Growing Up With the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium
Some people say they grew up at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, for me it was football and growing up at Mile High Stadium watching the Denver Broncos. My earliest memories of the Denver Broncos go way back, long before John Elway, back to the American Football League, when the Broncos were the laughingstock of the league.
The Denver Broncos and the American Football League
The Denver Broncos began along with seven other teams to form the American Football League which began play in 1960, and became a rival of the more powerful National Football League (NFL).
The AFL was a fun football league that thrived on passing more than running, the opposite of the NFL at the time. And there was a lot more interaction between the team and the fans.
My earliest memory of going to a Denver Broncos game was about 1965. I was not able to see the game very well because of course, everyone was taller than me. So the guy in front of me had me sit on his lap so I could see the game better. I didn’t know it at the time, but that gentleman happened to be one of the owners of the Broncos. You probably wouldn’t see that happen today.
My parents were friends with the Broncos general manager and I was able to sit in the General Manager's box to watch another game. Today, you might think, wow what luxury. During the 1960s, money was tight for many AFL teams, and the GM box was not what you would consider luxury, but to me it seemed like it at the time. Thinking back, it more closely resembled a clubhouse that kids would build out of wood with the smell of cigar smoke added in and dripping water pipes overhead at the old Bears Stadium.
Bears Stadium was built in 1948 for the minor league baseball team, Denver Bears, and the Broncos shared the stadium. Bears Stadium was expanded and renamed Mile High Stadium in 1968.
The Broncos Had Their Moments
The Denver Broncos had a few good moments in their first dozen years. In 1967, the NFL and the AFL agreed to merge, but this would not take place until 1970, and until then, the two leagues would maintain separate schedules.
In the first NFL-AFL combined draft of 1967, the Broncos drafted running back Floyd Little, who signed with the Broncos and became the first number one pick to ever sign with the team. Floyd Little was not only a memorable highlight of the Denver Broncos, he was so important to the team, he was nicknamed “The Franchise.”
One of the few highlights of those early Broncos came in a 1967 preseason game. Even though the two leagues continued to play separate schedules, they did play preseason games against each other. On a hot night in August, the Detroit Lions played a preseason game in Denver. Before the game, Alex Karras of the Lions said he would walk back to Detroit if the Broncos won. The Denver Broncos did win, and became the first AFL team to beat an NFL team.
By 1968, the New York Jets with Joe Namath were the class of the AFL while the Broncos were still the lowly Broncos. In 1968, the Broncos beat the Jets in New York and intercepted Joe Namath five times during that game.
In those days, football did not keep records of quarterback sacks, but Rich “Tombstone” Jackson completely dominated the Jets offensive line making for a miserable day for Namath. The next year, the Broncos once again beat the mighty Jets, this time in Denver.
The Broncos rarely beat the Oakland Raiders, but in a 1970 home game, it looked like they were going to finally win. The Broncos were leading the game with just three minutes left when Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica was injured and replaced by George Blanda. It had rained, sleeted and hailed on us during the game, and I was thinking that the Broncos were finally going to beat the Raiders. It was not to be, Blanda completed pass after pass including a touchdown pass to Fred Biletnikoff for the win. In those days, even a close loss to the Raiders seemed like an improvement.
In those early years, my dad was like all other loyal Bronco fans, an eternal optimist. In 1968, the Broncos finished with a record of 5-9. At the end of the next season, as we were walking out of Mile High Stadium, I asked my dad if the thought the Broncos would ever get any better and he answered, “Sure son, they’re 5-8 and 1 this year.”
After the merger, Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, said that he would never allow the Denver Broncos to play in his stadium. In 1971, the NFL didn’t care about this statement and scheduled the Broncos to play the Browns in Cleveland. It was the typical dark and gloomy day in Cleveland, especially for their fans as the Broncos not only won, they shutout the Browns 27-0. It was a very satisfying win for Bronco fans to watch on television.
During those early years, the Oakland Raiders were the Broncos arch-rival, even though the Raiders didn’t see it like that, not yet anyway. Between 1963 and 1972, the Raiders record against the Broncos was 18-1-1.
Monday Night Football Comes to Denver
Monday Night Football first came to television in 1970, and it seemed that Howard Cosell would purposely ignore the Broncos during halftime highlights. One Denver bar would hold a drawing, and the winner of the drawing would get to throw a brick through a television during the halftime highlights.
Finally, in 1973, Monday Night Football came to Denver for a game against the Raiders. This was the first time I remember the entire city going crazy for a Broncos game. It was a close game with the Raiders taking the lead with 36 seconds left in the game. The Broncos drove down the field and Jim Turner kicked the tying field goal with 3 seconds left. The Broncos did not win, but a tie felt like a win considering it was against the Raiders.
The Winning Begins
As head coach between 1967 and 1971, Lou Saban changed the Broncos from a laughingstock into a more professional looking team, but the losing continued. Lou Saban could be stubborn and he had a temper.
During one game, Floyd Little fumbled and Saban fired him right on the spot and took him out of the game. Little decided he wasn’t going to leave the game and went back in, telling quarterback Marlin Briscoe to throw him the ball. Briscoe did and Little caught it and was tackled near the goal line. A Bronco field goal won the game, and Little thankfully stayed with the team.
In 1972, John Ralston was hired as head coach, which is when the winning mentality actually began for the team and their fans.
Ralston was a motivator and a great evaluator of football talent. He drafted some of the best players in Bronco’s history like Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Otis Armstrong, Louis Wright, Barney Chavous and Steve Foley. Other than running back Otis Armstrong, these drafted players became the backbone of the Orange Crush Defense. Another noted member of the Orange Crush was Lyle Alzado, who was drafted in 1971 by Lou Saban.
The first thing Ralston did was to trade for a veteran quarterback, Charley Johnson, a veteran player that would bring leadership to the team. In 1973, the Broncos had their first winning season in their history, finishing at 7-5-2 and just missing the playoffs because of a season ending loss to the Raiders.
Floyd Little retired in 1975, and his last game in Denver was memorable for all Bronco fans. It was the final home game against the Eagles and Little certainly didn’t look like a player ready to retire. Little scored twice in the game, including a 66 yard touchdown pass from Steve Ramsey. After the game, the fans carried Floyd Little off the field on their shoulders. There was also a sort of sadness in the stadium, knowing this would be the last time we would watch him play.
1977 was the magical year for the Broncos and their fans. John Ralston had resigned the previous year and the Broncos hired Robert “Red” Miller as their next head coach. Like Ralston, the first thing Miller did was to get a veteran quarterback, trading with the New York Giants for Craig Morton.
The offense had receivers like Haven Moses and Riley Odoms and running backs John Keyworth and Otis Armstrong, but it was the Orange Crush defense that played with an attitude.
The Denver Broncos started off the season with 6 straight wins before losing to the Raiders, finishing the season 12-2 and winning the AFC West for the first time ever. On Christmas Eve 1977, the Broncos would play the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first ever playoff game.
This was now nationally known as Orange Madness, but it had to be seen to be believed. People actually painted their cars and houses orange. They dressed in orange and you could even buy orange toilet seats at the store.
On Christmas Eve, everyone was anxiously watching the Colts and Raiders playoff game on the stadium screen, since it had gone into overtime and NBC wouldn’t let the Denver game start yet. By the end of the game, the Broncos had defeated Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers and would next play, who else, the Oakland Raiders for the AFC Championship.
The New Years Day game was played on a sunny but bitter cold day. The Broncos won the game, even though to this day, it is controversial for Raider fans, stating that John Keyworth never made it over the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
It was hard to believe that the Broncos were actually going to the Super Bowl after so many years of being the doormat of the league. The Broncos lost, but that magical season will never be forgotten by the Bronco fans that were through it all.
Terry Bradshaw made a comment directed at Bronco fans, stating it would never be the same, and he was right. Once your team makes it to the Super Bowl, just getting there is no longer good enough, you have to win. And loyal Bronco fans sure found that out in the next decade, losing their next three Super Bowl appearances.
Growing Up At Mile High Stadium
Throughout these tough years, the fans continued to sell out Mile High Stadium every game since 1969, and when the number of no-shows was announced, the crowd booed them.
Mile High Stadium went through several expansions and after the expansion of the west stands, we were moved up to the fifth level, but still on the 50 yard line. My dad and I would get to the stadium about an hour early and we would stand around on the fifth level ramp overlooking the mountains and talk.
One afternoon as I was standing there eating peanuts and tossing the shells over the ramp railing when an usher came by and told me I shouldn’t do that. Being afraid of heights, I barely glanced down and saw the NBC trucks were right below where the announcers and producers were milling around. I certainly didn’t mean to throw peanut shells onto AFL broadcasting legends like Curt Gowdy, Al DeRogatis or Charlie Jones.
With the stands made of metal, Mile High Stadium was one of the loudest stadiums in football. When the fans started banging their feet on those metal stands, the whole place would shake. I think in the early years, most fans stomped their feet just to keep from getting frostbite.
I was lucky enough to sit on the aisle, which meant first crack at hot dogs and peanuts when the vendors came by. It had snowed and it was cold and icy on those metal steps, when a beer vendor had walked by towards the top of the level, telling us to “get your cold beer here,” when I suddenly heard everyone yelling “grab him.”
The vendor had fallen and was sliding on his behind all the way down those icy steps as everyone tried to grab him. Luckily he was caught at the bottom, because if he hadn’t been and slid through the railing, it was a long fall to the fourth level below.
The Denver Broncos: From Laughingstock to World Champions
Most football fans know the rest of the story with the Denver Broncos and John Elway as quarterback for 16 years, including some of the greatest games in NFL history.
All of the great comebacks and AFC championship games against the Browns in the 1980s until finally winning their first Super Bowl in the 1997 season.
The Denver Broncos have literally gone from being football’s laughingstock to one of the most successful teams in the NFL.
Of all of the great players on their early teams, only Floyd Little is in the Hall of Fame and not one player from their Orange Crush Defense has been elected. Other than Floyd Little, the only Broncos in the Hall of Fame today are John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis and Gary Zimmerman.
© 2015 Sam Montana