The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An NFL star, a murder-suicide and the family left behind

Jim Tyrer, then a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, during a 1970 game against the Baltimore Colts. (Diamond Images/Getty Images)
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As a young man driving the highways of the Midwest for his sales job, Brad Tyrer would fend off road hypnosis with the radio, navigating the dial as he drove and tuning in whenever he heard his father’s name on sports talk shows.

“I can’t remember how many times I’d be out in the middle of nowhere doing my job driving and there’d be a discussion about NFL Hall of Fame people and they’d mention my dad,” Tyrer said. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing about him in the middle of Iowa,’ and they’re talking about why he’s not in the Hall of Fame, and it was just kind of curious.”

Jim Tyrer, a standout offensive tackle at Ohio State, played in the AFL for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs from 1961 to 1973 and spent one season with Washington before retiring after the 1974 season. He was a big part of what made the offenses of the Texans/Chiefs go when they won three AFL titles, lost to the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl and won Super Bowl IV. A member of the all-time AFL team, Tyrer seemed a shoo-in to join eight of his former teammates in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which this weekend will hold its annual induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Yet he fell short of the necessary votes in 1981, the only time his name has come up for a vote.

Rick Gosselin, a 19-year member of the Hall’s senior committee and former NFL and general columnist at the Dallas Morning News, in an email described Tyrer as “the most qualified candidate in the senior pool. There are hundreds of players in that pool and Tyrer is the only one that was a six-time, first team all-pro. If you are the best at what you do for six NFL seasons, you are a worthy Hall of Fame candidate. Beyond worthy, in fact.”

Then came the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 1980, when, as three of their four children slept in their suburban Kansas City home, the 41-year-old Tyrer shot his 40-year-old wife, Martha, to death in their bedroom before turning the gun on himself.

“We all knew after this happened that something had not been right,” said Jim Tyrer’s youngest daughter, Stefanie. “This wasn’t the man that we knew. . . . You feel like there should have been something you could have done or something you should have recognized. Even though I was 12 or 13, there’s still a little bit of guilt. Why didn’t we pick up on something, or why didn’t we know more? . . . He probably didn’t understand what was happening to him, either.”

What they remember

If Jim Tyrer is never selected for the Hall of Fame, his legacy is secure in the lives of his and Martha’s children. To help remind people of their father’s prowess, if nothing else, the children told their parents’ story, one entwined with their own resilience and success, in an emotional documentary by filmmaker Kevin Patrick Allen. All these years later, their memories of the shots that awakened them — and how they hid until emerging to discover the horrific scene — still can trigger tears.

They recall Martha as a wonderful mother who attended all of their games, with Jim doing the same as often as he could. But like so many former athletes in a story now all too familiar, Tyrer struggled to navigate life after sports, finding himself spiraling financially at a time when some professional athletes needed offseason jobs to make ends meet.

“I was a 17-year-old,” Brad, the elder of the Tyrers’ two boys and a high school football player, recalled of the evening before Sept. 14, 1980. “I was into myself. I knew my dad went to work and came home at night, but I didn’t really know exactly what he was doing. The night that it happened, I was in my room lifting weights pretty hard because I was trying to get bigger — I was actually measuring my biceps.

“My dad came in, probably around 9, and he basically had the conversation you have with your oldest son,” he continued, choking up a bit. “He had the conversation with me like he knew he was never going to see me again. At the time, it was just so out of context and I was kind of focused on something else. Looking back, I remember that conversation really well. He was saying: ‘You’ve been a good son, and I’m proud of you. You need to take care of your brother and sisters.’ It was just out of the blue. I was like, ‘Okay, Dad.’ That was probably about a 20-minute talk, but I know he already knew that he was going to do something.”

Jim Tyrer spent his last afternoon at a Chiefs game with 11-year-old Jason. The baby of the family, Jason Tyrer recalled that his father was loving but not overly affectionate until that game. “He didn’t hug us a lot, but that game he did. I got this kind of — it felt unusual, you know?”

‘Not even a half-inch thick’

Jim Tyrer, who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed around 300 pounds, was known for having a huge head that caused teammates to jokingly refer to him as “The Pumpkin.” Teammates “would joke that Martha would hire his head out to kids on Halloween,” tackle Dave Hill told The Washington Post in 1980. Ben Davidson, the Raiders’ formidable defensive end, once joked that Tyrer “basically wore a big red trash can as a helmet.”

At a time when blockers could not use their hands and there was scant awareness of the dangers of concussions, repeated head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy — or CTE — the head was a weapon that Tyrer wielded fearlessly while playing in 180 consecutive games. Stefanie, a pediatric surgical nurse at a Kansas City hospital, was a week shy of her 13th birthday at the time of the shootings. She recalls her father’s special, huge helmet from Ohio State, one marked with his name because no others fit him.

Tyrer was never diagnosed with CTE, which was not recognized by scientists until 2005 and can only be determined postmortem. Tyrer’s autopsy notes that “no intrinsic abnormalities” were identified in his brain, but, “the more we’ve learned and the more we know,” Stefanie said, “I certainly am comforted by what I truly think happened to him.”

Tina Tyrer Moore, the eldest of the four children who was in college at the time of her parents’ deaths, has one of his old helmets. The padding, she said, “is not even a half-inch thick.”

Brad doesn’t remember any specific conversations about whether his father suffered concussions, but he did recall “quite a bit of talk about ‘head pain’ and it seemed that pain had to do with helmets that were too small to fit my dad’s head,” he wrote in an email. “Because they couldn’t get an outer helmet shell large enough, I somewhat remember that they would remove material from the inside (padding and suspension) to allow for more room inside.”

Tina recalls hearing her father complain about headaches and consulting a physician, too.

Brad remembers “a lot of talk about my dad’s head aching ... but the thought was that it was due to a tight helmet, not head trauma.”

Coming to grips with tragedy

Martha’s parents, Truman and Lucille Cline, moved in with their three grandchildren, who were at home after their parents’ deaths, and provided love and security. Tina moved back to the area, leaving the University of Missouri to be close to the family, and went on to become a successful hairstylist. Truman, a Purdue engineering graduate, was the example the children needed for overcoming tragic loss. He had lost both legs and an arm in an auto accident as a young man and went on to become an inventor who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. The Clines were the embodiment of resilience, delivering a message that “we’ve got to keep going,” Brad said.

Now a 59-year-old businessman and father of two sons who lives in Louisville, Brad focused for a while on football and, days after his parents’ deaths, was back on the field at Rockhurst High, a Jesuit all-boys school that is traditionally a Missouri football power. Led by quarterback David Cone, the four-time World Series-winning pitcher, the team had state championship aspirations that year, and the field was where Brad felt he belonged.

Days later, he kicked what turned out to be the winning field goal in a game against Shawnee Mission West. A born-again Christian, he made his own peace with the worst night of his life just days after it occurred.

“After the funerals, everybody came over to our house and it was just packed,” he said. “Everyone was there — [Chiefs owner] Lamar Hunt and his wife, tons of players and their wives, all kinds of people just packed into this house. To get away from everybody, I went outside and sat down on the concrete patio slab. I put my head down and was kind of whimpering when God came up to me and it was like: ‘Snap to it. Why are you sad? You had two great parents for 17 years. You know nothing. You’ve got nothing to be sad about.’ And it was like a lightbulb went on. I was at peace right then and there with it.”

Jason, who went on to play for two state championship teams at Rockhurst, played football at the University of Kansas. The father of three boys, he owns a flooring company in the Kansas City area.

Moving forward

The circumstances surrounding both his death and the murder of his wife changed Tyrer’s Hall of Fame trajectory. His chances remained slim as recently as this year, when the Hall’s Board of Trustees increased the number of senior inductees from one to three because of a backlog of candidates whose careers ended more than 25 years ago. For the 2023 to 2025 classes, a maximum of three inductees per year can be chosen, and the selection committee recently chose only wide receiver Otis Taylor, from those same Chiefs teams, to advance to the next round of voting.

A few years ago, the four Tyrer children divided up their father’s things and were reminded again of just how great of a player he was. They shared their story in the documentary but are realistic about their father’s Hall of Fame chances.

“None of us really had been upset or frustrated,” Brad said. “I would think about it but only every now and then. . . . We as a group have talked about it and naively thought: ‘Maybe? Who knows?’ As we thought more about it and learned more about it, we thought that maybe if Kevin did the film and if word got out, maybe Dad would get a second look.”

The Tyrers find comfort in the knowledge that much of their father’s football legacy is secure. He is in Ohio State’s Hall of Fame as well as that of the Chiefs. And he is featured in a Pro Football Hall of Fame display of members of the AFL’s all-time team. But they would like acknowledgment, if not recognition, for Martha. They know players’ wives bear a heavy burden and play an underappreciated role.

If it doesn’t come, they have reached a level of understanding. Stefanie refers to this as “perspective,” which to her meant choosing not to have children, preferring to help other youths instead.

“I have a lot of context to compare myself with in a sense that I see some kids who are in such difficult situations,” she said. “I know that my story is nothing compared to the lives that they are living or the challenges that are ahead of them. That gives me a lot of perspective — it shaped how I view the world.”

With that foundation came a sense of understanding of what happened that early September morning nearly 42 years ago.

“I don’t think any of us think we’ve led remarkable lives in terms of what we went through,” Brad said. “I think we all just have lived life, the lives our parents would have brought us up to live.”

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