INDIANAPOLIS – Like a scene from “The Godfather,” people came over to shake hands with the two men sitting in the corner table at the Tilted Kilt the night before the Chiefs squared off against the Colts.
On the surface, Marty McDonald and Eric Granell weren’t much different than their visitors adorned in red. Both men wore Chiefs gear to show allegiance to their favorite team.
But McDonald and Granell are unique. They cared enough during a disastrous 2012 season to become the co-founders of “Save Our Chiefs,” a movement born on the ChiefsPlanet.com message board that drew national and local media attention.
Banners flying over Arrowhead Stadium demanding change and the firing of then-Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli became a norm during the 2012 season. The group also orchestrated “Blackout Arrowhead” for a home game as a way to show fan frustrations over the Pioli regime.
Taking a moment Friday night to reflect on a year gone by, McDonald and Granell broke out in full smiles.
They couldn’t help but be amazed at the difference a year made from when the Chiefs made sweeping changes in the front office and coaching staff.
“It’s like not being able to see light for four years, and then finally walking outside to see sunshine,” Granell said. “It’s that big of a change. Growing up a Chiefs fan, then seeing how Scott Pioli came in and everything went in the tank after that. It was the darkest time.”
That frustrating four-year period for numerous fans has been replaced by a team led by general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid.
In their first year at the helm, the Chiefs improved from a 2-14 season to 11-5 and a playoff berth, reigniting a passion that lay virtually dormant when the Chiefs went 23-41 from 2009-12.
“I don’t think any Chiefs fan could’ve scripted what we have seen transpire this year,” McDonald said. “You see the product on the field and it’s improved considerably.”
Another area that improved in 2013 was how the Chiefs viewed the fan base, arguably one of the NFL’s most-loyal supporters.
Reid often mentioned the fans during weekly pressers to offer gratitude for supporting the team at home and on the road. The first-year coach even saw fit to mention that dedication during his end-of-season media session.
“I would like to just thank the fans for the great support in which they gave our football team and their football team this season,” Reid said Sunday.
Reid’s gestures throughout the regular season didn’t go unnoticed.
“I think the tell-tale sign of the new outlook is how much the Chiefs have actually embraced the fans this year,” McDonald said. “In the past with Scott Pioli, the fans were basically shoved off to the side at times. That’s how some of us felt.
“To see and hear Arrowhead Stadium rocking, that’s what made this franchise so special and I knew Andy Reid and John Dorsey had our hearts. When you get the heart of a Chiefs fan, it’s special. You really can’t describe it.”
Meanwhile, as close to 250 patrons in the Tilted Kilt broke out with a resounding Tomahawk Chop chant, the moment hit Granell, who appeared to get emotional.
“I absolutely love everything about the team,” Granell said as he emphatically pounded his jersey and pointed to the Chiefs logo on his beanie cap. “Just to see it go from what it was last year, making the trip here and going to a random bar in Indianapolis with 200 Chiefs fans, it’s mind blowing.”
Of course, the Chiefs eventually lost Saturday in gut-wrenching fashion, allowing 35 second-half points to the Colts in a 45-44 defeat.
But on the eve of the Chiefs taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, McDonald and Granell agreed the 2013 season proved a success because fans have hope.
“Coming into this season, the start that we had and all the players gelled, the fans showed up in full force once again,” Granell said. “To see the stadium packed once again and everybody ready to go, it’s been absolutely amazing.
McDonald added the trip to Indianapolis was special regardless what happened in the game because the Chiefs’ turnaround was shared with a loved one.
“Win or lose, I’m here with my son,” McDonald said. “It’s his first experience for an NFL playoff game, so it’s also special in that regard, a memory I’ll carry for the rest of my life.”
In the meantime, “Save Our Chiefs” no longer exists.
The group, which has more than 18,000 Twitter followers and 23,378 Facebook likes, has been renamed “The Chiefs Kingdom” in line with what the Chiefs promoted during the season as a way to unite fans.
And for McDonald, changing the name of the group he helped create proved fitting.
“That’s really what we all are,” McDonald said.