KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Logs are smoldering in abandoned barbecues as six Chiefs fans wander through the parking lot next to a monolithic Arrowhead Stadium. The smell of brisket -- mixed with other less-pleasant odors that come with an outdoor tailgate -- is hanging in the frigid January air. Plastic tables snapped in half, either under the weight of pregame meals or as byproducts of Bills Mafia-imitating Chiefs fans, are left beside trucks that are coated in salt from the frozen roads.
With just 45 minutes until kickoff of the AFC Championship Game, the lot is mostly empty, other than the six fans darting between the rows of cars from the F lot to the G lot. One carries a Coors in a gloved hand, while another wears a red Tyreek Hill jersey over his thick jacket. Two more wearing earpieces, sunglasses, black down coats and red scarves flank the man at the center of it all.
As they pass by another group of young men milking the last minutes of the final tailgate of the year, one of them starts yelling, gesturing toward the man in the middle.
"Holy f---, it's the mayor!" he shouts.
Quinton Lucas, Kansas City's 55th mayor, stops and smiles.
He laughs as the guys keep shouting and gesturing with blue cans of Bud Light, announcing his arrival. He extends a hand to one, and asks for his name.
"Mark, very nice to meet you," Lucas says, shaking his hand. "Enjoy the game. Go Chiefs!"
Not long ago, Lucas used to be just like that group: One of the guys standing around a Highlander at 8:30 a.m. drinking his own Bud Lights. When it was time, he would leave the parking lot for his season-ticket seats in the 300 level and yell his lungs out for his team.
"We were doing that stuff before he was the mayor, and now it's obviously a little different," says Henry Hunter, one of the men with Lucas and a friend since kindergarten. "We'll just be walking down an alley in a parking lot and Arrowhead, and people will just yell, 'Hey! That's the mayor.'
"It's just funny. I don't know how he handles all that stuff. I just get to sit on the sidelines and be the nameless face. He represents the city now."
In some ways, that seems fitting. Lucas, 35, is a fan like so many others. A childhood fascination with the hometown team turned into a full-blown obsession by middle school and evolved to tailgates and season tickets by early adulthood.
"I miss elements of being that super chill Chiefs fan," Lucas says. "Now, it's different. That's fine. I'm honored to have the position I have, and part of that is that you bump into your senators at a Chiefs game and you can't be a mess.
"You [get to] talk to the owner and talk about the team's involvement in the community. I hope what I exhibit to the Chiefs, I hope that what they see is the passion that I actually have for the team. I hope they see that -- not just, 'good Lord, the mayor's a fanboy and maybe let's try to avoid him next year at training camp.'"
QUINTON LUCAS REMEMBERS a lot about his first Chiefs game, but what sticks with him most about his first visit into Arrowhead is the feeling of enchantment -- quickly followed by heart-sinking shame.
It was 1994 and the Chiefs were playing the Buffalo Bills in the final preseason game. Lucas' mom, a single parent, bought four tickets to take Lucas and his two older sisters to their first game.
All four of them arrived at Arrowhead in outfits picked out by Lucas' mom -- which were red, white and blue. Within moments of walking through the parking lot, 12-year-old Lucas realized he made a grave mistake.
"Everybody's like, 'You're a bunch of Bills fans,'" Lucas says, laughing as he tells the story. "Of course, my mom had no idea, even though I think we'd been in the AFC Championship Game against the Bills fairly recently.
"We're walking around, and I'm talking about, 'Oh, my God, I failed at Arrowhead.'"
Even then, Lucas loved the team for everything it represented about his hard-working community, for the way it unified the area's many demographics, for the pride he felt as an Eastsider watching his team play on the city's poor East Side.
He read the Kansas City Star and religiously listened to Sports Line with Don Fortune on 980 KMBZ. As he got older, his loyalty evolved. By the end of the 1995 season, Lucas didn't just watch, read and listen -- he chronicled the Chiefs' season in a purple and green Stuart Hall spiral-bound notebook labeled the 'The Quinton Lucas Sports Journal." Below the title was middle school Lucas' credo: "Sports, they're good for you!!!"
On the first page, in careful cursive, Lucas detailed the 1995 NFL playoff picture -- the Chiefs were atop the AFC with a 13-3 record, while the Cowboys led the NFC at 12-4. He wrote the records of every playoff team, and noted below the AFC list that Seattle, Oakland and Denver had a chance. Below, he made a list of golden helmet awards, making his own year-end superlative selections. Beside them, he wrote a disclaimer: "These are my selections, and don't forget I watch more AFC football."
On the back of the page, he gave another set of awards -- these named the Jessies for his then-girlfriend. Among the awards: Best Turnaround (Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings), That's What You Get Vegas (Chiefs, Carolina Panthers), and Good Riddance (Joe Montana).
He doled out annual installments of those awards after the next two seasons, and in between, chronicled the Chiefs' seasons and other major sports stories with newspaper clippings, typed school assignments and short capsules after every Chiefs game -- noting ahead of time the announcers, the network and his pregame thoughts, leaving space to later add the team's record and a game summary.
After middle school, Lucas decided to retire the journal. But he couldn't do so without some fanfare, in the form of a two-page letter -- still tucked in the back even though it frayed and fell off the spiral years ago.
"I've been happy to mature as a person and a writer in the journal," he wrote in the same neat script as on the first page. "But I'm also sad to be saying goodbye to a good friend. There will be a new sports journal, but it'll never be the same."
Lucas no longer keeps a sports journal, but he still has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Chiefs' history.
Four days before the AFC Championship Game, Lucas was up before 6 a.m., rewatching the Joe Montana-led Chiefs' 1994 playoff win against the Houston Oilers on YouTube.
Most of the time, though, Lucas watches the losses.
The 1997 playoff loss at the hands of John Elway and the Broncos, and the regular-season defeats to Elway a season later. The 10-7 loss to the Colts in the 1996 playoffs.
"I remember experiencing that," he says. "I remember that we're on the 18-yard line and we can't actually score something. I remember that we can't score more than seven points in a playoff game. I remember that we can't actually force Indianapolis to do a single punt. I remember that because we have a guy lined up offside, that we likely lose an AFC Championship Game. That's what gets me so passionate."
Throughout the 2019 season, Lucas remembered those losses -- and, yes, pulled them up on YouTube -- to make him appreciate these Patrick Mahomes- and Andy Reid-led Chiefs even more.
Well, that and: "I think part of that is me probably building up a case for, look, when I start burning couches like Kentucky fans, after we win a Super Bowl, and I become the first mayor with a municipal ordinance violation for civil disobedience, I'll be like, 'This is why, people. This is why.'"
LIKE ALL LONG-SUFFERING Chiefs fans, Lucas certainly had his share of those low valleys. But now he's experiencing the highest peaks in his evolution as a fan.
Lucas won his mayoral election in 2019 after four years on the city council. He was just 30 years old when he won his first election, entering politics in his hometown after moving to St. Louis for college before law school at Cornell. When he entered the council race, he was one of the youngest tenure-track law professors in the country, at the University of Kansas, but decided that he could do more good in his hometown in office.
He has tried to do that in both of his jobs in local politics, pushing policies on municipal criminal justice and housing. And in the year that he has been mayor, he's also trying to take advantage of the perks the job affords in relation to his childhood team.
"Since I've been mayor, the connection with the organization has changed a bit," he says. "Now, I actually can walk into the owner's suite and people aren't like, 'Security! That man!'"
A minimalist, Lucas doesn't have many decorations in his office on the 29th floor of city hall. But he does have a framed No. 55 Chiefs jersey -- to represent his status as the city's 55th mayor -- with his last name stitched on the nameplate. He also has a signed Mahomes photo in the window, framed and given to him by aide Lotti Halpern, who worked with him on the city council.
The month he was sworn in, Lucas attended Chiefs training camp in St. Joseph, Missouri. His shirt sleeves rolled up to combat the suffocating heat and humidity, Lucas shook hands with fans and players, making plans to connect with many of the Chiefs later in the season.
He has followed through. In October, he participated in Travis Kelce's Celebrity Challenge, where he competed in local versions of shows like Chopped, Lip Sync Battle, Project Runway and Minute to Win It. A month later, he attended Tyrann Mathieu's Celebrity Waiters Dinner, a fundraiser for Mathieu's foundation, which helps to put computers into Boys and Girls Clubs of Kansas City and in low-income schools.
"He's done an unbelievable job of just being in the community since elected," says Kelce, who met Lucas at a Sporting KC game. "With that comes relationships. Him being a personable guy, it was natural for us to hit it off and accept each other and sure enough, we're playing for the city, right? So it's definitely a cool aspect having him around."
But Lucas goes to great lengths to make sure they know he's not a fanboy. Though he still tweets about sports and calls in for segments on local talk radio, he also knows that, because of his position, he has to be a more responsible fan.
"I hope they see that I'm not trying to use the team for anything," Lucas says. "I don't want anything special from them.
"What I want them to understand is that's the passion I have. That's the passion so many in the community have. That's the difference that they can make each day. That's the way they should try to encourage people to get involved."
After all, if anyone knows the good that can come from connecting with the team and its players -- it's a homegrown fan turned caretaker of the city. Plenty of players see that impact too.
"Being in Kansas City for six, seven months now, you kind of expect everybody to have a Kansas City sports journal" like Lucas, Mathieu says. "The fans here are crazy. They fully immerse themselves in us. It's a good feeling. It makes us want to go out there and represent the right way."
AS THE SECOND half kicks off at Arrowhead Stadium, the fans in section 331 are wrapped in scarves and thick puffer coats, beanies and face masks. Puffs of their breath fill the frigid air as they joke about the tradition of dumping buckets of popcorn on each other after every Chiefs touchdown. They show off stacks of empty cups that helped build an alcohol blanket through the tense first half.
One man in the section, situated in the shade of the southwest corner of Arrowhead, takes issue with an official's whistle, yelling, 'That's a clown call, bro,' after the official has called an incomplete pass on a ball to Sammy Watkins.
They leap and shout about their typically cursed team's unusual good luck as Andy Reid challenges the call -- and wins.
They take advantage of the breaks between plays and the longer delay during the challenge review to take selfies -- after all, one of their own is now the mayor of Kansas City.
This is where Lucas feels most at home -- where he has had season tickets for five years, sitting with friends like Hunter.
"The upper deck, it's like comparatively diverse," Lucas says. "You get fans of all types -- drunks of all types. The good people and others, but nevertheless ..."
He doesn't get to spend much time on the 300 level anymore. He pinballs between suites during the game, craning his neck to catch the action as he shakes hands and connects with anyone he can.
Sunday afternoon, he was on the 300 level for just a couple of minutes of game time.
But by the final whistle, he might have found a better vantage point than his old seats. As the Chiefs clinch their first Super Bowl berth in 50 years, Lucas is on the sideline.
He dreamed of this as a kid, of sneaking onto the field and celebrating with the team. Now, he's ushered beyond the rope as a guest of honor along with actors Paul Rudd and Eric Stonestreet.
He claps vigorously, facing the stands as some 70,000 fans do their signature chop as Mahomes kneels in the victory formation, and then he walks out on the field with his arms high. A few moments later, a gray AFC Champions cap replaces the red beanie he has worn all day. He bends over, scooping up piles of red and yellow confetti and shoves it back into the cannons, recycling the shredded paper to keep the celebration going.
"Middle school Quinton would have some tears right now," Lucas says. "And I think more than that, he would believe that anything is possible. That's what sports is about. I think if you look at this team, if you look at the fact that we're a hard-working, Midwestern city and there are not a lot of flashy people, but cool things like this can happen.
"That would mean a lot to middle school me. That's why I came back home. That's why I've loved following this team for all my life."