This week the Denver Broncos, winners of two world championships in their great history, will host the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six world titles in their even more illustrious history in a nationally televised game this Sunday night.
FOX, which is a network that did not even exist when the Broncos began play in 1960, will televise the game. The announcers doing the game were not born in 1960, but play-by-play man Joe Buck’s father Jack was already establishing himself as one of the great baseball voices at that time.
But things were a lot different for the Broncos in 1960, and few franchises in sport have come as far from their beginnings.
No team ever had more humble beginnings than the Broncos, the poster team for the word “rag-tag” in the early days of the American Football League.
You had to be there to see it.
Of course, the Broncos originally played in Bears Stadium, home of the minor league baseball Denver Bears—I got my first championship ring as a member of the Bears staff, and the franchise has a warm and special place in my heart—but still, while all AFL teams had to make some adjustments, the Broncos were playing in a true minor league park that was expanded to 35,000 with temporary bleachers.
The bleachers could not be installed until the baseball season ended, so it was not possible for Denver’s entry into pro football to play home games in its home park during preseason—exhibition games, as they then were called. The Broncos began in their home park playing a necessary second fiddle to the town’s minor league baseball team—the Bears were a legendary franchise, but nevertheless a minor leaguer one.
So the Broncos hit the road.
In 1960 they played in Providence, Rhode Island (they lost before a crowd of 4,706), Rochester, N.Y. (lost before 6,200), at Jeppesen Stadium, a high school field in Houston (another loss), at Little Rock, Ark., (a loss before 5,500), and finally, in the biggest stadium culture shock of that exhibition season, a loss (what else?) at the actual Los Angeles Coliseum to the Los Angeles Chargers (they moved in 1961).
A zero-and-five record witnessed by a combined 57,422.
The following year Denver stayed on the road for all five exhibition games, in 1961 playing in such pro football hotbeds as Midland (Tx.), Spokane, Fort Worth, Mobile (Ala.), and finally at Candlestick Park to close out the practice season. Denver this time went 1-4, but the total attendance was just 54, 597.
The Broncos had their first non-losing season in 1962, as new general manager and head coach Jack Faulkner established some firsts for Denver: a playbook (really, that was the first year the team had one), and most notably, the orange jerseys.
But home exhibition games? Forget about it!!!
Denver’s footballers played in Atlanta, San Diego Fort Worth, and Stockton before a combined audience of 53,668.
But Faulkner was the first person to bring true professionalism to the front office, and he knew that a fledgling team trying to juice up interest just had to play in its home city.
So, finally, in 1963, the Broncos made a deal with the University of Denver and on Saturday, August 3 the Broncos played their first ever home exhibition game, defeating the Houston Oilers by a 27-10 score before 11,445 at DU Stadium. Mickey Slaughter started at quarterback for the Broncos and led the win that night.
In a very small way, this was very big history. Denver played a second home game at DU in that exhibition season, a 31-25 win over the Chargers before 11, 135 on a charming 65 degree August night.
The franchise was taking baby steps. Never again would the Denver Broncos have to play all their preseason games on the road.
And never again would the Broncos be as bad as they were in the first years.
A lot of growth has taken place since then.
Today, the Denver Broncos are the only team in the National Football League to have won 90 or more games in each of the last three decades. They have sold over every home game since the last game of 1969.
And this week, when they play the Pittsburgh Steelers, they will do so at home. Home is a good place to be, and the Broncos did not even have that option the first time they ever suited up.
Sometimes when a team starts to grow, it grows real big. When Bronco fans know how it all began, they should savor the present even more.