Since this is defensive back week here on the Denver Broncos web site, with the site taking a hard look at the cornerbacks and safeties eligible for the 2011 National Football League draft, I thought I would look back on the best defensive backs ever drafted by the franchise.
In my opinion, with some miscellaneous personal memories thrown in, the six best players ever drafted by Denver as defensive backs are these:
Billy Thompson, drafted in the third round in 1969. A member of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame, BT started out at cornerback before setting into his safety position. To this day, he remains the only player ever to lead the league—he led the American Football League—in punt and kickoff returns in the same season (1969). “Bronco Billy” had 61 career turnovers and is the NFL’s all-time leader in opponent fumbles returned for touchdowns, with four.
He was my wife’s favorite player for years well beyond his retirement. A team captain, he always played and led like one. Billy was a vital member of the first Super Bowl team in 1977.
Louis Wright was the Broncos’ number one draft choice in 1975 and he too is in the team’s Ring of Fame. A great cornerback who truly deserves induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, according to some voters whom I shall not name, he routinely took away an entire half of the field from the other team’s passing attack. A great cover corner, he was also a fearless hitter and a tremendous special teams player.
I remember that during the 1977 run to the Super Bowl the Broncos had just about secured a win in Kansas City, with just one more punt to the Chiefs. Unfortunately for Denver, the Chiefs’ punt return man jumped out the pack and was heading for the game-winning touchdown. But fortunately for Denver, the player chasing him was Louis Wright, a great track star at San Jose State. Wright caught him just before he scored and the Broncos had a goal line stand to preserve the win. But no Wright, no win in KC.
It was so common after a big play by the defense at Mile High Stadium that it seemed the crowd was booing. They were not booing, they were shouting, “Loooooie.” He still looks like he did then. An astonishing physique that makes it look like he can still play.
Drafted the same year as Louis Wright was Steve Foley, in the eighth round, the first pick on the draft’s second day, in 1975. He was the 199th player selected, and the Wright/Foley combo is the best Denver has ever done in one draft at the defensive backfield. Steve is the Broncos’ all-time interception leader with 44 and was named to the team’s 50-year all-star team.
I can remember talking to a member of the Broncos organization (I was a radio announcer in 1975) the morning of the second day of that year’s draft. I asked if the team was looking for anyone in the eighth round, and was told that “there is a quarterback at Tulane whom we think might be able to play a little safety.” Foley had been a college quarterback and had never played safety in his life. But he played more than “a little” for the Broncos. Plus, one of my all-time favorite guys. A complete stand up guy.
In 1981 Dan Reeves made his first number one draft choice a great safety from USC, Dennis Smith. Dennis Smith also would go on to be a Ring of Famer for the team and a key cornerstone to the defense that helped the Broncos go to three Super Bowls in the 1980’s.
Denver was the only AFC team to go to three Super Bowls that decade, and Smith was renowned for his great hits in the secondary. Boy, did he hit for keeps, and Dennis paid a price for it.
He played the game with a raw fury, like he was settling a personal grudge with someone who had trespassed on his space. I remember once that his lovely wife Andre’ told me that on Monday mornings after a game, when Dennis got out of the bed, the sheets did too. They were stuck to him in the spots where he had bled on them overnight. Some wives help their husbands get out of bed. Andre’ Smith helped to peel her husband out of bed. Then he came to work, and she washed the sheets. And then he went out and hit the same way the next week.
In 1987 the second to the last pick taken in the entire draft, selection number 334 (334!) was a skinny defensive back out of North Dakota State named Tyrone Braxton. Too short, too slow, too light, but all he ever did was make plays—big plays—for championship teams. Tyrone’s North Dakota State team won three national championships while he was playing there, and he was a key starter on the Denver defense for AFC championship teams here in 1987 and 1989, and for the back to back world championship teams in 1997 and 1998.
So his career brought him seven rings in college and pro football, a total that not very many players, if any, can claim. He was a polular player who deserved his popularity, always great with the fans and another stand up guy with the media. “Chicken” might have looked small, but appearances were never more deceiving. Tyrone Braxton was all player.
And the most recent of the great defensive backfield draftees by Denver was Steve Atwater, the smiling assassin. He was the number one draft choice out of Arkansas in 1989 and was a cornerstone at safety for the Broncos, ultimately ending his career in the Ring of Fame as well.
The great victory by the Broncos over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII was immortalized by Pat Bowlen’s postgame comment that “This one’s for John,” and the Most Valuable Player deservedly was running back Terrell Davis, who scored three touchdowns leading the Super Bowl win in his hometown of San Diego.
But Atwater was a devastating force all day long, both in the secondary and rushing passer for a Denver defense that bent some but would not break. Atwater might have had the best performance ever by a safety in a Super Bowl game to that point, and it was a key to Denver’s win.
So that group of six includes four Ring of Fame members, and Foley and Braxton.
We’ll see if anyone comes out of this year’s draft to challenge for membership in that club.
You never know.