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Long before the Denver Broncos were assembled, the Mile High City was a baseball town. But that all changed in 1960 when the little cow town grew up and gained its first professional football team with the American Football League’s Broncos.
Fast forward 55 years and an incredible history of a mighty football franchise unfolds. Seven Super Bowl appearances, two Vince Lombardi Trophies, four Hall of Famers and millions of residents in Broncos Country.
So, imagine for a moment one of those majestic Rocky Mountains were carved into a Denver Broncos Mount Rushmore; who would the four men be to represent the franchise?
Gerald Phipps is basically the George Washington of this franchise, except he was technically the second owner, whereas Washington was the first President of the USA. Phipps was in all technicalities John Adams, and yet, what he did for the organization was monumental. Phipps bought the team in 1961 from original owner Bob Howsom and owned the Broncos for 20 years, until 1981. With him as owner, the Broncos went from a struggling AFL team – seen as a minor threat to the mighty NFL – to one which was included in the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
The 1960s were a difficult decade for Denver, yet his leadership saw them through the troubled beginnings and into their first Super Bowl berth following the magical 1977 season. Phipps was honored as the first non-player induced into the Broncos Ring of Fame and he’s a member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, too. Partly because he was also the owner of the Denver Bears minor league baseball team. Their baseball park – Bears Stadium – was used for football as well as baseball starting in 1960 and Bears Stadium later was named Mile High Stadium. It should also be noted the Broncos’ success with fans opened the doors for other major league franchises to call Denver home. Finally, he was the chairman of the NFL’s Finance Committee from 1970-81.
Pat Bowlen is the Denver Broncos. He’s the Abraham Lincoln of this Broncos Mount Rushmore, the visionary who saw the potential in the franchise just as Lincoln saw the potential in a divided America. Bowlen bought the team in 1984 and his “win at all costs” mentality pushed Denver to reach six Super Bowls and walk away victorious from two during his tenure.
Bowlen owned the team for 31 years, seeing the Broncos win 300-plus games over that time, the only NFL owner to do accomplish the feat in three decades. The 307 wins during his ownership were third-most in the NFL over that span, making Denver’s fans some of the luckiest in all of professional football.
Bowlen didn’t just excel in the present, but he also found it important to honor the past. When his father passed away, he renamed the Broncos’ Dove Valley Headquarters the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre. “Mr. B” also had the forward thinking to create the Ring of Fame for the franchise during his first year of ownership, 1984. The Ring of Fame has since served as a benchmark of success and respect among Broncos players, coaches and owners alike and in 2013, the Ring of Fame Plaza complete with individual statues was created. Bowlen not only sets the standard high in terms of Broncos owners, but professional owners of any American sport.
Other notes: He was famous for wearing those full-length fur coats on the sidelines during games. He served as co-chair of the NFL Management Council Committee, which negotiated TV contracts, as well as being part of the NFL Competition Committee, the NFL Network Committee and the Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee.
On the field, John Elway was the Broncos’ franchise player. Off the field, since 2011, he’s been running the franchise and passing with flying colors. The Duke’s tenure in Denver began back in 1983, when he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts but refused to play for them, instead saying he’d play professional baseball. Elway’s rocket arm was one of the most well respected in the NFL, and it translated into a high-90s fastball in the minors, too.
Denver lucked out to land Elway, and the future of the organization changed that day. Elway knew nothing more than to give his all on every play. He was wonderful at improv, regularly creating a positive gain out of a broken blocking assignment. Elway was deadly with his legs, whether it meant scrambling to give his receivers time to gain separation or to simply take off for a first down; he was one of the most athletic quarterbacks of his day.
In the 1980s, Elway carried those teams – at least those offenses – to three Super Bowl drubbings. Without many playmakers on offense nor a receiver standing 6′ in those days, Denver relied on a strong defense and The Duke’s ability to make something out of nothing. In 1987, Elway won NFL MVP, but the team couldn’t win the Super Bowl.
He’d have to endure 10 more years of playing before enjoying that moment on the podium. Elway could’ve left Denver and gone to play for another organization, but he didn’t. His loyalty to the Broncos paid off in back-to-back Super Bowl victories which were led by the coaching of Mike Shanahan, the running of Terrell Davis, a future Hall of Fame tight end in Shannon Sharpe as well as a talented, veteran defensive unit. Elway’s inability to quit, his desire to continue on until his goal was reached made him a legendary player; “the helicopter play” in Super Bowl XXXII is a microcosm of that will to win.
Following his retirement in 1999, rumors abounded about Elway wanting at least a part ownership of the Broncos. Nothing came of it until, in 2011, he was hired as the team’s Vice President of Football Operations. He’s done so well in the font office, that role and title was expanded to include “General Manager” and his future in that position seems bright. Highlights of his executive tenure include drafting Von Miller, finding Chris Harris as a college free agent, trading for Peyton Manning, staging a coup for Wes Welker, signing All-Pro Louis Vasquez and Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware and also firing the team up with emotional speeches.
With Elway at the helm, the future of the Broncos are in good hands.
Terrell Davis’ career was short-lived, but sometimes the brightest stars burn out the quickest.
TD infamously made a name for himself during the 1995 Broncos-49ers preseason game in Japan, flying down the field on a kickoff to blow up a would-be return man. It opened the eyes of Shanahan as well as the players, earning the rookie a shot at some handoffs. What Denver got in return was their most talented running back – and arguably player – ever.
As a rookie, Davis was thrown into the fire and performed wonderfully at running back in Shanahan’s offense, which utilized the zone-blocking scheme to perfection. He ran for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns that first season, increasing to 1,538 and 13 TD as a sophomore.
During Denver’s first Super Bowl run, Davis was the driving force of the offense. If the team wasn’t handing the ball off to him, they were using TD as a decoy as they ran play-action off him. In the regular season that year, Davis rushed for 1,750 yards and 15 scores as one of the most consistent backs in the league. He didn’t have the speed to break the big runs, but he did possess a magical mix of quickness and power, able to run the ball inside or outside the tackles. In the playoffs, Davis’ drive to perform created one of the most impressive postseason runs ever. In four postseason contests that year, he carried the pigskin for 581 yards with 8 TDs, including a two touchdown game versus the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII – legendarily playing through a migraine headache – to be named the game’s MVP.
The next year was unimaginably better for Davis, as he became only the fourth player to eclipse the 2,000 rushing yard mark in a single season. He continued to be the Broncos’ workhorse, nearly carrying the ball 400 times that year. His 21 rushing touchdowns led the NFL in 1998, as did his 5.1 yards per carry average and he was eventually named the league’s MVP. Davis enjoyed another stellar playoff run, with 468 yards and three scores. Of course, he was the focal point of the Atlanta Falcons defense in Super Bowl XXXIII, leaving Elway to slice and dice their defense to the tune of 34 points.
Davis was tragically injured in 1999 and never regained his elite form. But for two seasons, he was the best player in the NFL – especially when those profound postseason performances are included – and he should be inducted in the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention: Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe, Garry Zimmerman, Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg, Steve Atwater.