Denver Sports Heroes

In honor of the recent Super Bowl 50 victory of the Denver Broncos, it seems like a good time to do a special posting having nothing to do with music.  As a Colorado resident since the late 50s I appreciate how incredibly lucky we Rocky Mountain sports fans have been to have watched 2 Hall of Fame quarterbacks in John Elway and Peyton Manning set records while playing for the Broncos not to mention an assortment of hockey talent on one Stanley cup team that can only be dreamed about – Blake, Bourque, Forsberg, Roy & Sakic.  Having watched a Broncos team in the 60s that was embarrassing and a professional hockey team in the 70s (the Rockies) that weren’t much better, it is truly amazing that Rocky Mountain sports franchises have now been to a World Series, 2 Stanley Cup finals and 8 Super Bowls in 40 years (not to mention basketball playoff runs).  This is only the pro teams – let’s not forget a national championship in lacrosse and football via the college ranks as well.  Thanks to all the athletes who have worked through the years to entertain folks like me who had no aspirations of personal sporting greatness.  We all won vicariously through their hard work and suffered right along with them when they lost.  Winning is the best part of following teams, but you also want to like the people you are rooting for and you hope that they are happy to be representing your community.  As Seinfeld said so truly once, “we’re ultimately just cheering for laundry” but you hope that the flesh and bone under the laundry deserve our praise.

The following is a list of the rock and roll Dentist’s local sports ‘heroes’ going back through my lifetime.  Heroes may be too strong of a word for many on the list (hard to idolize someone half your age after all) but will be used for lack of a better descriptive.  As a youth, many of these folk were my heroes, but as I have gotten older I see the person behind the uniform clearer and their humanity becomes more evident.  In many cases you see a person you would really not like to meet, but can admire their accomplishments.  Many folk on this list are in that category.  There are others I have been lucky enough to meet and have been everything you would hope for in someone representing your town/area.  Those folk moved up in my list for that reason.  Sometimes you do not want to meet your heroes and I can say there have been a few instances where people have dropped in my estimation after meeting them.  I wasn’t alive to see Colorado legends like Jack Dempsey, Kayo Lam, Jack Christiansen and Supreme Court justice Byron “Whizzer” White so they won’t appear, but do deserve a mention.  I must say that there are so many others who did not make my list, but could have – Lionel Taylor, Goose Gonsoulin, Louie Wright, Larry Walker, on and on.

1.Floyd Little

“Top Dog Weiners are doggone good.” That’s what Floyd told me and all the other kids who watched him on our tv’s from 1967 to 1975 and we believed him.  I know I personally made mom buy Sigman’s hot dogs for that reason.  #44 with the bow-legged running style was frankly the only star we had back then being the first #1 draft pick to actually sign with the Broncos when they were a pretty shaky franchise.  He was always smiling and just seemed like a great guy to know coming out of Syracuse and moving to a place he admits to not knowing anything about (the mountain time zone was pretty dead to the national media – perhaps still is).  We very quickly grew to love the man and he seemed to feel the same way about his fans.  He retired as the 7th leading rushing in the NFL at that time and we were all proud as new parents when he was finally elected in to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2010.  I have met him a couple of times and have to say he is just as advertised.  A friendly man who you would love to take to lunch and talk about the old days.  One of only 2 athletes I have ever written a fan letter to – and he responded back!  Thanks Floyd!

2.Doug Moe

Big stiff that he was, he would be the one sports figure I would most have liked to have taken out to dinner as he always seemed genuinely funny and likeable.  I got to meet the big fellow once and he seemed as warm and friendly in person as he was crazed on tv guiding the Denver Nuggets to basketball success (2 years as assistant coach and 10 as head coach in the 80s).  As a coach he used ball movement and running up the court which in mile-high Denver makes a whole lot of sense if you want to tire out an opponent.  He was funnier on the radio talking about his wife Big Jane and deflecting team criticism by referring to players as ‘stiffs’.  Save for the George Karl era, Nuggets basketball has never been even close without him.

3.Haven Moses

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Moses at a kids autographing session for my daughter and was struck by what a truly nice man he was/is.  He seemed glad to be there and took the time to talk to the kids (and their dads!).  He was one of the first great Broncos wide-outs playing for them from ’72 – ’81.  Craig Morton had a sure handed tough receiver in Moses (I can still picture the bar on his helmet literally exploding after he sustained one particularly vicious hit).  When #25 and his ‘fro were traded to Denver from Buffalo for a troublesome Dwight Harrison there is no debate which team won in that exchange.  I saw him once in a restaurant a couple of years ago, but didn’t want to disturb him.  Glad to see he still loved mile-high Denver.

4.Red Miller

A Broncos coach that always seemed like one of us.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to meet Mike Shanahan or Dan Reeves and thank them for what they did with my fave pro team.  Red, however, will always be special as the guy who took our team to that first Super Bowl – win or lose.  It was a magical run in ’77 and created a lasting love affair with all things orange.  He was a guy who coached the O line originally and that left a lasting image of a head coach bleeding  after butting heads with a player’s helmet while teaching the finer points of blocking.  Again I remember sitting a few seats from Mr. Miller twice, but not wanting to bother him.  When the Colorado Rockies hockey club were in danger of leaving our state (they moved back east anyway), he was right there cheering.  When my daughter was as the CSU band camp several years ago, there was Red supporting a grandchild (one assumes).  A man who represented Colorado proudly.

5.Terrell Davis

The running back that finally pushed John Elway in to the club of Super Bowl winners and seemingly a very likeable guy if one can judge by tv appearances (alway a danger).  All one has to do is watch videos of the magical years 1997 and 98 and watch the man run to see how much better he was at what he did than anyone else at his position.  A shortened career due to knee injury (I still cringe at the sight of him trying to make the tackle on an interception off of Griese) is the only reason he doesn’t have a bust in Canton.  Who knows, maybe one day he will after the voters watch a tape of the year he ran for over 200o yards.

6.Bill McCartney

No Colorado sports figure is as polarizing as Coach Mac – or as true to their beliefs.  Love him or hate him, he took my beloved alma mater (the Buffs) to the highest of heights including a share of the 1990 national football championship (shared thanks to a negative vote by the hated coach of the Nasty Huskers he and we so hated – everyone needs an enemy after all).   Our family had season tix in Boulder attending games from ’70 to ’97.  When Mac came, you could frankly count the number of fans at most games as the Buffs would lose to teams like Drake.  To his credit he built a dynasty that out-lived him when he quit in ’94 to devote his time to Promise Keepers and his family.  A recent tv special goes in to great detail about his religious convictions and his family trials, but love him or hate him you have to admit that he has no fear of being upfront in all things.  A Buff for life – thanks – we need that fire again at CU, coach.

7.John Elway

Before his run as Broncos GM, I would have placed him lower on the list.  Oh he was perhaps the greatest player to ever play for the Broncos, but he never seemed as approachable as Terrell or Floyd while doing it – incredibly competitive and a star on a different level.  John is arguably the most recognized person in Colorado.  While he still isn’t someone who I would feel comfortable taking to dinner like others on this list (he’d probably arm wrestle me for the last slice of pizza), I have to admit that he has proven to be a great Colorado treasure after retirement devoting himself to making the Broncos great again after the disaster that was Josh MacHoodie who was bent on destroying our team.  The fact that he was a Bronco for his whole career winning 2 rings and willing his team to 3 other big games (losses, but still…) is huge but to then go back as GM 2 more times winning 1 is testament to the man’s drive.  You have to love the team and perhaps the fans as well to devote the time and effort he has shown the last few years.  Who could blame him if he would have simply walked away to play golf.  After you win it all you don’t walk away with “The End” over the screen like a John Wayne movie.  You have to do it all over again. The ‘Duke Of Denver’ has shown his passion to excel over and over.    He is the only other athlete to earn a fan letter from me – though I never expected a reply – also the first player I felt deserving enough to buy his number jersey – #7 – at least till a few weeks ago.

8.Dan Issel

Possessor of an ugly head fake and too short at 6′ 9” to be a true center, he managed to befuddle the great centers of the game like Kareem time and time again.  When he took out his anterior bridge, that gap toothed look was scary and unique as well.  Playing for the Nuggets for a decade and then coaching for a few years as well, Issel and Moe are the faces of Denver basketball to me.  His coaching tenure ended badly with him saying something he regretted quickly, but that whole era of Denver hoops with Alex English, Bill Hanzlik, Kiki Vandeweghe, Byron Beck and David Thompson was the best.  The second best player in Denver history to wear #44.

9.Jason Elam

The best kicker in Broncos history – perhaps the most consistent player at any position for the longest stretch.  He lived in our subdivision for a time and kindly let me wear his Super Bowl ring once – wow, that thing was like a lugnut – a very expensive lugnut.  One of the neatest times I’ve had was being on the sideline at Mile High when my daughter was the kickoff kid for the Broncos to retrieve the tee after each kickoff.  We eventually met Mr Elam and again much later at a Christian bookstore when he was signing his book here in Parker.  Both times he was friendly and down to earth.   With him on the field you expected our team would win if it came down to 1 kick of any length.

10.Randy Gradishar

Well him not being a slam dunk first ballot into the NFL Hall is a crime.  When he retired he had the NFL record for the most tackles.  Perhaps it is because he played in the lost time zone here in Denver.  Perhaps it is because he played quietly and professionally instead of beating his chest and celebrating every hit like others (he hit the quarterback then helped him back up – classy).  Whatever the reason, if he doesn’t ever get a bust in Canton then the voters bring shame on the whole process.  He never has done anything off the field that didn’t reflect a set of fine values.  Part of the overlooked, but powerful Orange Crush defense only rivaled by the recent Super Bowl 50 defense.  That’s Denver football at it’s best and Gradishar was the epitome of greatness.

11.Joe Sakic

When the Nordiques came to Colorado in ’95 and became the Avalanche, we received an embarrassment of riches that only needed the addition of a great goalie in Patrick Roy to win a Stanley Cup.  The John Elway of that team has to have been Super Joe who played for 20 years with that franchise and at age 37 became the 2nd oldest player to accumulate 100 points in a hockey season.  Quiet and humble, when Peter Forsberg went out, Sakic took up the slack never allowing his team to skip a beat.  Like Elway, he has taken over his team’s front office though he has not been as successful.  Given enough time, one assumes he will.

12.Pat Bowlen

Well some may argue that Mr. Bowlen doesn’t belong on this list as he is an owner – not a player or coach.  Well, as the 30+ owner of the Broncos he proved time and time again his passionate committment to winning.  Many owners seem content to put any team on the field as long as it makes a profit, but Mr. B never allowed the Broncos to slip very far before he paid whatever it took to bring his team greatness.  Unlike some owners, he also stayed out of the way of his coaches and let them do their jobs.  His success as an owner is staggering and the Rocky Mountain region should be grateful to have had someone so determined to win as our Broncos owner.  It is a pity that dementia has robbed him of all memory of his own successes.

13.Shannon Sharpe

A 7th round draft pick out of little Savannah State who went from being an unheralded wide receiver to one of the greatest tight ends of all time.  His skills made him a great Bronco, but what put him on this list is his outspoken glibness.  You can see that if he wasn’t on your team, you would have hated him – but since he was ours we loved him.  That sideline soundbite where he picks up the phone and says to call out the National Guard because the Broncos are killing the Patriots is one of the funniest moments in our team’s history.  Elway had to mention him in his retirement speech – “yes Shannon, I know you were open” – funny stuff.  But only funny if your play backed it up and usually he was open and always caught the ball.

14.Billy Thompson

A Broncos player good enough to start as a cornerback and a safety plus return kicks.  He bridged the era when the Broncos were just getting good and managed to stick long enough to make it to the Super Bowl.  While he was a fine player, he was always approachable at his Castle Rock fast food outlet and would sign autographs and talk football with any fan.  This fan knew that the mojo was in for a Super Bowl 50 victory when my sister and I ran into him and former Buff great Larry Brunson at the team store before the game so thanks BT!

15.Keith Bishop

Broncos fans love their players, but true orange fanatics worship the guys in the trenches.  The silent behemoths that work harder than anyone else on the field to little acclaim are our true heroes.  When you see a lineman come to the sidelines and take off his helmet, look for the tell-tale steam rising off his head in cold weather if you want to know what work is.  Perhaps nobody epitomised this more than Bish who uttered the now immortal line in the huddle before ‘the Drive’ engineered by Elway against the Browns – on their own 2 he said “we’ve got ’em right where we want ’em.”  And apparently they did, but Bish and company on the line got little of the credit – just the way they wanted it one assumes.  When he signed an autograph for me, he seemed just grateful that this fan remembered him.  Zimmerman, Schlereth, Clady, Nalen, Kaminsky, on and on.  Thanks guys.

16.Tom Jackson

With Randy Gradishar, TJ was one of the greatest Broncos linebackers of all time (okay, I won’t forget Von Miller and Karl Mecklenberg).  By itself that wouldn’t have put him on the list.  He has been consistently one of the greatest football announcers on tv as well.  That also would not have put him on my list of heroes.  All it took was one immortal line when he taunted coach John Madden on the sidelines after the Broncos finally got over on the hated dog-Raidahs saying “it’s all over fat man.”  Hoo wee, one of the best lines ever by a Bronco and so true.  When Madden went from hated sideline scourge to lovable announcer, he still singled out Jackson as a great player who personally scared him.

17.Steve Watson

Blade was on the other side of the field from Haven Moses making it awfully tough on the other team.  Once saw him in our local grocery store and didn’t want to bug him but was amazed that he wasn’t any bulkier than I was.  That made it even more impressive realizing how many hits he took.  The early version of Ed McCaffrey – a silent white guy out of the east coast who caught everything including physical abuse from the other team – then went back to the huddle and did it over again.  The year of the strike when he had broken ribs still feels painful to me and I only watched it.  Would love to talk to the guy, but then so would a million other Broncos fans.

18.Rod Smith

Maybe the most unsung hero on this list because he seems to want it that way.  What Broncos fan can forget this unknown guy from Missouri Southern State catching his first pass from Elway against the Redskins – and a long touchdown to boot.  That set the tone for this undrafted free agent’s entire career.  The TD bomb against the Falcons in the 2nd Bowl victory was typical as well.  Like Gradishar, a consummate pro who never tooted his own horn – just went out and played hard while setting a good example and a few records to boot.  Those records for receiving hopefully will earn him a spot in Canton but with the way the voters tend to ignore the Broncos, who knows.  We love him – hopefully that’s enough of an honor for the man.

 19.Patrick Roy

The best goalie to ever lace up skates in Colorado and he would be higher on the list if he didn’t have such a temper which has gotten him in to trouble at times on and off the rink.  He brought 2 Stanley Cups to Colorado and in the process managed to come up with the best hockey line ever uttered in Colorado.  In response to a comment by Jeremy Roenick during the 1996 drive to the first Cup, Roy said “I can’t really hear what Jeremy says, because I’ve got my two Stanley Cup rings plugging my ears” – brilliant.  The Avs battled the Red Wings many times and his other defining moment has to be his fight with opposing goalie Chris Osgood – something that simply never happens – 2 goalies fighting.  Roy had a great first year as Avs coach, but has struggled since – we are all pulling for him to return our hockey club to greatness.

20.Peyton Manning

Purposely the closer on this list, it is so hard to know where to rank the man having just retired.  In Broncos history one thing is sure – he set the bar awfully high in terms of football accomplishments and doing things the right way (seemingly – there are a few clouds that need to be cleared up but one has to trust in Mr. Manning).  He has been a classy Bronco and is the only player I felt deserving of my buying his jersey (#18) besides Elway.  Von Miller might make me buy a third down the road, but he’s young yet.  Manning, on the other hand, was the oldest player (after John Elway) to take his team to the Super Bowl and win.  As an old guy, that’s important!  We were all so worried that he would reinjure his neck so it’s good to see him go out before taking any more clean shots from a linebacker.  The only knock is that we still remember him bedevilling the Broncos for so many years in Indy – however, you can’t hate that guy even when he is an opponent as he’s funny and says all the right things plus he was a VERY good Bronco.  He seems to be about team first and like Elway, made his players better by being there so thanks for coming to my state and being everything we could have wanted in a role model for our kids.