Football?! To be fair, my confusion was justified. Considering I had only recently relocated from the UK where football is actually played with your feet, it was a tad confusing to see a completely different game called by the same name yet played with your hands instead of your feet.
Was I the only one who seemed to think it strange that only the kicker and punter actually kicked the ball? My confusion was further compounded by the myriad rules that seemed to stem the flow of the game. I mean, who can blame me for wondering what the heck was going on when all I could see was a funny shaped ball being thrown by a man in a ‘space suit’ to another similarly dressed fellow running for his life (while being chased by his opponents) down the sidelines?
This was my introduction to American football! I quickly decided that I would stick with being a fan of ‘real’ football, and so Superbowl Sunday would find me ‘picking my nose’ for lack of something better to do, especially since everyone and his uncle were glued to the TV set as if their lives depended on it.
Then I was introduced to the Denver Broncos, and everything changed with one seemingly innocuous “Mile High Salute.” The year was 1996 and I was in the process of relocating to Colorado Springs, CO, where supporting the Denver Broncos was considered to be on par with worshiping God.
It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least to know that people were selling their kids in order to buy season tickets. I was fascinated by this phenomenon and wanted to know why this was the case. This was the John Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, and Ed McCaffrey era, when the greatest show on turf wasn’t in Green Bay or St Louis, but in Denver’s Mile High stadium.
Unknown to me at the time, I was joining the party just when things were beginning to get exciting. Their previous three seasons had been lackluster at best, with a combined record of 24 – 24 and only one trip to the playoffs, which they’d lost to the then Los Angeles Raiders in a Wildcard game.
But this was the 1996 Broncos and their fortunes were about to take a turn for the better. They went on to have an amazing 13 – 3 season (more than half the number of victories of the three previous seasons combined), and were ranked first in the AFC West.
The Broncos were finally on their way to being one of the greatest teams of all time. Honestly, it’s hard for me to pick a specific year, but the Broncos teams of 1996 – 1998 have to rank as my all-time favorite teams. They won just about every accolade in the book and suddenly American football became interesting to me. So interesting in fact, that I stopped referring to it as American football, and simply began to call it football. My English friends stopped speaking to me!
I remember the thrill of my first live game at Mile High Stadium. It was October 6, 1997, a Monday night game against the New England Patriots. It was unsurpassed by anything else I’d previously experienced. I mean, I’d seen loud and obnoxious fans screaming their heads of while sporting their team colors with pride, but that was nothing compared to what I was seeing now.
There was “barrel-man” who came faithfully dressed to every home game in a barrel and nothing else (there is still debate as to whether or not he had anything else on underneath the barrel, but I certainly wasn’t inclined to find out).
There were the boneheads dressed in nothing but their pants and paint, fervently working to catch the attention of the camera, while braving the subhuman conditions of single digit weather.
And then there were the cheerleaders. O my gosh! The cheerleaders! It was all I could do to watch the game as these gorgeous, lithe ladies gyrated and flipped in front of me. And finally, there was capitalism at its best. Demand and supply being the operative principle at work, hotdogs and burgers were sold at the cost of a small mortgage. You were even encouraged to spend your month’s earnings on a reusable Broncos souvenir cup so that you could get free refills for the duration of the game.
And I loved it all. I had become a football fan!
But the best part of my initiation into this incredible game was actually watching history play itself out right before my eyes. In 1998 Terrell Davis joined an exclusive club by becoming only the fourth person to ever rush for over 2000 yards in a season (he rushed for 2,008 yards). He also scored 23 touchdowns in the same season (The previous season had seen him rush for 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns).
That same year, Rod smith had 1,222 receiving yards while Ed McCaffrey had 1,053, and Shannon Sharpe had 768. The accolades came fast and furious as they won the Superbowl in both 1997 and 1998 and sent 5/10 players to the Pro-bowl in respective years.
In 1998 Davis was voted MVP of the NFL, NFL Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and even received an ESPY for Pro Football Performer of the Year. The Broncos closed out the 1998 regular season with a franchise best 14 – 2 record, while breaking or setting numerous other franchise records along the way such as, single-season records for rushing touchdowns (26), passing touchdowns (32), total touchdowns (62), points scored (501), first downs (347), rushing yards (2,468), and total yards (6,092).
Amazingly, they accomplished all this with the poise and class that they have come to be known for. With every rushing touchdown scored, the only demonstrable display would be the “Mile High Salute” as if to say, “We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again.” What a far cry that is from dancing on stars, and donning pseudo HOF jackets.
With the slow and careful indoctrination of my friends from 1996 – 1998, I finally became a believer in football, and added a new chapter to my faith-walk: The Denver Broncos! Hmmm, I wonder how many season tickets I could get for both my daughters? That’s my two cents.