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The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Denver Broncos
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Denver Broncos History
By Adrian Dater
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Adrian Dater
All rights reserved.
MILE HIGH STADIUM: A MILLION MEMORIES
Everybody thinks of the late Mile High Stadium as just a place where football was played, and why not? The Denver Broncos were its main tenant for 41 years, with a bucking white Bronco statue adorning its entrance.
Not many people today know that Mile High Stadium was first called Bears Stadium, and its construction was hoped to be the catalyst to lure a Major League Baseball team to Denver — not a football team.
In 1947, Bob Howsam, his father, Lee, and his brother, Earl, purchased the Denver Bears, a minor league baseball team in the old Western League, for $75,000. The Bears played at a field called Merchants Park, but its decrepit condition made it imperative a new stadium be built. Denver mayor Ben Stapleton — who would later have the city's airport named for him — promised a sweetheart deal to the Howsams if they transformed the site of the city dump, just east of Federal Boulevard. The Howsams were all for it — $1 for 15 acres of land — but Stapleton lost his reelection bid and incoming mayor Quigg Newton, according to reports at the time, charged the Howsams $33,000 for the land.
Bob Howsam, who would later go on to be president of the Cincinnati Reds in their "Big Red Machine" days from 1967 to 1977, wanted desperately to bring big-league baseball to the Rockies, but he continually had his ambitions thwarted for one reason or another.
But on August 14, 1948, Bears Stadium officially opened, with the Howsam family putting themselves deeply in debt to help finance it. Most sports owners then weren't the mega-rich individuals or corporations of today that look at their teams as toys. For families like the Howsams, the teams were their main business, and they sweated out all the finances.
The Bears beat the Sioux City Soos 9–5 in the first-ever sporting event at Bears Stadium, drawing nearly 11,000 fans. Throughout the 1950s, the Bears were a minor league affiliate for the New York Yankees, baseball's most glamorous franchise.
But the Howsams never could persuade a big-league team to move to Denver, and in 1959 the family looked toward landing a pro football team. The powerful NFL, however, did not want a team in Denver. So the Howsams bought into the fledgling American Football League and set up shop in 1960.
In the process, Bears Stadium was expanded into 34,657 seats, with 8,100 coming in the form of the South Stands and another 9,616 on the east side. While the newly named Broncos were a loser their early years, the team became a part of the city's fabric. People loved to go to big Bears Stadium and watch the giant men run around the field, trying to knock each other's blocks off.
Still, the Howsams mostly joined the AFL — a venture everybody said was doomed — to make Bears Stadium and the city of Denver more attractive for a major league baseball team. The football team was supposed to be the "other" tenant, to pro baseball.
But Howsam's dream of big-league baseball in Denver never came to fruition. Saddled with debt and seeing no hope of a pro baseball team coming anytime soon, in 1961 the Howsams decided to sell both the Broncos and the Bears. For a short time, it seemed certain the teams would move to San Antonio, as a solid offer was on the table from a group there. But two Denver businessmen, Calvin Kunz and Gerald Phipps, came to the rescue and bought the teams. They would both be staying in Denver, and seven years later, Bears Stadium was given a facelift — a new, 16,000-seat upper deck. By 1968, more than 50,000 people could fit comfortably into the stadium, and it was in that year that the name was officially changed from Bears Stadium to Mile High Stadium.
From the start of the 1970 NFL season, after the Broncos had successfully merged from the AFL, no ticket ever went unsold at Mile High for the Broncos. That included the additional tickets from yet another facelift for Mile High: in 1974, city voters agreed to fund a $25 million expansion that would bring the number of seats to 75,100 by 1977. A massive top deck was added, which seemed to kiss the clouds.
The stadium's final capacity, after 60 penthouse suites were constructed in 1986, was 76,098. One of the stadium's most unique features was its east stands, which were movable thanks to a thin sheet of propelled water. In essence, the east stands were floatable, and they were moved to accommodate added field size for a baseball game.
John Elway's Favorite Touchdown Passing Targets
1. 42 — Shannon Sharpe
2. 35 — Vance Johnson
3. 23 — Ed McCaffrey
4. 21 — Mark Jackson
5. 21 — Anthony Miller
6. 19 — Rod Smith
7. 16 — Steve Watson
8. 10 — Steve Sewell
9. 9 — Butch Johnson
10. 8 — Clarence Kay, Clint Sampson, Michael Young
What the stadium really became known for to the rest of the country was its noise. The extremely high seat decks bottled up noise better than today's more airy structures. When Broncos fans were yelling at the tops of their lungs and stomping their feet — as they frequently did — true Rocky Mountain "thunder" seemed to emanate.
"There will never be a football stadium as loud as Mile High," former kicker Rich Karlis said. "I don't care what anybody says; it was louder in there than anyplace I've ever been."
In 1993, Major League Baseball finally came to Denver, and appropriately enough the expansion Colorado Rockies played at Mile High. Massive, sellout crowds were the norm at the former dump site, for both Rockies and Broncos games. That same year, Pope John Paul II visited Mile High on World Youth Day. It was probably the stadium's most memorable year, but another near decade of memories was yet to come.
Included was a tribute night to a retired John Elway, the 1998 AFC Championship Game, and countless big-name rock concerts such as the Rolling Stones and U2.
But time started to take a heavy toll on the stadium's rusted beams, and by the end of the century fans were complaining about a lack of restroom facilities, less-than-easy access up and down from seats, and inadequate parking. After a lengthy fight with the city over financing issues, the Broncos built Invesco Field and began play there in 2001. Some fans — and even, for a while, The Denver Post — refused to acknowledge the field's new corporate name, still calling it "Mile High Stadium."
In March of the next year, the wrecking ball finally came to the old stadium. It hit some longtime fans hard, but by the coming years, most players and fans appreciated the new stadium — while never forgetting the old one.
"Every time I drive by where it used to stand, I can't help but think of Mile High and all that happened there, to me and my life, but also so many other people in this city," former Broncos cornerback Billy Thompson said. "I think it really helped give Denver an identity. For years, when people said 'Denver,' they also said, 'Oh, yeah, where Mile High Stadium is.' It was a sad time for me when they tore it down, but nothing lasts forever and the new stadium [Invesco Field at Mile High] is beautiful."
THE FIRST TWO WEEKS: THIS GAME IS EASY
When the Broncos play these days, whichever TV station carrying the game routinely gets ratings nearing 70–80 percent of the total Denver viewing audience. Home games are automatic sellouts, and pretty much every daily newspaper in the state sends reporters to cover them. Prior to the Broncos' first-ever game on September 9, 1960, however, you had to look hard in the Denver newspapers for any mention of the team. Three days before the game between the Broncos and the Boston Patriots — the first not only in Broncos history but also of the American Football League — this was the headline on the third page of The Denver Posts sports section: "Broncos Drill for Loop Debut." Hardly a big buildup. Post Broncos beat writer Bob Bowie began his short story thusly, with a dateline of Los Angeles: "Denver's wandering Broncos head for the East again this week, but this time play for keeps. Friday night, they have the honor of opening the new American Football League campaign against the Boston Patriots in the Hub City. ... Coach Frank Filchock is not pleased with the prospects of the long haul to Boston, but he's grooming for it, nonetheless. 'It's going to be a real good league,' [Filchock] said, 'and we'll be all right, too.'"
The first Broncos team had training camp in Pomona, California, and went 0–5 in the preseason, including a 43–6 loss to the Patriots, coached by a man who would walk the Mile High Stadium sidelines a few years later, Lou Saban. The preseason loss to the Patriots on August 5 was the first game of any kind the Broncos ever played. The first AFL game was played at Boston University, later named Nickerson Field. A stiff breeze greeted the players, as did 21,597 paying fans. The Patriots were installed as 16-point favorites by the wise guys in Las Vegas.
The Broncos began the week in Pomona, stopped in Denver for a Wednesday practice at Bears Stadium, then flew to Boston later that night. The Patriots had been home all week, waiting for their vertical-stripe-socked opponents. The Broncos got in late to Boston, sleeping away much of Thursday, and bused over to the small, primitive college football field to make history. The massacre that many thought would happen to the Broncos in Boston didn't; Denver, on the strength of a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown by Gene Mingo in the third quarter, beat the Patriots 13–10.
"Johnny Unitas and Big Daddy Lipscomb rose off the sandlots to football immortality with the Baltimore Colts. Friday night Gene Mingo, Denver Broncos halfback, started in that direction as he led the underdog Westerners to a 13–10 upset of the Boston Patriots as the American Football League became a reality after more than a year of planning," Bowie wrote in the Post. "The swift 21-year-old Negro from Akron, Ohio — who never played college football — dazzled 21,597 cash customers."
"I remember the wind that night," Broncos quarterback Frank Tripucka recalled. "That's why I only passed the ball [15 times, completing 10]. It was real dark. The lights weren't any good in that place. But I just remember walking into the locker room thinking 'We're 1–0.'"
Broncos general manager Dean Griffing exulted in the victory, telling Bowie later that night, "Denver will be in the playoffs." Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin preserved the victory with a lastminute interception — one of two picks he made against Pats QB Butch Songin. But the real hero was the aforementioned Mingo. He scored the winning touchdown and kicked the extra point on Denver's first-ever touchdown, a 59-yard pass from Tripucka to receiver Al Carmichael. That, of course, doubled as the first AFL TD in league history. "That's something I'm proud of," Tripucka said. "I remember the pass. It was a little swing pass, and [Carmichael] made the play. But Gene's punt return was what won us the game. It just seemed to come out of nowhere. But it really fired up the boys."
Most 100-Yard Rushing Games in Broncos Regular-Season History
1. 11 — Terrell Davis, 1998
2. 10 — Clinton Portis, 2003
3. 10 — Terrell Davis, 1997
4. 8 — Clinton Portis, 2002
5. 7 — Terrell Davis, 1996
6. 7 — Otis Armstrong, 1974
7. 6 — Reuben Droughns, 2004
8. 6 — Mike Anderson, 2000
9. 5 — Gaston Green, 1991
10. 5 — Bobby Humphrey, 1989
The Broncos did not return to Denver to a hero's welcome. Unlike the modern era — where teams fly back home the night of a game — the Broncos stayed on the East Coast in preparation for their second game, in Buffalo. But the team didn't practice in Boston or upstate New York. Partly to offset costs, they practiced at the high school field on which Tripucka played, in his hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey.
The Buffalo Bills were not supposed to be a great team, but this was their home opener at War Memorial Stadium, and Denver again entered as an underdog. The team's record when the game was over, however, was 2–0, atop the AFL's Western Division. The Broncos won 27–21, with Gonsoulin emerging with four interceptions against Bills QB Tommy O'Connell. Defensive back Johnny Pyeatt's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown was the winning play.
"We have no one real star on this team — everyone pulls together," Post writer Bowie quoted Filchock to begin his story. "Coach Frank Filchock's defensive unit turned the tide for the Rocky Mountain boys, much to the dismay of 15,229 patrons in War Memorial Stadium." About Gonsoulin, Bowie wrote, "The light-fingered, 22-year-old defensive cop, ran his season's total to six with Sunday's thefts."
This game was easy. The Broncos might never lose. Bring on the next victim. That was the mood in the locker room as the team took its act downstate to face the New York Titans.
Despite getting 25 first downs to New York's 17, despite 413 yards of total Denver offense to 279 for the Titans, New York prevailed 28–24. New York won in miraculous fashion, blocking a punt by Denver's George Herring with 15 seconds left, with Filchock electing to punt on fourth-and-eight from the Denver 25-yard line. Center Mike Nichols snapped the ball at the feet of Herring, who scooped it up and tried to kick it away. Titans defender Nick Mumley blocked the kick, and teammate Roger Donahoe picked it up at the 12 and rumbled into the end zone as time ran out.
"The shabby orange letters on the Eighth Avenue side of the Polo Grounds, hard by the crummy Harlem River, proclaim simply: N.Y. Giants," Bowie began his recap for the Post. "They are faded nostalgic reminders of the halcyon days here at the foot of Coogan's Bluff. But, after what transpired Friday evening on the threadbare turf, the ramshackle old joint proved it's still one of our better thrill palaces."
Which team did the Broncos defeat for their first-ever playoff victory?
Find the answers on pages 175–176.
One simply executed punt and the Broncos would have returned to Denver as a 3–0 AFL powerhouse. That it didn't happen, in the wake of the last-minute gaffe in New York, made for a tougher flight back to Colorado for the Broncos. Still, if anybody had told Tripucka beforehand his team would be 2–1 after the first three games on the road, he would have been happy.
"The loss to the Titans was a big disappointment, but we did feel good about what we did," he said. "We ended up winning the first home game [against Oakland], and if we'd been 4–0 by then, I really think we'd have made the playoffs. I think we would have been on such a high, that we would have made it. But that blocked punt hurt. That's the one thing that went wrong on that whole first road trip, but it cost us a game."
FRANK TRIPUCKA: THE ACCIDENTAL QUARTERBACK
The first quarterback in Denver Broncos history was never supposed to have played for the team.
Frank Tripucka in 1960 was a 32-year-old man who had just finished his seventh season playing quarterback in the Canadian Football League, with Saskatchewan and Ottawa. Prior to that, he played five forgettable seasons in the National Football League with three teams. The last one, the Dallas Texans in 1952, was a nightmare for Tripucka. He was part of a team that went 1–11, and he threw 17 interceptions in his six games, with only three touchdown passes.
Tripucka, an All-American at Notre Dame, thought his football career was finished as the new decade dawned. He had played 11 years of professional football; time to move on and do something else.
"I thought, 'I'm an old man now,'" Tripucka said.
Being a coach intrigued the native of Plainfield, New Jersey, so it was with considerable interest that Tripucka accepted Frank Filchock's invitation to help coach the fledgling Denver Broncos of the new American Football League.
Filchock, hired by the Broncos as head coach, had held the same job for several years in Saskatchewan, with Tripucka as his QB. He thought Tripucka would be just the man to help develop whoever might emerge as his Broncos quarterback.
"We had our first camp in Golden, at the Colorado School of Mines," Tripucka said. "I'd only been to Colorado one other time, for an exhibition game with the Chicago Cardinals."
It quickly became apparent to Filchock that he had little talent to choose from in his pool of quarterback hopefuls. So, with the season fast approaching, Filchock approached Tripucka with a proposition: would he give playing one more year a shot?
"My career in the NFL didn't end so well, so part of me wanted to try and redeem myself," Tripucka said. "But I was obviously a little apprehensive."
Tripucka signed on as a player. It turned out the "old man" had some good football still left in him. Three good years, in fact. In the 1960 AFL season, Tripucka completed 248 of 478 passes for 3,038 yards and 24 touchdowns. His passing yardage, attempts, and completions led the league, and his touchdowns tied for second.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Denver Broncos by Adrian Dater. Copyright © 2007 Adrian Dater. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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