Then Morton Said to Elway...: The Best Denver Broncos Stories Ever Toldby Craig Morton, Adrian Dater, Dater Adrian
Written for every sports fan who follows the Broncos, this account goes behind the scenes to peek into the private world of the players, coaches, and decision makers—all while eavesdropping on their personal conversations. From the Denver locker room to the sidelines and inside the huddle, the book includes stories about Lyle Alzado, Tom Jackson, Dan… See more details below
Written for every sports fan who follows the Broncos, this account goes behind the scenes to peek into the private world of the players, coaches, and decision makers—all while eavesdropping on their personal conversations. From the Denver locker room to the sidelines and inside the huddle, the book includes stories about Lyle Alzado, Tom Jackson, Dan Reeves, and Jim Turner, among others, allowing readers to relive the highlights and the celebrations.
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"Then Morton Said to Elway ..."
The Best Denver Broncos Football Stories Ever Told
By Craig Morton, Adrian Dater
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Craig Morton and Adrian Dater
All rights reserved.
From the Big Apple to a Cow Town
"So, McVay calls and tells me, 'We're really sorry, Craig, but we've traded your rights to the Denver Broncos.'
"'Well', I said, 'You've got to be kidding me? That's GREAT!'
— Craig Morton
New York City was quite an interesting place to be in the late '70s. It was a time marked by terror, with a serial killer nicknamed Son of Sam on the loose. It was time when the city's coffers were literally empty, with high unemployment and inflation. It was a time when the New York Yankees were nicknamed 'The Bronx Zoo' from all its colorful characters, including a brash owner named George Steinbrenner.
Furthermore, one of the city's football teams, the New York Giants, didn't add much excitement to the mix. The Giants were awful. This once-proud franchise was reduced to playing in whatever venue might take them, which in the mid-1970s included the Yale Bowl in Connecticut, Yankee Stadium, and Shea Stadium. A new stadium was under construction for the Giants, slated to open in 1976, but it wasn't in New York City. It was in New Jersey, on a piece of cheap marshland called the Meadowlands.
From 1974 to 1976, the Giants' quarterback was Craig Morton. He was obtained by New York in a trade with Dallas. Despite being in his early thirties, Morton thought his best playing days were ahead of him. In his early years with the Cowboys he didn't play much, as he was the backup to Don Meredith and he often split time with Roger Staubach in the later ones.
But as Morton would soon realize, playing for the Giants was nearly a career killer. He played a lot, sure, but much of his time in a Giants uniform was spent trying not to get the holy Hell kicked out of him.
"I remember I was traded by the Giants in April of 1977, and everybody thought I was about washed up because we were such a bad team. The funny thing is, when I was traded by Dallas to the Giants, I had said I just had to get out of Dallas, because with Roger (Staubach) and I there, it just wasn't going to work. At first, it was going to (be) Roger that went, then in the middle of the last season there, I just asked to be traded. I thought I was going to the 49ers, but at the last minute they traded me to the Giants for a No. 1 draft choice, who turned out to be Randy White. So that was a good trade for them.
"The first day I walked into the Giants Stadium, it wasn't a particularly good time in the city. That's when they were running out of money, and President Ford had to bail them out. I had a great time in New York, as far as being a bachelor and all that, but I remember getting to LaGuardia and the guy from the Giants was late picking me up, and I said, 'What in the world have I done? Is this the dumbest-ass move I've ever made, or what? You should have kept your mouth shut.'
"With the Giants, the first day I got there, I learned you had to get there early. Because, unlike the Cowboys, who always had all your gear in your locker and it was always perfect and real professional, the Giants had three stacks of clothes. One was a stack of socks, one was a sack of jocks, and one was a stack of T-shirts. You had to get there early to get any socks that would stay up, any jocks that weren't broken, and a shirt that wasn't shrunk up around your belly button.
"I just said to myself 'you've really made a great decision to call home here,' because this is not a good organization. We played at Yankee Stadium, we played at the Yale Bowl, we played at Shea Stadium, then we opened Giants Stadium. And we weren't good at any place we played.
"After the last season (1976), our coach, Bill Arnsparger, was fired. So, I get a call from John McVay, who was the interim coach. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I didn't want to go back to New York. The people didn't like me there; they were cursing and yelling at me. I used to get my friends around me and we'd run to my car, because we didn't have a protected area to park in those days. But my friends were faster than I was and the fans would catch up with me, and let me have it. It was just horrible, not a good deal at all.
"So, McVay calls and tells me, 'We're really sorry, Craig, but we've traded your rights to the Denver Broncos.'
"'Well', I said, 'You've got to be kidding me? That's GREAT!' Because, one of my last games with the Giants was against the Broncos, and in preparation for playing them, I found (out) that they were already a pretty good team. They had a great defense. Their offense wasn't so good, but they didn't make a lot of mistakes.
"And, another great thing was that a friend, Johnny Walker, and I had a place up in Aspen that we used to go to in all the off-seasons. So, I'd known Denver and loved it. I thought the Broncos had potential. So, I just thought, 'God, this is great.' And, of course, they had a new coach in Denver, Red Miller. Denver took my contract from the Giants, and it was a good little contract. I think I was making $100,000 to $150,000 a year at the time, I can't quite remember which. But it was good money. And, the thing is, I wasn't assured of having a job in Denver. They already had Craig Penrose and Norris Weese as quarterbacks, and they also brought in Steve Spurrier.
"But I had a good feeling about things, from the first moment I walked in the locker room. That first time, I see this big old guy sitting at the end of the room. It was Lyle Alzado. I knew him by name ... and from him just kicking my ass in the game we played. And I went up to him and he says, 'Craig Morton — NOW we can win a championship.' So that made me feel that, hey, maybe somebody's on my side here.
"But the funny thing was, in my first training up, my first roommate was Craig Penrose. So, here we are, both wanting the same job. And Spurrier was there, too. He'd had a pretty good career to that point. Not great, but pretty good. So, there was competition for the job, but not to the point where I thought I was in danger of not getting the starting job. But me and Penrose would hang out at the local bars in Fort Collins, and they had a fan poll one night on one of the stations about who should get the starting job. Penrose and I were looking up at the screen and Penrose had the majority of the votes, and I had, like, 6 percent. And I said, 'Boy, I'm still a piece of crap.'"
The Old Man's Still Got It
Despite the bad few seasons in New York, and a body that was starting to resemble a '53 Chevy on Demolition Derby Day, Morton hadn't given up on himself, probably because he knew he still had a gun for an arm.
In NFL history, Morton's arm compares favorably to most of the greats who got considerably more publicity and trophy hardware. Morton said that when he was growing up in California, he could actually throw a football faster than a baseball!
But after 12 years in the NFL, Morton's knees started deteriorating and his somewhat pigeon-toed walk would become a source of locker-room humor throughout his career. Through it all, Morton always had that gunslinger's arm, and that's why he entered the 1977 season with his new team's confidence. If nothing else, Morton was just happy to be in a new place.
"As training camp got started and went on, I knew I could still play in the league and be effective. I had just wanted to be on a better team, one with a good defense, and I knew this team had one. I was just so happy to be out of the Giants organization by then. There were no more fights everywhere, even on the way to the locker room after a practice or a game like we had there. It was a joke.
"But in Denver, I started feeling good about things again. I always had a great arm, and it was still there. Mentally, I could also play no matter how much I was hurt. I always thought, 'Nothing can hurt me.' I'd played with as much pain as anybody could play with. But through all that, I always had a strong arm. And with Denver, I knew I was going to be able to use it, but not have to throw 40 times a game because we had no running game. I could throw when I needed to, I had a feeling, and I just thought, 'This is going to work out here.'"
New Coach For A New Quarterback
After the 1976 season, in which the Broncos went a franchise best 9–5, head coach John Ralston was fired. A so-called Gang of 12 contingent of veteran players supposedly went to upper management to say they couldn't play for Ralston anymore. It remains somewhat in dispute just who the mutineers were, but it has been safely established that star defensive lineman Lyle Alzado was a ringleader.
Some players saw Ralston, a former Stanford coach, as too much of a college-level coach. He wanted his players to hold hands in huddles. He was considered just too much of a sis-boom-bah, rah-rah kind of guy who didn't understand the mentality of the professional players. The pros left that kind of stuff behind the minute they started getting paychecks and non-guaranteed contracts.
In his place came Robert "Red" Miller. Miller was lured away as offensive coordinator from a fine New England Patriots team — one that might have gone to the Super Bowl in 1976 if not for a controversial roughing-the-passer call in a playoff game at Oakland. That gave the Raiders a second chance on a game-winning drive. Miller worked previously as an assistant with the Broncos in the 1960s, even during the team's vertically striped socks days. The look was so ugly they were named the third-worst-looking uniforms in pro sports history by ESPN.com. Only beating them on the list were the Chicago White Sox's wide-collared shirts, and the occasional short pants of the Bill Veeck-owned 1970s teams, which were voted the ugliest of any team sport. The ugliest overall was judged to be the all-white unitard worn by tennis player Anne White at the 1985 Wimbledon tournament.
Miller, a former Golden Gloves regional boxing champ in Illinois, was an energetic, rah-rah kind of coach, like Ralston. However, Miller earned the players' respect because of his "take no shit" personality, and because he wasn't afraid to get in the trenches with his own players. He was even known to have wrestled many of them in the locker room.
"John Ralston, I think, had pretty much been in control of all football operations when he was there, and he put together a great core of teammates. But he lacked the key ingredients, namely, a top quarterback, and I guess they wanted a change. But he certainly showed that he was a great judge of talent in his football career.
"But I liked Red right away. I'd played against his New England teams, and maybe he knew I was old enough or smart enough not to make a lot of mistakes. Red came in with this amazing energy. He was a real player's coach, and he just wanted to have fun but work really hard, too. He knew there was something special there."
"The first thing Red did was try to form a level of togetherness among the team. Before, not many guys lived in town. Everybody was all spread apart and there wasn't that cohesiveness, and Red wanted us to all try to live near each other. Red really wanted us to believe that we could win a championship together. Before, I don't think people really did. They thought we had a good enough defense, because they had such great leaders with guys like Randy Gradishar, Billy Thompson, Barney Chavous, Louis Wright, and Lyle.
"Red just kind of reaffirmed to them that, 'yeah, we are good enough to win' and he also had such a great coaching staff around him. Babe Parilli was my quarterback coach, and he was one of the great coaches of all time.
"A few things really stick out from my first training camp with Denver: One, I remember when we had a center named Bobby Maples, and he was getting old, but still a very talented guy. But there was a guy named Mike Montler, who turned out to be our starting center, who bicycled up from Boulder to Fort Collins. He was with Buffalo at the time, but he just biked up to our camp. I think Red was so overcome and impressed that Montler would come all the way up there and say he wanted to play there, that somehow we got him. Red traded for him.
"Another one was, at the first practice, he had us all run a mile. That was it. But here I was, coming from sea level, now at about 6,000 feet above it, or whatever it was. I wasn't in bad shape, and I thought, 'no problem.' I mean, we died. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. It was a joke. I could see a look on Red's face like, 'Welcome to Colorado.' I think what he was trying to convey to us and guys like me was, 'The way you're feeling now, it's going to stay that way and you know how far you have to go, especially for you guys that don't live here. If you're going to play here, you're going to have to live here.' At the end, it did work, because I think 95 percent of our guys lived there year-round."
The New Game Plan
While Morton had three other quarterbacks to beat out in his first Broncos training camp, there never was much doubt he'd get the starting job.
He'd had too much experience and his arm was still good enough to convince Miller the job was his. Miller didn't need a guy to throw for 300 yards a game. All he wanted, Morton soon would learn, was for his quarterback not to turn the ball over and get just enough on the scoreboard for what he believed would be a dominant defense.
He was right. It wouldn't be long before Denver's defense would be immortalized with the nickname "The Orange Crush."
"Red's whole deal was, 'We play to our defense.' He said, 'We will score. But if we can eliminate mistakes offensively, we have a great shot at winning.' Well, I'd always known that. But it's one thing to say it and another to have the kind of defense to be willing to punt the ball away, to play for good field position and just not throw any interceptions and avoid the sack, and wait for the next go-around when you'll get good field position.
"It took a little while to prove that, but Red was proven right. And I knew I could be that right quarterback for him, with that kind of game plan.
"I knew I could beat those guys out, but the guy who did concern me was Spurrier, because he had such an amazing grasp for the game. I'm sure that's why he became such a great coach. But they ended up cutting Spurrier, and keeping the young guys (Penrose and Weese). I guess they didn't want just old guys, because I was 34. I wanted to be that starting quarterback more than anything.
"I've always been able to compartmentalize things, to know what's important. I just remember being confident that I had what I needed to be successful for Red. And we all started to really respond to him. He was great, because he would always screw around with players, have fun with them, especially linemen.
"He'd come in the locker room and just go berserk with cheers and he'd go up and give guys forearms, and guys would think, 'what the hell am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to give a forearm back?' Then he'd get everybody in a circle and pick the biggest guy out and he'd start wrestling with them. And he'd kick anybody's ass. Everybody was afraid of 'who's he going to choose this week?' You'd see guys running in the bathroom. He'd just say, 'Come on! Get your ass out here, let's go.' I never saw him go after Alzado, though. I don't think he was that dumb.
"But guys respected him, because he showed he'd get his nose dirty with his own players. If he wanted to show something he wanted done on the line or something, he'd get right in there with no pads on and get all roughed up and have blood coming from his forehead or something. He led by example. Guys knew that if he could put on a uniform with us, he would.
"And another thing he did was take away an atmosphere where guys would blame others for their own shortcomings. He came in and took all that away. Players still do that today, but Red would have none of it. I think Red did a little research into who was really behind the (Gang of 12) rebellion, and their asses were gone. I know that a few guys who started that deal were not part of the team. He wanted to know who some of the unsavory guys were who blamed others except themselves."
The First Game
Morton's first regular-season game with the Broncos came on September 7, 1977, at Mile High Stadium. If not for a great performance by Denver's defense, Morton could easily have been booed back to his car, just like in New York.
Morton went 12–20 passing, for 144 yards and one interception. But the Broncos won, 7–0, over the St. Louis Cardinals. The lone score came on a 10-yard touchdown run by Otis Armstrong.
What Morton most remembers about the game was the week leading up to it. The Cardinals arrived in Denver several days in advance to better acclimate themselves to the altitude. Miller knew right away that was a mistake.
Excerpted from "Then Morton Said to Elway ..." by Craig Morton, Adrian Dater. Copyright © 2008 Craig Morton and Adrian Dater. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Craig Morton is a former NFL quarterback who played for the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants, and the Denver Broncos. In 1970, he led the Cowboys to Super Bowl V, which was their first, and helped them get to Super Bowl VI the following year. He later guided the Broncos to Super Bowl XII, which was also their first, to face the Cowboys. He is an inductee in the College Football Hall of Fame. Adrian Dater is a sportswriter with the Denver Post and the author of four other books, including The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Denver Broncos. He lives in Thornton, Colorado.
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