There are two trains running in “Kingdom Quarterback,” the new book about Kansas City and football, by Mark Dent and Rustin Dodd. You get only a hint of the book’s scope in the subtitle: “Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs, and How a Once Swingin’ Cow Town Chased the Ultimate Comeback.”
To explain: One train chugs along the rather familiar, rough-and-rumpus story of Kansas City. It recounts the city’s emergence from frontier mud and its maturity in the 20th century as a bastion of white, mostly Christian supremacism, an ethos fostered by the segregationist housing patterns established by the developer J.C. Nichols. The century’s legacy of no-Negro housing “covenants” became exacerbated by the federally supported, neighborhood-killing building of highways and other policies that have damaged communities of color to this day. The vague notion of chasing the “ultimate comeback” seems to encompass both the repair of the city’s self-image and the recent civic reckoning with social and economic inequality.
On the other track we find a bullet train speeding out of East Texas and deep into the hearts of Kansas City sports fans. It, of course, is the story of young Mr. Patrick Mahomes, a generational celebrity phenom who has brought championship fever and unmitigated joy to the local — and national — football landscape.
You know the trains will come together at some point; you can hear them blowin’ from years away. Braiding the threads is an effective narrative technique and an ambitious, if not wholly convincing, exercise in casting a big idea. In this particular case it’s almost like dishing up a delicious sports-biography dessert alongside a substantial and required helping of vegetables.
As the authors put it: “Kansas City’s problems may not be unique, but if you want to understand what happened to the American city, you can start with the story of Kansas City.”
The book offers glimpses of fleeting historical heroes and heroines, such as philanthropist and go-getter Sarah Coates, who enlivened downtown and Kansas City culture in the 1890s: “Sarah also founded an art club, thinking Kansas City could be as renowned for its culture as its cows. ‘It is something to have a nucleus of art, at least,’ she wrote, ‘and some of these days we may be the art center of the West. Who knows?’”
Readers with an abiding interest in the arts and their importance to the city’s identity may find themselves wishing that Dent and Dodd had listened more closely to Sarah Coates and made something more than superficial passes at that idea.
Passes? There’s no denying the excitement and the sheer joy that accompanies the saga of Patrick Mahomes. The conjoined story of his life and work, along with the evolution of his forever team, is in very good hands here. The narrative sings.
As for the other train, there are poignant moments. None more wrenching, perhaps, than the reflection on the efforts by the Chiefs — yes, there’s a rather pat discussion of the lingering controversy over the team’s name — to integrate the team in the civil rights era of the 1960s. But when newcomer running back Mike Garrett arrived in town, he was unable to rent an apartment on the Nichols-built, no-Negroes Country Club Plaza. Fair-housing ordinances began to change the landscape. By 1968 teammate Bobby Bell, with the help of a white acquaintance, successfully broke the color barrier in the Nichols-developed suburb of Prairie Village.
As we’ve seen with increasing alarm in recent years, the stain of racial segregation, suppression, and hate rhetoric remains all too present today, fanned by demagogues and wannabes in the halls of power, in the toxic shadows, and in the murky mediaverse.
The authors, both veteran reporters with former ties to Kansas City, find hope these days. In the aftermath of the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement aimed to change civic conversations across the land. And as we find the trains converging, Patrick Mahomes notably spoke out and soon funded a million-dollar rebuilding of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park along Brush Creek east of the Paseo. (Odd that the authors leave out teammate Travis Kelce’s rather impressive investment in a technical education program at Operation Breakthrough, the social-service institution that has helped to raise generations of disadvantaged children.) Dent and Dodd also find inspiration in such topical events as the rise of KC Tenants, vocal advocates for affordable housing.
It’s nice to think that Patrick Mahomes and all his good intentions have somehow taken us past the goal line of right living. One could profitably revisit the life and basketball career of the late Bill Russell for a comparable story and a reminder that there is always much work left to do.
In Mahomes’ case, we can marvel at his on-field success and his he’s-everywhere celebrity. But regarding him as a change agent on both of this book’s trains seems premature. The idea that he somehow embodies the arc of Kansas City’s history as it possibly bends toward justice or that he carries our psycho-social burdens on his shoulders feels like a hail Mary, if not an unfair expectation. It’s convenient and saleable, but a stretch nonetheless.
THREE THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO
Opening Sept. 16 — Photographer Evelyn Hofer’s dedicated project to discover the human core of urban landscapes is revealed in a welcome new retrospective exhibit, “Eyes on the City.” More than 100 prints help recover Hofer’s (1922-2009) remarkable but little-recognized career. Co-organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the show is being touted as her first major museum exhibit in half a century. (A similar career-reviving retrospective opened at a London gallery over the summer.) Seeing cityscapes from Harlem to Florence should be enlightening and magnetic. Through Feb. 11, 2024.
Sept. 23 — Eboni Fondren! This electrifying vocalist brings sauce and savvy to the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra’s new record, “In the Key of KC.” She helps launch the disc and the finely tuned band’s new, 20th-anniversary season. Also launching the same night will be a new book about the band, “States of Swing,” by KC Studio contributor Libby Hanssen. Prepare for some serious and joyous riffs. 8 p.m., Kauffman Center, kcjo.org.
Sept. 9 — A Miniature Art Museum? Los Angeles miniaturist Chris Toledo indeed creates a five-room art gallery, built around an atrium, in the halls of the National Toy and Miniature Museum. Toledo, commissioned by the T/M and inspired by the Nelson-Atkins’ Rozelle Court and other institutions around the world, also incorporates micro paintings by various artists on the micro walls. Something exquisite and magical happens when we see our worlds reproduced in small scale. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday-Monday, 5235 Oak St.