Hanging among the 10 numbers retired by the Kansas City Chiefs is one many fans may not recognize. Make no mistake, Mack Lee Hill and his No. 36 jersey meant and continue to mean every bit as much to the franchise as Len Dawson’s No. 16, Derrick Thomas’ No. 58 and Bobby Bell’s No. 78.
A powerful running back out of Southern University, Hill passed away 13 games into his second professional season, 50 years ago on Dec. 14. Two days before his death, Hill carried the ball eight times for 22 yards and caught four passes for 39 yards in a loss to the Buffalo Bills at Buffalo’s old War Memorial Stadium.
The cause of death was "a sudden and massive embolism" following surgery to repair a torn knee ligament suffered while making the last of those catches in the third quarter of the loss in Buffalo. The Quincy, Fla., native was 25 years old, and his death rattled the teammates who grew to love Hill after he signed with the team the year before.
"This guy had one of the biggest hearts you could imagine in a human being," said Bell, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who spent his entire career as a linebacker and defensive end with the Chiefs. "Mack came from hard times, and he just wanted to play ball."
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe no one else took a chance on Hill.
A standout at Southern in the ’60s, Hill saw a slight decline in production following the death of Jaguars coach Ace Mumford following his sophomore season, but his 5-11, 225-pound frame was certainly NFL-worthy. After going undrafted in 1964, Hill signed with the Chiefs for a $300, non-guaranteed bonus, and as soon as Hill arrived in Kansas City the team knew it had a star in the making.
"He came in as a rookie and was a guy that was very quiet," longtime Chiefs tight end Fred Arbanas said of Hill. "And you could see him learning things in the expression in his face and his eyes all the time. He was just soaking things up and really, really getting involved. He came and did his job and learned the best and quickest he could."
Mack Lee Hill, 1940-1965
Added Bell: "He was so sincere about everything. You’ve got some players who won’t say nothing to you because they think they know everything, but this guy had enough confidence in himself to walk up to somebody and ask for help. ‘Am I doing this right? Should I do this?’ "
More memorable than his desire to learn from veterans was his effort on the field, which Bell said was unmatched.
"Every time he touched the ball, every time he hit the field, you were getting 120 percent," Bell said. "One hundred twenty percent, every time. That’s just the way he was. Every time he touched it, he was going 100 miles per hour, boom, and then he’d go right back. You could run the same play 10 times and he’d run it the same way every time."
We’ll never know what Hill could have become had his life not ended tragically, but there’s no doubt he was moving in an encouraging direction. As a rookie, Hill carried the ball 105 times for 576 yards and four touchdowns, his 5.49 yards per attempt tops in the AFL. He also caught 19 passes for 144 yards and two scores and earned a spot in the boycotted 1964 AFL All-Star Game.
Prior to his death in ’65, Hill ran for 627 more yards at an AFL-leading 5.0 yards per carry and had 264 yards receiving, and when asked to compare Hill to another memorable runner, Bell mentioned a legendary Hall of Famer.
"He kind of reminded me of Earl Campbell, how he ran," Bell said. "Earl was a hard runner and he didn’t run out of bounds, and that was Mack Lee Hill, too. … Tackling Earl was like grabbing a big old cement rock, and that’s the way Mack was. I’d sit on the sidelines and watch the way (Hill) would hit people, and just go, ‘Ooh!’ You didn’t want to have to hit him two or three times."
"I know defensive guys, if he got past the defensive line, the linebackers and defensive backs sure didn’t like going after him and trying to tackle him," Arbanas added. "He was a load."
Every time he touched the ball, every time he hit the field, you were getting 120 percent.
Unfortunately, all of the strength and determination in the world could do nothing to save Hill at Kansas City’s Menorah Medical Center on Dec. 14, 1965. Bell said he remembers the play where Hill got hurt but thought nothing of it at the time.
"Honest to God, when they hit him it sounded like a two-by-four cracked," Bell said. "When they hit him, he went down and everybody said, ‘Holy mackerel.’ But the thing about Mack, he didn’t want to lay down, so he jumped up and hobbled off the field, and I remember when he walked by he said, ‘Holy crap, man.’ "
On the plane ride home from New York, Hill’s knee began to swell, and team physician Dr. Joseph Lichtor told Hill the injury would likely require surgery.
"All Mack said was, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to the doctor. I don’t want to go see a doctor,’ " Bell said. "In his mind, he never went to the doctor, so he was scared of the doctor. He was frightened, and I remember Dr. Lichtor said not to worry, they’d take care of it."
By all accounts, the procedure went according to plan, but afterward, Hill began convulsing, and a hospital spokesman told The AP that Hill’s temperature "shot up to 108 degrees." Within an hour and a half of the surgery ending, Hill was dead.
Lichtor described the embolism that killed Hill as "entirely unpredictable and unpreventable" — heat stroke related to Hill’s body’s handling of anesthesia was also reported to be a factor — and naturally, the news stunned Hill’s teammates.
"We knew that he was going to have his knee operated on, but of course, that happened quite often with guys all over football," Arbanas said. "We didn’t think anything of it, so we were in total shock that he died during the operation. Things like that, that doesn’t happen to football players, and it knocked the hell out of us, no doubt about it."
We were in total shock that he died during the operation. Things like that, that doesn’t happen to football players, and it knocked the hell out of us, no doubt about it.
It was the second time in three years the Chiefs had to mourn the loss of a teammate.
In 1963, Kansas City lost running back Stone Johnson after Johnson broke his neck in a preseason game. (Johnson’s number, 33, is also retired by the team.) In addition, the team nearly lost guard Ed Budde, who survived being struck in the head with a lead pipe at a nightclub after the 1963 season, and also endured an assault on Arbanas, who lost vision in his left eye after being attacked on the street by a stranger in December 1964.
In some ways, it began to appear that the Chiefs, as a group, were cursed, and the mood in the locker room reflected that.
"It devastated the team," Bell said of Hill’s death. "It wasn’t good, man. They brought people out to talk to us because we couldn’t figure out what the hell happened. Here’s one of the strongest, most physical guys, and next thing you tell me he’s gone? You just didn’t know what went wrong, and it kind of scarred the players for a long time. Not one year or two years, but it was something that was on our minds for a long, long time."
The Chiefs didn’t have long to grieve, however, as the Denver Broncos paid a visit to Kansas City Municipal Stadium for the team’s regular-season finale five days after Hill’s death. Without Hill, who coach Hank Stram remembered as the "one of the most unselfish players" he coached, the Chiefs won 45-35 but finished the game without a single rushing yard on 22 attempts.
"Coach Stram, he was wondering about how we were going to perform that day after losing Mack," Bell said. "The doctor came over to the facility trying to convince us that everything was OK, and for a while we all felt mad, that it shouldn’t have happened. It was just sad, a sad situation."
A few weeks after the season finale, Hill was posthumously named to the AFL All-Star team, and with time, the team was able to move on despite the loss of its beloved running back. In 1966, the Chiefs won the AFL championship before losing Super Bowl I to the Green Bay Packers.
That same year, the Chiefs also established the Mack Lee Hill Award, which is still given annually to the team’s top rookie.
"Every one of us loved the guy, and every one of us had something nice to say about him," Bell said of Hill. "This guy stood out, and for years people who continued to play for that team had him on their minds.
"It’s been 50 years and his name still comes up, and I think that players should know that this guy had the biggest heart and was one of the great rookies in the league at the time. Now the award encourages young men to come in and play with the same heart and desire that Mack Lee Hill did."
Last year, the Mack Lee Hill Award went to De’Anthony Thomas. The year before, defensive back Marcus Cooper received the honor. But if there’s one thing to know about Hill, it’s that there will never be another player like him. They called him "The Truck," but really, he was Superman in cleats.
"He was solid, every muscle in his body, all the way," Bell said. "He was as hard as cement, man."
"Cement will chip if you hit it with a hammer," Arbanas added. "So maybe I’d say he was made of steel."