Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Once a Bronco fan, always...?
I was born in Denver way back before the Broncos were conceived in 1960 as one of the rag-tag members of the upstart American Football League. It wasn't the NFL, mind you, but it was Denver's first major league team in any sport. The new team of wannabe professional football players, behind former NFL quarterback Frank Tripuka, practiced in Golden, my home home, and each summer we would ride our bikes to the School of Mines field to watch. In the years before the eventual merger bringing the new league into its rival NFL, the Broncos compiled the worst record in the league and was the only original team never to play in the league championship. Even after the merger it took another ten years for Denver to post a winning record.
Then came 1977 and Denver's first division championship, league championship and trip to Super Bowl XII against perennial powerhouse the Dallas Cowboys. Coming off two emotional hard-fought victories over Pittsburgh and Oakland to represent the AFC, the Broncos were humiliated by Dallas 27-10 in a game which was much more decisive than the score. The city that had become so accustomed to losing now boasted some of the loudest and most football-crazy fans in the league and the team's first loss was a serious blow to The Broncomaniacs, including me. But the Broncos were no longer the doormat of the AFC and they would come thundering back.
But it took nine years and the acquisition of eventual Hall-of-Famer John Elway to get back, this time being crushed by the New York Giants 39-20, the game over by halftime. The following year the Broncos stampeded through the AFC again, only to be blown out by the Washington Redskins 42-10. What made this game most memorable, and shocking for Bronco fans, was that they led 10-0 going into the second quarter. The score at halftime was 35-10, Redskins. Then after being knocked out of the playoffs the next year, Elway drove the Ponies back to Super Bowl XXIV, only to limp away from the most one-sided shellacking ever given, losing to the 49ers 55-10. Four Super Bowls, four blow-outs.
By the time Denver returned to the Big One twenty years after its first appearance, most Bronco fans just hoped Denver wouldn't become the only team in history to lose five Super Bowls. (That would come soon enough.) Or fans just hoped the team wouldn't embarrass themselves and the fans again. There was very little chance of beating returning champions, the Green Bay Packers anyway.
I watched that game in silence in my little mountain cabin, tucked inside a snowy little town 45 miles west of the Mile High City. I paced back and forth, the spread of food and drink before me untouched. First quarter, halftime, third quarter. The Broncos were not being humiliated. I turned off the TV commentators and began to listen to radio announcers Dave Logan and Scott Hastings as the fourth quarter began. Dramatic John Elway drive and comeback. Score. Kickoff. "The Broncos are going to win this thing!" No one in Colorado remembers the next seven days. And yeah, the Broncos won again the following year in Elway's final season, but it was a forgettable game except that it was Elway's last and few expected it would take fifteen wilderness years of post-Elway football to get back.
There were some good runs along the way, but the quest to replace Elway would not be realized until Elway himself was resurrected as general manager and brought in legendary Peyton Manning to lead the team. After Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, Manning brought leadership and still had enough gunslinger capability to take the team back to the dance. Most people had forgotten the past, remembering only the two big wins. Not me. I remembered. I was there for the first four. So when Manning fumbled on the first play against Seattle a few years back, I paced and watched, stunned again by PTSD and I stared at the big screen as my Denver Broncos became the first team in history to lose five Super Bowls and became the first team to be blown out five times. It's not easy being a Bronco fan.
So here they are again, playing in Super Bowl 50. (No one knows what Super Bowl L would mean.) But speaking of Rome, the apostle Paul said "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Or something like that. [OK, it wasn't Paul and it wasn't in the Bible, but you get the idea.] We now live near Charlotte, home of the Panthers who are representing the NFC against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. I've watched the Panthers enjoy an excellent year as they enter only their second Super Bowl. It's my dream matchup. Broncos vs. Panthers. I don't feel like I can lose because I'll be happy if either team wins. I don't have to be a loser again. I can't be embarrassed. I really don't care who wins but for both players and fans, I hope it's not a blowout. I hope it comes down to a fourth quarter comeback with the Sheriff driving against the Panthers, with the crowd yelling L-U-U-U-K-E and with the Jumbotron showing shots of a little kid clutching a touchdown ball. Does this mean I'm no longer a diehard Bronco fan? I don't think so!