RIVER FALLS, Wis.-- Matt Shoemaker was a 14 year-old kid begging for autographs during the Kansas City Chiefs’ first summer training camp in River Falls in 1991.
Shoemaker recalls waiting outside Rodli Commons, the old UW-River Falls dining hall, at lunchtime one day, collecting autographs on a Chiefs’ team picture he had purchased.
“This guy came out and I asked him to sign my picture and he said, ‘You don’t want my autograph, I’m not a player,’” Shoemaker said. “But I I told him I wanted everyone in the picture to sign it. So he signed it and I looked at his name and went up to my friend and said, ‘Who the heck is Bill Cowher?’”
For 19 years, from 1991 to 2009, River Falls billed itself as “The Summer Home of the Kansas City Chiefs.” And as the team prepares to play in its first Super Bowl in 50 years this Sunday in Miami, there’s still plenty of die-hard green and gold Packer fans in River Falls rooting for them.
“Absolutely,” longtime Johnnie’s bartender Patti Lindquist said. “One hundred percent!”
Lindquist tended bar at Johnnie’s all 19 years the Chiefs trained in River Falls. And she said while there was apprehension about having a Packer opponent and their fans taking over the town each summer, she said it quickly subsided.
“At first it was like they were invading us,” she said. “Nobody knew what to expect. But once they got here everybody loved it.”
The Chiefs became the fourth NFL team to hold its summer training camp in Wisconsin when they moved from William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. to UW-River Falls in 1991, joining the Packers at St. Norbert College in DePere, the Chicago Bears at UW-Platteville, and the New Orleans Saints at UW-La Crosse. Along with the Minnesota Vikings at Minnesota State University-Mankato, the five teams formed what was informally known as the Cheese League, and added a sixth member in 1995 when the Jacksonville Jaguars trained at UW-Stevens Point before their inaugural season.
Cowher, who Shoemaker didn’t recognize in 1991, was the defensive coordinator for the Chiefs during their first year in River Falls before going on to serve as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers for 15 seasons, winning a Super Bowl with the team in 2006. He is currently a studio analyst on The NFL Today on CBS and was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s just one of a long list of hall of fame players who spent three weeks in River Falls each summer, including Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Derrick Thomas, Tony Gonazlez and Will Shields.
Retired Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance Mary Halada was one of the UWRF representatives that helped woo the Chiefs to River Falls. At the time the team was considering both UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls, but after getting some tips from her colleague at UW-Platteville, who had been hosting the Bears’ summer camp since 1984, Halada and her colleagues won the Chiefs over.
“We put together a comprehensive proposal and I think they could tell that one-- we really paid attention to details, and two-- we really wanted them,” Halada recalled. “And the community showed its support and it all just came together.”
So from 1991 to 2009 River Falls rolled out the red carpet for the NFL franchise, which brought seven semi-trailer loads of football gear and training equipment to town each summer along with 100 or more players, coaches, trainers, support staff and media.
And they also brought their fans. Thousands of them, who would flock to the team’s two-a-day workouts on the Ramer Field practice fields and spend their money in town.
“You look at the number of visitors that came up,” Halada said. “There were hard-core Chiefs fans who came up every year; a lot of regulars. And they’d stay in our hotels and eat at our restaurants and drink in our bars.”
The River Falls Bureau of Tourism in 1991 projected the economic impact of the Chiefs at more than $1 million. That number ballooned to $2 million by the 2000s, according to a study by UW-River Falls researchers.
Paige Olson, owner of Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters, credits the presence of the Chiefs with helping get her business off the ground after she opened in 2000.
“The first couple years we had some players’ families stay with us and we had some fans that came every single year,” she said. “It was especially big because those were the first couple of years that I got started and the great big hotel downtown had not been built yet. So it was a good kickstart to the business.”
Olson and Lindquist said another perk of having the Chiefs in town was getting to meet the players and coaches up close and personal. Olson said Priest Holmes, the Chiefs’ all-time leader in rushing touchdowns, was one of a number of players who used to put their families up at her lodge, while Lindquist remembers a specific interaction with hall of fame offensive tackle Art Shell, who served as the Chiefs’ offensive line coach in 1995.
“Art Shell walking in here was pretty cool,” she said. “He asked me what was good so I said, ‘I’ll mix you up something nice,’ and I made him an amaretto stone sour, one of the sissiest drinks I could think of. And he loved it.”
Halada, who served as UWRF’s camp coordinator for all 19 years the team was in River Falls, said her favorite part was the student involvement.
“For a lot of them it helped shape their careers,” she said. “You see that on somebody’s resume, that they worked for an organization like the Chiefs, and it’s impressive. There’s people working in the NFL and other fields who got their start there, and I still keep in touch with a lot of them. We’re joking that we should have a reunion this summer after the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. There would be a lot of us.”
But football is a business. And no matter how successful teams were in Wisconsin, it made more sense from a business perspective to move camps closer to home, where fan interest and money would increase. By the late 1990s’ the trend of escaping from the distractions of home to retreat to college towns in Wisconsin to prepare for the upcoming NFL season began to wane, and the Cheese League began to slowly crumble. The Saints moved their training camp from La Crosse to Thibodaux, La, in 2000 and the Bears moved from Platteville to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. in 2002.
In 2010 the Missouri Development Finance Board approved a $25-million state tax credit proposal that would pay for improvements at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play their home games. In turn, the team would donate $10 million from the sale of the tax credits to Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo., for a new indoor, air-conditioned practice facility. So the team moved its summer training camp from River Falls to St. Joseph, just a 50-minute drive from downtown Kansas City.
“When you think back, 19 years is a long time,” Halada said. “But I think all the pressure to train closer to home and all these teams building their own practice facilities, was just too much to overcome.”
While moving the team’s training camp closer to Kansas City may have appeased the politicians, there were still plenty of Chiefs’ fans who missed the annual summer trek to River Falls.
“The first few years after the Chiefs were gone, I had repeat customers come up just because they loved River Falls so much” Olson said.
Lindquist still keeps in touch with a number of the team’s fans she met during their 19 years in town.
“One guy named Ed, he’s big into baseball cards and football cards and he knows that I’m a Yankee fan and a Bucky Dent fan,” she said. “He just sent me a Bucky Dent card.”
Halada was closer to people in the Chiefs’ organization than almost anybody in River Falls during their time here, and she and her husband Tom would attend a game at Arrowhead Stadium each year as a guest of team founder Lamar Hunt. Hunt was also the principal founder of the American Football League, which merged with the NFL after the 1969 season. Since 1985, the trophy that goes to the winner of the AFC championship game has been called the Lamar Hunt Trophy. He is also credited with the coinage of the term ‘Super Bowl.
Halada described Lamar and his wife Norma as a ‘lovely couple,’ and said it was heartwarming to see Norma present the Lamar Hunt Trophy to her son, Chiefs’ chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, after the team defeated the Tennessee Titans in this year’s AFC title game. She said the only thing better would be to see the Hunt family accepting the Lombardi Trophy this Sunday, 50 years after beating the Minnesota Vikings 23-7, in their last Super Bowl appearance in 1970.
“I’m just hoping for a good game and a good outcome,” she said. “But it would be great if 50 years later the Chiefs could win the Super Bowl. It just feels like it ought to happen.”