts. This would just be so amazing," she said. "I don't want to jinx it, but I have a really, really good feeling."
The preference for watching Sunday's game among tight-knit friends and fans seems to be prevailing over the social standard of casually watching the game among folks without a true rooting interest.
Podolak was hoping to meet as many of his living Super Bowl IV teammates as possible at a gathering in Miami, the site of this year's big game. Schmadeke will be among a group of 30 to 40 big at a local party, he says. Edrington will be doing something similar, and hopefully bringing a few dozen pounds of burnt ends along.
He'll be with his two sons, the younger sporting Pittsburgh Steelers socks that belonged to Edrington's late father. The Chiefs haven't lost since 10-year-old Nick started putting them on for games.
For the briefest moment, the Driftmiers thought about trying to make the South Florida pilgrimage and attend the game. Record-breaking ticket prices put an end to that.
"I could throw one heck of a party for $5,000," Driftmier quipped.
And in 3,600 football seconds, these Kansas City Chiefs and their region's legion of fans could be throwing one heck of a parade.
Danny Lawhon works across the Register’s sports department, from editing, social media and sports wagering to bowls, brackets and data dives. Reach him at email@example.com or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.