Early struggles and iconic events—many of Colorado’s most famous sports memories—celebrate notable anniversaries this year.
Jim Faulkner, far right, was hired as the Broncos’ second head coach prior to the 1962 season when the team ditched the mustard and brown and switched to the orange and blue we know today. He is joined by assistant coaches (from left to right) Mac Speedie, Bill Meek, Ray Malavasi, Red Miller, and George Dickson.
Think, just for a second, that “The Drive,” “The Helicopter,” Von Miller’s strip sack in Super Bowl 50, or the many “Mile High Salutes” doled out by NFL Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis—just to name a few—never took place.
They nearly didn’t.
You see a prosperous and wildly popular Denver Broncos team now, but that wasn’t always the case.
Sixty years ago, the first Broncos team began the professional football era on the Front Range, seemingly a world away from where we see them now. Clad in mustard-and-brown uniforms bought from a defunct college bowl game (worn for two seasons) and playing in a modest wooden stadium that was projected to soon (spoiler alert: It wasn’t soon) host a Major League Baseball team, these guys weren’t exactly the toast of the town when they took the field as one of the American Football League’s expansion franchises.
“The Broncos had a hard time and were the dregs of the AFL for several years,” says Jim Saccomano, who spent 39 years in the Broncos’ front office as a public relations executive who has written two books on the history of the team. “From 1960 to 1966, that was a great struggle.”
And that struggle nearly resulted in Denver losing its team to Atlanta.
“The team was saved by the Phipps brothers, Gerald and Allan,” Saccomano says. “The team grew from there. We were the first major sports team in the state, and the fans grew closely attached to the Broncos. The one thing that carried it all the way through was great fan support.”
However, if you don’t remember—or simply weren’t here to experience those early struggles firsthand—that’s all right. The year 2020 also marks several other anniversary moments, including one guaranteed to spark chills and waves of emotion in all who think back to a certain February night in 1980.
Does this ring a bell: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
That question and emphatic answer exclaimed by Al Michaels sent the country into pandemonium after a collection of top U.S. college hockey players did the unthinkable in beating the mighty Soviets at the Lake Placid Winter Games. But that win only put the Americans into the gold medal game. Two days later, the U.S. team won gold after taking down Finland.
“Looking back, that never, ever, ever gets old,” says Dave Fischer, the longtime senior director of communications for Colorado Springs–based USA Hockey. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Miracle (the Disney movie released in 2004), and the chills and teardrops still flow. It’s just magical, no question about it. It’s really cool, fun to just reminisce. It never gets old, and it comes up all the time. The players love talking about it, too.”
Football and Beyond
As the Broncos became entrenched as a stable and successful NFL franchise through the 1970s and 1980s (the AFL merged with the NFL in 1969), other major sports organizations began looking at Denver as future homes.
Can you believe that 25 years ago, way back in 1995, the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL relocated to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche? The following June, Uwe Krupp found the back of the net in the third overtime to complete a four-game sweep of the Florida Panthers to give the Avalanche their first Stanley Cup, the only time a team has won the Cup in its first season in a new city.
Also in 1995, Denver had great success as a baseball town as the Rockies reached the postseason in just their third season of existence. They lost to the eventual World Series champions, the Atlanta Braves, in four games in the NL Wild Card, but Denver was starting to emerge as a multisport hot spot.
“As I’ve long said, the Broncos, when they began in the AFL, could have just as easily been someone in Salt Lake City or Albuquerque saying, ‘We want a team’ and building a stadium,” Saccomano says. “If there were no Broncos, how would the Rockies and Avalanche and Nuggets [1967 in the American Basketball Association, NBA in 1976] follow? Or do they?”
And on that wave, hockey in the United States took the momentum from the Miracle on Ice and garnered excitement about the sport in what used to be known as “nontraditional” areas, such as the Deep South and West.
“The magic that was created and what it did for the morale of the country with what we were going through was fantastic,” Fischer says. “And the visibility it gave hockey—we’re in all 50 states and the NHL later expanded. That 1980 team certainly had an effect on that.”
Those first years of the Broncos franchise paved the way for so many memories and milestones. Of course, if the team packs up and moves to Atlanta in 1965, there’s no trade for John Elway in 1983. Elway was picked No. 1 in the draft by the then-Baltimore Colts but was dealt to the Broncos one week later, followed by his first-ever professional pass—in Colorado Springs nonetheless.
“We had the trade for Elway, and we get Elway,” Saccomano says. “So we’re getting ready for his first rookie mini-camp, only it snows, like it so often does in May. So we bus John to the Air Force Academy’s indoor facility, and that is where he threw his first pass as a Bronco quarterback.”
And, as they say, the rest is history with the big moments that were to come. Here’s to many more anniversaries!