When the Kansas City Chiefs play for a spot in Super Bowl LVII on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium, a sea of red will cheer from inside the stadium and all across the region that comprises Chiefs Kingdom.
Marty Prather loves Chiefs fans. The more the team wins, the more big games the team plays and the more pizzas he sells. But on Sunday, Prather will be an outlier.
The Springfieldian known far and wide as “Sign Man,” for hoisting creative signs at St. Louis Cardinals baseball games and Missouri State athletic events, is proudly wearing Cincinnati Bengals gear this week.
For the second straight year, Prather will stand out like an orange-and-black thumb as his Bengals face the Chiefs for the AFC Championship.
With roots in Ohio, Prather has remained loyal to his boyhood Bengals since moving to the Ozarks four decades ago. It’s not been easy.
“All you hear is Chiefs — and rightfully so,” Prather said earlier this week, showing off a collection of Bengals memorabilia in his massive man cave. “I understand. It’s all Cardinals and it’s all Chiefs here.
“I’ve got hundreds of good friends who are Chiefs fans. I don’t root against the Chiefs. Hey, it’s not like I’m a Raiders fan.”
‘Superfan’ isn’t afraid to support his teams behind enemy lines
Prather, the only inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in the “Superfan” category, isn’t afraid to support his teams behind enemy lines. He’s worn Cardinals’ apparel and waved pro-St. Louis signs during numerous trips to Wrigley Field, home of the rival Chicago Cubs. Same for his Missouri State signs supporting Bears’ basketball, including a memorable victory in Columbia against the Missouri Tigers in 1998 — the last time the schools played.
As the Bears closed out the victory and he held up signs such as “Alford is above the Norm” — a play off MSU coach Steve Alford and Mizzou coach Norm Stewart — Prather said it was about as close to feeling threatened as he’s been.
“I had a lot of glares and fingers pointed as in ‘we got our eyes on you.’”
There was a time in Cleveland, for a Bengals-Browns game, that Prather literally felt the heat.
“I went to Cleveland on Halloween dressed in Bengals gear. I wore a Tigger outfit, with a Bengals jersey over it,” he said. “They (fans sitting behind him) lit my tail on fire.”
Moving to Missouri strengthened love for Cardinals
Prather’s Bengals fandom comes from growing up in Dayton, Ohio, where he also was an enthusiastic Cincinnati Reds fan. He has an impressive room in his basement filled with Reds gear from the “Big Red Machine” era of the 1970s, which coincided with his high school years.
“The Cardinals were my second-favorite baseball team,” Prather said. “I remember when Bob Gibson struck out 17 in Game One of the 1968 World Series. I had the transistor radio and earpiece in class, listening to the game.”
The Wright State University graduate became a bigger Cardinals fan a few years later, when he and a business partner opened their first Domino’s Pizza franchise in north St. Louis County and he met team stars Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee.
When Prather moved to Springfield in 1981 and the Cardinals won the World Series a year later, the Cardinals nudged past the Reds. Prather soon became prominent on national television as cameras caught his signs at Busch Stadium during the ’82, ’85 and ’87 World Series games.
Prather’s football loyalty stays with Bengals, Ohio State
But he has maintained football loyalty with the Bengals and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
“The best thing about being a Bengals fan, you only have to buy a hat every 30 years,” he said with a laugh, noting a Super Bowl drought from 1989 to last year when Cincinnati lost a close one to the Rams.
Last year, Prather watched the Bengals defeat the Chiefs from a booth at a local sports bar. This year, he said he plans to watch the game from home. He politely declined a chance for tickets to last year’s game, in-person at Arrowhead, and has not sought any this year.
“I’ve been to Arrowhead and it’s the best sporting venue I’ve ever been to. Better than Busch,” Prather said of the Cardinals’ baseball home. “It gets that loud and that into it. It’s intimidating.”
And while he has tons of respect for the Chiefs — particularly for quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce — he will remain loyal to his boyhood football team.
Lyndal’s prediction: Chiefs win
Asked for a pick, Prather stopped short of the confidence shown by brash young quarterback Joe Burrow — even though the Bengals have defeated the Chiefs three times in the last 14 months.
“I didn’t think they would beat Buffalo last week, with three of their four offensive line starters out,” he said. “My stomach was in a knot. I think we have a 50-50 shot. I think it’s a coin flip. But why not us? I think that was their saying last year. Joe came out of nowhere and it was why not us?
“I can’t wait to watch the atmosphere. I thought about going up, but no. I’m safer at home.”
For full disclosure, Prather is a long-time friend of mine and one of several sponsors of my Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. But those associations are tossed out the window when it comes to selecting an AFC Championship winner.
Sorry Marty, but you can put this on a sign: Chiefs 27, Bengals 24.