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Tribal Warfare
08-23-2009, 11:52 PM
Chiefs leave a few broken hearts as they part ways with River Falls, Wis. (http://www.kansascity.com/starmagazine/story/1395060.html)
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star

RIVER FALLS, Wis. | For a generation of summers, Craig Foster had a routine. Months before the Kansas City Chiefs arrived here for their summer training camp, Foster would order a basement full of Chiefs merchandise for Foster Sports, his store on Main Street. Then he’d keep it in hiding for 11 months.

This is Wisconsin, after all, a state that belongs to the Green Bay Packers. But Foster knows an opportunity when he sees one, and two weeks before the Chiefs would get here, he’d spend a week transforming a store packed with green and gold T-shirts into one covered in Chiefs red.

The Packers gear went upstairs, into an unseen loft, and the rest of the store’s 1,800 square feet belonged to the Chiefs. When the Chiefs went home, Foster would spend another week turning his store into a Packers haven again.

During the good times of the 1990s — when the Chiefs were winning, the economy was soaring and the team’s romance with Wisconsin was strong — there’d sometimes be 20 people lined up at the cash register. They’d have Chiefs tank tops and Chiefs shorts, Chiefs welcome mats and camouflage hats, Chiefs license plates and even a red and yellow feather boa. For Foster, it was Christmas in August.

Now, Foster, 63, stands in front of his store in the mild Wisconsin sun, about a week left in the Chiefs’ final camp in this town of 12,500, and wonders what it’ll be like next year. The team had spent years getting to know River Falls, with its mile of Main Street and the tan-brick storefronts and restaurants that line both sides, its antique feel, the cool breezes coming off the Kinnickinnic River.

But now the team is moving home, or close to it, after 19 summers. The Chiefs will begin a new summer fling, moving training camp to St. Joseph.

From Liberty to River Falls

People like Foster were hoping the Chiefs’ flirtation with someplace new, a dance that had gone on for almost a decade, would lose its heat. It started with then-Coach Dick Vermeil, a man approaching his 70s, a Super Bowl ring on his finger. He’d begun telling confidantes that he preferred to spend his twilight coaching years near home. Why would a Kansas City team practice in Wisconsin? he wondered.

Others started wondering the same thing. Why lug all those players and seven trucks of equipment to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, a liberal-arts campus in the heart of cornfields and Packers country? Not to mention the strain on the team’s fans.

Vermeil’s successor, Herm Edwards, didn’t understand the connection to River Falls, either. He’d heard the tales from Carl Peterson, the team’s president at the time, about the way the residents of this western Wisconsin town had once embraced the Chiefs as their own. It was Kansas City, North — way, way north — and the Chiefs were part of a running joke: that amid a sea of the region’s National Football Conference teams, including the Packers, Kansas City was the area’s preferred team in the American Football Conference.

Edwards heard about the way the people of River Falls lined the streets that first summer, 1991, hooting and cheering as the team’s players and coaches rolled by, parade style, in a line of River Falls fire trucks.

“It’s a different life up here,” says Bob Moore, the 61-year-old public relations director for the Chiefs.

Moore remembers that first parade, when the team’s strength coach, Dave Redding, stood on the roof of a Main Street bar, tossing water balloons at the fire trucks as everyone laughed. In 1991, eagerness and possibility were on the horizon.

Moore says now that move to River Falls represented a change in the Chiefs organization. The team had been spending summers at William Jewell College in Liberty, and some of the worst seasons in team history had started there. So when Peterson and Coach Marty Schottenheimer joined the Chiefs in 1988, talking about change in a way a politician sometimes does, they suggested a shift of scenery for a team that had been to one playoff game in the previous 20 seasons.

“A signal of the new era,” Moore says. “What Liberty represented was the Chiefs of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. Tough times. This was a whole new picture.”

A hopping town

The 1990s were the Chiefs’ most successful decade, and people within the organization made the connection: River Falls, with its isolation and simplicity, helped unite players. And the determined fans who loved the team enough to travel to Wisconsin were the grizzled and loyal kind the Chiefs wanted to appeal to, the kind who buy season tickets and teach their kids that there’s no love like the love of the home team.

“The consistency we had here,” Moore says, “was tied to our success.”

That’s when Foster, the sporting goods man, outfitted this town. He’d sink upward of $30,000 into stocking that basement with Chiefs gear, and there was never a shortage of spare hands to help retransform the place after the team departed for another year.

In those days, he couldn’t keep his custom-made Chiefs shirts in the store. The team’s Family Fun Night would approach, and hundreds would stop in to find something to wear or throw or have signed. Then they’d file down to one of the taverns farther down Main Street, Coach’s or Bo’s ’n Mine, and push a pin into a map to show how far they’d come.

Foster remembers people visiting River Falls from New York and California and points in between. Someone pushed a pin into the Pacific Rim, having traveled from Japan to see the Chiefs and maybe even bump into a player enjoying the college town’s nightlife.

“It really turned River Falls into a hopping town,” says Mark Kinders, a former UW-River Falls staffer who helped shepherd the Chiefs here.

Foster says that when legendary quarterback Joe Montana signed with the Chiefs in 1993, River Falls became the epicenter of the “Cheese League.” Back then, NFL teams traveling to quiet Wisconsin towns was common.

New Orleans camped at La Crosse. Chicago at Platteville. Jacksonville at Stevens Point. Including the Packers and the nearby Minnesota Vikings, there were six teams summering within a five-hour drive. Foster started ordering thousands of black T-shirts showing a chunk of Swiss cheese in the shape of Wisconsin and a half-dozen mice wearing each of the teams’ helmets, peeking from the holes.

“You could not keep that T-shirt stocked,” he says now, smiling.

When the ’90s ended, Vermeil took over in another, almost poetic turn of the page. He’d helped guide the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, and when Peterson had the chance to hire him in 2001, it was easy. But the Chiefs couldn’t consistently make the playoffs. And to Vermeil, those weeks in River Falls didn’t make much sense.

“We just started drifting back,” Moore says.

No more Cheese League

Years passed, and boys became men. The toddlers playing with a football on a side clearing near the Chiefs’ practice fields have grown up. Some of them have toddlers now of their own.

Allen Wright was a 25-year-old assistant equipment manager when the Chiefs moved to River Falls. Now he’s approaching his 20-year wedding anniversary, and his son, Andrew, will turn 15 as the Chiefs click down their final days in a place that felt like home for a long time. Until last Thursday, anyway.

(One of Wright’s jobs in the old days was to stand in the tunnel at Arrowhead Stadium and light cigarettes at halftime for the team’s smokers and, later, empty the ashtrays in the locker room.)

Wright had gotten married three months before the team reported to River Falls that first time. Over time, he learned the nuances of a complicated and demanding business, and he appreciated the small town’s pace. Wright learned the name of a seamstress in River Falls who could fix a uniform. When he needed something welded or repaired, he knew a guy who could get it done by tomorrow.

But the team was easing back toward the heartland, and the old friends in Wisconsin couldn’t help but hear the whispers. The Chiefs entered this decade, a particularly disappointing one, and as the years passed, it became clear to the Wisconsin folks that the Chiefs didn’t belong to them anymore. The summer romance was over.

The Cheese League dissolved, most of the teams chasing tax breaks in their home states, and it looked as though the Chiefs would be next.

“We always looked at it as a possibility,” says Mary Halada, the former vice chancellor of UW-River Falls and a liaison between the Chiefs and the university. “There were always rumors that they were going to be leaving.”

It didn’t help, Moore says, that the team signed a series of one-year contracts with the university. That gave the impression the partnership could end at any time.

Residents noticed and braced themselves. The locals began to distance themselves from the Chiefs and renewed their commitment to the Packers or, for some, the Vikings. The bars that once hopped with weeknight crowds now stand mostly empty. The chance to mingle with a Chiefs player has been lost in a new world of strict rules and dazzling contracts, all of which kicked a wedge between the trusting Wisconsin residents and the Chiefs players they once idolized.

“The NFL has changed,” says Wright, the team’s equipment man. “Players changed, too.”

Empty bleachers

Still, the town tried to hold on. It tried to keep part of the Chiefs as its own. More than 15 years after Joe Montana played for Kansas City, Steve’s Pizza still advertises on its menu that the quarterback once declared its pie the best in the world.

But the town started feeling emptier on those warm August days. On a mild Thursday afternoon at this year’s camp, the steel bleachers are mostly empty, a few loyalists hanging around for a glimpse of the future or a peek at a more charming past. In the old days, these bleachers would be packed, and fans would fight for a good view along the wood fence that lines the Chiefs’ three practice fields.

Now it’s quiet, other than eight youngsters throwing a football on a side field. They’re ignoring the Chiefs, focusing instead on their own game. One of them throws a football toward a cluster of teammates in their makeshift end zone.

“Interception!” one of them shouts, the ball bouncing off young hands and hitting the grass.

“Almost,” another says.

Foster at the sporting good store saw this coming. He followed the news when Missouri Western State University made a power play last year, vowing to build a $10 million practice facility. Missouri promised tax credits to the Chiefs at a particularly opportune time, as the team is renovating Arrowhead Stadium. The state and Missouri Western had committed to the Chiefs, and the people of River Falls watched and listened as, sure enough, the Chiefs committed to St. Joseph.

That left a nostalgic fan base scrambling to make one last pilgrimage to that sacred spot seven hours north and east of Kansas City.

Barry Peraino heard about River Falls almost 20 years ago. It was old Yankee Stadium or Venice to him, a place he wanted to visit before it was gone. He has three children and is trying to make it as a blogger, but he couldn’t pass up his first and last chance to soak up the place he’d heard about.

So Peraino drove up from St. Louis — he grew up watching the Chiefs after St. Louis’ old NFL team, the Cardinals, moved to Arizona — and he spent 11 nights in a River Falls park, sleeping in a tent because that was the only way.

“I’ve been dreaming about coming here for a decade,” Peraino says. “The clouds are low, the nights are cool, and I’ve got the Chiefs. This is the greatest trip of my life.”

Peraino doesn’t spend all his time in that tent or the practice field. He does what so many others have done over the years: He brings his dollars to Main Street. On a warm Tuesday, he riffles through the remaining inventory at Foster Sports, trying to bring back one last memento.

The problem is that Foster didn’t pack his store this year with the usual amount of Chiefs merchandise. If he invested $30,000 in previous years, he spent less than $10,000 on Kansas City gear this summer. Instead of restocking in advance of the team’s arrival, he decided to mostly kill off last year’s leftovers.

If a Chiefs fan found a must-have shirt or cap that didn’t fit, Foster didn’t have a secret stash, as he might have in years past. He’d explain to the customer that the interest just wasn’t there anymore — and that the people of River Falls had to accept it and move on.

The town that once craved a suitor, knowing the dollars an NFL team would attract, is now facing the reality of being left behind. The Chiefs pumped $1 million a week into the River Falls economy during that month of camp, estimates Kinders of UW-River Falls. Chain restaurants and hotels popped up.

But Foster says it’s the small businesses like his that stand to lose the most. Business was slow before the Chiefs arrived so many years ago, he says, and he’s uncertain whether Foster Sports would have survived if it hadn’t been for so many of those good Augusts.

His wife, LuAnn, says he should retire. And Foster is considering it.

“It’s been getting tougher every year,” he says. “I’m already practicing my ‘Welcome to Wal-Mart.’ ”

Still their AFC team

Others are practicing their goodbyes. Wright, the Chiefs’ equipment manager, is one of only a handful of people in the organization to have spanned the entire 19 years in River Falls. He made friends here. “Having us here never got old to them,” he says.

Moore is another who has been here the whole time. He says he’s bringing home two of the red signs that have hung on the town’s street lamps for parts of the past 19 years, the ones welcoming visitors to the summer home of the Chiefs. Moore says one of the signs is for the Chiefs museum he’s putting together at Arrowhead Stadium, and the other is for his personal collection.

“I’ve enjoyed every day of it,” Moore says. “A small town where people are crazy about your team.”

A state, maybe, too. Wisconsin’s governor, Jim Doyle, visited Chiefs camp the week before the team’s first preseason game. He met with coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli, a pair of new faces who will marshal Kansas City’s latest move the same way Peterson and Schottenheimer oversaw the team’s transition to River Falls. Moore says the governor told the team’s leaders he was sad to see the Chiefs go, but even as another chapter turns, the Chiefs will always be Wisconsin’s AFC team.

“It’s symbolic,” Moore says quietly, sitting on the bleachers during an afternoon Chiefs practice. “Everything else is changing.”

Some will have to get used to that. Foster says he’s one of them. He stands outside now, the whirr of cars passing by his Main Street storefront.

The window is packed with Chiefs merchandise, and he admits he probably won’t be able to sell much of it. Maybe he’ll donate it or put some on eBay.

Then again, maybe some of the old stuff will just sit in the basement like it used to. Foster knows that in a few weeks, he’ll have to transform his store again, and looking at those wide windows, he’s already planning to put the Packers apparel on the right side and local high school merchandise on the left.

He says there’s talk of a farm exposition coming to River Falls next year. Foster says they’re expecting 60,000. Maybe he’ll devise a new strategy. He always did know how to spot an opportunity. The last one, after all, lasted almost two decades.

“You know,” he says, “it has been good.”

DTLB58
08-24-2009, 08:15 AM
Very good :clap:

I stopped in at Foster's every year and bought something either to wear or to have signed at Family fun night.

I spent about a half hour talking to Craig this year he is a really nice guy so I feel bad for him that his business will take a hit, but I agree that the Chiefs should hold T.C. in their home state.