When I was little, I had three sports teams: the Denver Bears (minor league baseball), the Denver Nuggets, and the Denver Broncos. I made up baseball and football board games and played out entire minor league baseball and NFL seasons. And I spent many nights in my room listening to the Bears and the Nuggets on the radio. I mostly watched the Broncos on television but the voices of Bob Martin and Larry Zimmer, the Broncos radio announcers, are ingrained in my brain.
This sports triumvirate notwithstanding, the Broncos have always been my number one team. And since I’m sort of working on a memoir now it seemed appropriate to do a little research into my beloved Broncos. As luck would have it, there has been a recent flurry of Bronco books hitting the bookshelves. I’ve read a bunch and have consolidated what I’ve learned into THE DAYS OF OUR BRONCOS. Today, Part Uno.
A note on these photos: in the 6th grade I had a teacher at Moore Elementary named Mrs. Kreutz. Mrs. Kreutz had a friend in the Broncos PR department who gave her piles of publicity shots of various Broncos. Whenever we did something good in class we got a brand spanking new photo in a crisp manila envelope. As I was a very good boy in the 6th grade, I have a huge stack of these photos. Looking through them now, I don’t recognize a lot of the names: e.g., John Schultz (WR), Lawrence McKutcheon (WR), Chris Pane (DB) and Mike Montler (C). Others are vaguely familiar: e.g., Bobby Maples (C) and Craig Penrose (QB). Others are blasts from the past: e.g., Luke Prestridge (P) and Larry Canada (RB). And others are like old friends, e.g., the guys on this page: Craig Morton (the other #7), Rick Upchurch and Barney Chavous.
THE BRONCO I DID NOT KNOW MUCH ABOUT BUT NOW KNOW MUCH MORE ABOUT AND AM GLAD I DO: Gene Mingo. The Saturday before Halloween, while I was in the midst of writing this up, Rachel and I were driving down the highway and we passed a large SUV, an Escalade or bigger, and I noticed the license plate had a frame that said, “Broncos Alumni.” I saw a large, older black gentleman driving. Then I noticed the vanity plate: Mingo21. Holy shit! A Gene Mingo sighting! I could not have been more excited.
THE BRONCO WHO SOUNDS THE MOST INTERESTING BUT I STILL DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT: Fran Lynch. This guy sounds like a character and he figures in a lot of stories, like the one about Lou Saban “firing” Floyd Little in the middle of a game. Interesting footnote, he was Little’s roommate and they were the first pair to break the color barrier when it came to team roommates.
THE BRONCO ON THE RING OF FAME WHO I STILL DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT BUT WISH I DID: Paul Smith. Lyle Alzado’s book talks about him a bit. He and Rich Jackson took Alzado under their wings when Alzado was a rookie.
THE BRONCO ON THE RING OF FAME WHO I NOW KNOW MUCH MORE ABOUT AND AM GLAD I DO: Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin. I always thought he was a WR for some reason but he was the first great Broncos safety.
And now, key dates in B.E. (Before Elway) Bronco history:
August 14, 1948. Opening day for Bears Stadium, which sat about 17,000 and was built on the site of the old city dump.
1960. The Howsam family, owners of the Bears, decided to bring an AFL franchise to the city in the hopes it would convince major league baseball we were a major league city. To prepare for the AFL, Bears Stadium was expanded to 34,657 seats by building the South Stands and adding more seats to the East Stands.
Sept 9, 1960. The first game in American Football League history and also the first ever Broncos game. The Broncos beat the heavily favored Boston Patriots 13-10 in front of 21,597 fans at Boston University. Clearly, we’ve had the Patriots number since the beginning of Bronco Time. Key play: 76-yard punt return for a TD by Gene Mingo (halfback and first black placekicker in pro football).
1961. The Howsams give up on bringing major league baseball to Denver and decide to sell the Broncos and Bears. At first, it looks like interests in San Antonio would prevail and move both teams, but Denver businessmen Calvin Kunz and Gerard Phipps stepped in and saved the day.
June 8, 1966. The AFL and NFL reach a merger agreement. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell voted against the merger, saying, “Can you imagine a team like the Denver Broncos playing in my stadium?” Twenty-one years later, John Elway turned that prospect into a nightmare. The first AFL-NFL World Championship Game would be played in January 1967 and the merger would be complete by 1970.
1968. To satisfy the requirements of the coming merger, Bears Stadium is expanded by adding a 16,000 seat upper deck for a total of 50,000+ seats. And Bears Stadium is rechristened Mile High Stadium. This is also the year the Broncos were led by the first starting black QB in the NFL, Marlin Briscoe. Briscoe still holds some Broncos rookie QB records but after his first year he was traded and went on to play several other positions — but not QB. I don’t think the team had the courage to keep a black starting QB, unfortunately. Who knows what might have been?
1972. WR Dwight Harrison pulls a gun on Lyle Alzado in the locker room after (according to Alzado) previously pulling a gun on Rich Jackson and Floyd Little. Harrison was traded the next day to Buffalo for a fellow by the name of Haven Moses.
Oct 22, 1973. Orange Monday. The Broncos make their first appearance on Monday Night Football and tied the Oakland Raiders 23-23 in a field goal dual between George Blanda and our Jim Turner. Turner tied the game with three seconds left and they didn’t have overtime back then. Hasn’t this been the score of every Broncos-Raiders MNF game since? Though nowadays we go into overtime and beat them. The play that set the tone for the scrappy Broncos: Denver safety Billy Thompson’s first quarter 80-yard fumble return for a TD. In 1973, the Broncos finish 7-5-2, our first winning season.
1974. Denver voters approve a $25 million expansion of Mile High. A third deck of about 25,000 seats is added to give the stadium a total capacity of 75,100.
1976. The Broncos finish 9-5, their best record yet, but they fail to make the playoffs and Coach John Ralston is blamed. The players believe he did a good job of assembling a quality team but a poor job of coaching that team and they mutiny. After the season, the so-called Dirty Dozen hold a press conference denouncing Ralston as coach. The Dirty Dozen included Lyle Alzado, Billy Thompson, Tom Jackson, Paul Smith, Haven Moses, Otis Armstrong, Rick Upchurch, Louis Wright, and punter Billy Van Heusen. At least 37 other Broncos signed an anti-Ralston petition circulated by the Dirty Dozen. Owner Gerald Phipps refused to fire Ralston but Ralston quit. Red Miller was hired to replace him.
Dec 24, 1977. The first playoff game in Bronco history and the first playoff win. We beat the Steelers at Mile High Stadium 34-21. Craig Morton was severely beaten up in this game. He spent the following week, the week prior to the AFC Championship game, in the hospital. The team kept this information under wraps and this incident led directly to the NFL instituting strict injury-reporting rules. Tom Jackson considers this the game of his life. Key plays: Jackson’s two 4th quarter INTs of Terry Bradshaw. Jackson had three turnovers that led to 17 points.
Jan 1, 1978. Denver beats Oakland 20-17 at Mile High in the AFC Championship and earns our first trip to the Super Bowl. Key plays: two Morton-Moses touchdowns, the M & M Connection in action. In the locker room before the game, a battered Craig Morton joked with the team that he would hit the field if they promised to not let the Raiders hit him. And famously said to Red Miller, “If you’ll tie my shoes, I’ll play.” I always thought it was in this game that Tom Jackson said to Raiders coach John Madden after recovering a fumble in front of the Raiders bench, “It’s all over, Fat Man.” But that was during a drubbing of the defending world champion Raiders in the fifth game of the ’77 season in Oakland.
Jan 15, 1978. Black Sunday #1, the Broncos lose Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys 27-10. Dallas started out with sloppy play but Denver’s offense couldn’t get anything going and the eight turnovers didn’t help, seven in the first half, including four INTs by Morton. Defensively, we played with two defensive fronts that rotated in and out of the game by series and Dallas scored almost all its points on our second string front.
July 14, 1979. Lyle Alzado fought Muhammad Ali in an exhibition boxing match at Mile High. Alzado took Ali eight rounds and was convinced he could beat him. The crowd of 20,000 watching the fight thought Ali was toying with him.
1981. Dan Reeves is hired as head coach.
In Part Dos: key dates in A.E. Bronco history, my ten favorite Broncos of all-time, and a bibliography.