Detroit's Fred Arbanas, former Michigan State football player and Chiefs TE, dies at 82

By Randy Covitz
The Kansas City Star

Kansas City, Mo. — Fred Arbanas, a Detroit native who was the dependable tight end for the Chiefs’ first two Super Bowl appearances and later an influential Jackson County legislator, has died.

He was 82.

Former Michigan State football player and Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame tight end Fred Arbanas (right) died at age 82.

Arbanas, a six-time all-AFL selection in 10 seasons, was picked to the All-Time AFL Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also a Chiefs Hall of Famer.

Arbanas played collegiately at Michigan State, where he contributed on offense and on defense from 1958-1960. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

Despite being declared legally blind in his left eye after he was accosted in an off-field incident in December 1964, Arbanas came back and earned all-league honors and started in both Super Bowl I and IV. In fact, it was Arbanas’ key block in the most famous play in Chiefs history — 65 Toss Power Trap — that sprung Mike Garrett for a 5-yard touchdown run in Kansas City’s 23-7 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, the team’s first world championship.

The Jackson County Democrats announced his death on Saturday.

After his career ended, Arbanas served more than 40 years as a legislator in the Jackson County Legislature. He was voted into office when the Legislature was created in 1973 and was voted chairman in 1974 and in 1988.

On the field, there were few tight ends like him. Before Travis Kelce, there was Tony Gonzalez. And before Gonzalez, there was Arbanas.

During a playing career that spanned from 1962-1970, Arbanas caught 198 passes for 3,101 yards — an almost-unheard of 15.4-yard average for a tight end in the 1960s — with 34 touchdowns, which still ranks eighth in franchise history. He held franchise records for his position before Gonzalez arrived in Kansas City.

Arbanas was such a ferocious blocker that he was awarded the game ball after a 27-20 victory over San Diego in 1968, even though he did not catch a pass.

“He unselfishly dedicated himself to the success of the team and was instrumental in helping us develop our rich winning tradition,” his coach, Hank Stram, once told the team website.

Arbanas, whose nickname with the Chiefs was “Classy” for his deportment on and off the field, was the fourth inductee into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1973 and was enshrined in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.

A seventh-round pick out of Michigan State by the Dallas Texans in 1961, he overcame two handicaps early and midway through his career as one of pro football’s elite tight ends. After reporting to the Chiefs from the College All-Star Game, he suffered a serious blow in his back, rupturing three discs and ending his rookie season before it started. Three days after surgery, an infection set in.

“They said I’d never play again,” Arbanas said in a 1965 story in The Star. “I hung around that season, watched films and went to practice. I wanted to keep in touch.”

He returned for the 1962 season and caught 29 passes, including six touchdowns, as the Texans would win the AFL Championship before moving to Kansas City in 1963.

He was enjoying his most productive season with the Chiefs in 1964 — 34 receptions for 686 yards and eight touchdowns — when a stranger came out of nowhere on Troost Avenue and approached Arbanas and teammate Al Reynolds. When Arbanas offered to shake hands, the man slugged Arbanas in the left eye, bolted and was never apprehended. Arbanas required several surgeries and though partial vision eventually returned, he was declared legally blind in the eye.

There was some talk about moving Arbanas to tackle, but he returned in 1965 and caught 24 passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns.

“When I get on the field, I don’t think about it,” Arbanas once said of the damaged eye. “I don’t pay attention to it. If I worried about it, I wouldn’t be able to play. … It’s not a handicap. If a person likes to play, he can adjust to about everything, and I’ve adjusted.”

After his playing career, Arbanas, the son of a Detroit police officer, became interested in politics and government after realizing complaining about things was not the solution to anything.

“I considered myself a part of the silent majority,” he said in 1974 after his election as chairman of the Jackson County Legislature. “I used to sit in front of my television, read the paper and grumble. Then the county legislature was created. I thought, ‘You have been sitting here griping. Why don’t you get in there?’’’

So he did.

Arbanas transformed Jackson County’s parks and amenities, leading the way in improving marinas, beaches and trails. According to a 2014 news release from Jackson County, he suggested turning an empty field he used to bale hay into a golf course.

In 1999, the Longview golf course was renamed the Fred Arbanas Golf Course at Longview Lake in his honor.

“I was just lucky to be in county government,” he said in the release, “when the county was ripe for all this development.”

Arbanas worked to hard-top dirt and gravel roads in unincorporated areas of Jackson County, and he was on the legislature when voters approved the Jackson County Detention Center that opened in 1984, replacing the jail that was above the courthouse.

“I made a lot of friends here, got active in the community, started a business, raised my family,” Arbanas said in the news release. “Kansas City and Jackson County have been good to me.”

He worked with 65 other county legislators and seven county executives. And in 2016, he filled in temporarily as Jackson County executive.

He was the last of the original county legislators.

Arbanas considered his background as a pro football player as an advantage as a legislator.

“Playing football helps a person understand people,” he said. “You develop intimate relationships with people of different backgrounds, religions and colors.”