This is Hall of Fame weekend in the National Football League, the kickoff event of the new season and the time when all-time greats are honored for their contributions to the game. Whether large or small, the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame class always includes the game’s greats, and the ceremonies in Canton never are less than memorable.
All Bronco fans are aware that quarterback John Elway is the only Bronco in the Hall of Fame, in terms of players who made their marks in Denver. And it is no great secret that many of us have frequently stated frustration with that fact.
However, there are others with Denver connections in the Hall, including cornerback Willie Brown, who started his pro career as a Bronco, and running back Tony Dorsett, the Dallas great who ended his career in the Mile High City.
But there is another with a big Denver connection, and he was a man I was honored to work for, and will always be proud to have called him a friend.
Fred Gehrke (pronounced GERK-ey) was general manager of the Broncos for a number of years (1977-80, and was assistant general manager for a number of years before that), and helped put together the team that made Denver’s first Super Bowl appearance in 1977.
He also was the GM who hired me, and I will always treasure his friendship.
I want to take these few words to remember Fred, because he too is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as a Pioneer Award recipient.
The Hall occasionally (and infrequently, actually) names a Pioneer Award winner based on that person having made a great contribution to the game.
Fred was a halfback on the fabulous (no other adjective is sufficient) Los Angeles Rams teams of the early 1950′s. Fred was a good player, but his claim to fame was being the man who first put a logo on the side of the helmet, starting a uniform tradition that would be unimaginable to be without now.
They had leather helmets in those days. Fred had been an art major in college at Utah, and he came up with the idea for Ram horns on the sides of the helmets. He asked team officials if they would mind if he played around with his idea, got permission, and took the team helmets home to his garage for the paint job.
They were an instant hit with the players and, when the Rams first took the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum with the now-legendary horns on their helmets, the fans went crazy with applause.
A tradition was born, and Fred Gehrke would be a Hall of Fame Pioneer Award recipient as a result of that and other contributions to the game (you know the net that kickers kick into to practice before going out to kick? Fred invented that, too).
But the helmets were leather, and every game they would get nicked up some, so it was load them up in Fred’s care after the game, take them to Fred’s garage, and touch them up again. Every week.
That’s how football helmets came to have logos on the sides, and Fred Gehrke is the man who did it. He did not share the accomplishment, and it didn’t happen in a lab. He came up with the idea, and did it all by himself in his garage.
Fred died a few years ago, and I was honored to represent the Broncos at his funeral.
His nickname as a player was “Leather,” because he was known as a very tough player. He played against Hardy Brown, described by some as the toughest (and that is a really polite term for how they talked about Brown) player in football history. I once asked Fred about Hardy Brown, He just chuckled and said, “Hardy Brown. He wasn’t so tough.”
I guess when your nickname is Leather, that’s how you feel about tough guys. But I knew Fred as one of the kindest and most gracious men I have ever met, in addition to being one of the most creative and artistic.
This is Hall of Fame weekend, and I remember him now.
I also have a lot more stories about Fred Gehrke, and perhaps we can share a few in a couple of future writings.
Have a great Hall of Fame weekend, Fred.
And thanks again for reading.