Legendary Jayhawk and Lawrence native John Hadl dies at age 82

John Hadl

Legendary Lawrence High Lions and Kansas Jayhawks football player John Hadl, who went on to star in the NFL, died Wednesday morning at age 82.

“I don’t know of anybody that was more a Jayhawk or loved Kansas more than John Hadl,” said Kansas basketball coach Bill Self on Wednesday, noting that Hadl played a significant role in him coming to Kansas. “(He was) the coolest dude that would never talk about how cool he was. He always made it about others and I loved that. He loved KU.”

Long regarded as one of the greatest all-around athletes to ever come out of Lawrence, Hadl’s list of accomplishments from high school to college and the NFL make him one of the most decorated Lawrencians in sports history.

A 1994 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, Hadl was the first Jayhawk to be named a All-American two separate times in 1960 and 1961. He also was named the Most Valuable Player of the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star game after the 1961 season.

That was the year he guided Kansas to a 33-7 win over Rice in the Bluebonnet Bowl. It was the first bowl win in KU history.

After starring at LHS as an all-state halfback and centerfielder for the baseball team, Hadl excelled as both a halfback and quarterback at KU. His versatility extended well beyond that.

As a sophomore in 1959, Hadl led the NCAA in punting (45.6 yards per punt) and set KU records for the longest punt (94 yards) and longest interception return (98 yards).

Once he took over as the team’s top offensive weapon, though, the Jayhawks finished ranked in the Top 20 during both his junior and senior seasons, going 14-5-2 during that stretch.

“John Hadl had a generational impact on Kansas Football, the University of Kansas and the Lawrence community,” KU Ath-letic Director Travis Goff said Wednesday in a news release announcing Hadl’s passing. “He was a once-in-a-lifetime Jayhawk.”

After starring at KU, Hadl enjoyed a 16-year pro career that featured six Pro Bowl selections, three American Football League championship game appearances and the NFC Player of the Year honor in 1973.

He also was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1971 and is a member of the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.

Several campaigns to push Hadl into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, came up just short, but those who knew him best knew he did not need that honor to be considered a legend.

“Upon my arrival, I heard instantly from people across the state about John’s impact (on) this department, not just as a student-athlete and coach, but as someone who dedicated nearly 40 years of his life to the University of Kansas,” KU football coach Lance Leipold said in the release. “His desire to enhance KU and make it as special as possible truly resonat-ed with me. To be the head coach of this program and see his statue every day outside Anderson Family Football Complex, is a firm reminder of the passion and love that John had for this program.”

Hadl’s statue was unveiled during the 2020 season, next to a statue of former KU running back Gale Sayers, who died that same year.

Drafted in 1962 by both Detroit of the NFL (Rd. 1, No. 10 overall) and San Diego in the AFL (Rd. 3, No. 24 overall), Hadl was a first-team All-Pro selection in 1973, led the NFL in pass-ing yards and touchdowns in 1971 and an AFL champion in 1963.

He also played for the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers and Houston Oilers before retiring in 1977.

After retirement, Hadl joined the Kansas football staff for the 1978 season and served as KU’s offensive coordinator from 1979-81. He then worked with the Los Angeles Rams as an offensive assistant in 1982 and was the quarterbacks coach for the Denver Broncos in 1983, John Elway’s rookie season.

In 1988, Hadl returned to KU to join the Williams Education Fund, where he spent 30 years as a major fundraiser for his beloved university and the KU football program before retiring in 2018.

His name is featured prominently in KU’s ring of honor and his No. 21 is one of three Kansas football numbers to be retired, joining Sayers’ No. 48 and Ray Evans’ No. 42.

Hadl’s No. 21 was also officially retired by Lawrence High in 2008. It had not been used by the Lions for decades prior to the official retirement of the number, and none of the LHS coaches ever even ordered the jersey.

A modern-day, framed red No. 21 LHS jersey hung in Hadl’s house in recent years.

“His legacy will forever be cemented,” Goff added in the release. “Our deepest thoughts and prayers are with (his wife) Diana and the Hadl family. We will deeply miss John and his contagious smile, but will proudly honor him and his unrivaled legacy as we move forward.”

Among the steady stream of Hadl tributes that filled the Internet throughout the day on Wednesday were:

• Former KU quarterback Frank Seurer, who wrote the following on Facebook: “Very sad news today. One of my all time hero’s mentor father figure and great friend john Hadl passed away this morning. He was the best. He’ll be missed but will live on forever. RIP #21.”

• Former KU wide receiver Willie Vaughn writing on Facebook: “So sad to hear about Coach….I’m a Jayhawk today because of him.”

• Former Kansas running back Kerwin Bell posting: “Oh what a great coach and person. Happy I got to see him in recent years. He was the rock that got KU football back on the map in the early 80’s…. RIP #21.”

• National Football Foundation Chairman Archie Manning said: “John Hadl established himself as one of the greatest Jayhawks ever, and he continued to give back as a coach and administrator. His contributions to the KU program and our sport will not be forgotten as they are forever immortalized in the College Football Hall of Fame. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time of loss.”

• And former KU and LHS running back Brandon McAnderson, who posted to Twitter: “Long live 21.”

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