I thought it might be fun to have a series of blogs (and, since it’s my blog, whatever I think might be fun seems pretty likely to find its way into print) on Broncos by the numbers.
The team has just completed 50 years of play, a milestone in any franchise history, and over that time a lot of players have made contributions, large and small, to what the Broncos are. It’s like family members, some more accomplished than others but when you are in a family, you are in for keeps. So too for the Broncos. Once a Broncos, always a Bronco.
Those players have worn a lot of numbers over the years, and we are going to take a look, over time, at various uniform numbers.
In the entire 51-year history of the Denver Broncos every jersey number has been worn at least one time. This is an unusual fact because it includes number “0″. As we have discussed in previous “By the Numbers,” the Broncos had a number “0,” fullback Johnny Olszewski, back in 1962. But he is the only player ever to wear “0″. Interestingly, number “18″ also has been worn just once ever, and it was by a teammate of Johnny O’s, albeit someone far more famous and accomplished in the Mile High City.
Number 18 was worn by the Broncos’ first quarterback, Frank Tripucka, who was one of the leading gunslinging type passers in the American Football League from 1960-63.
Tripucka came here after being talked into it by general manager Dean Griffing and head coach Frank Filchock, and he was going to be strictly a coach.
But the Broncos of 1960 were bad to the bone, and it took no time for everyone to realize, so Tripucka was coerced into playing quarterback just for the annual intrasquad scrimmage at Colorado School of Mines, just for that one day, just to give the fans a show.
The one day turned into four years and Tripucka’s arm turned into the major reason to watch Denver’s offense during those early years.
His visit to Denver to become a coach never materialized, but he became one of the Broncos’ original Ring of Fame members in 1986 and was the very first Denver player ever to have his number retired.
Tripucka’s number 18 later was joined by Floyd Little’s number 44 and by John Elway’s fabled number 7, and the retired numbers stop there.
“The Tripper’s” number was retired in a brief ceremony at Bears Stadium (which later grew into Mile High Stadium) just before his retirement. Those were the days when players got cut as simply as being told not to get on the bus, early training camp housing consisted of used Army cots set up in a common gymnasium, and every player took off as soon as the season ended to work in another job.
The off-season lifting program was dependent on how much physical labor the off-season job provided.
So it is no surprise that fans are less aware of Tripucka. Times were different then.
But the people were still people. They were the people, and the players, who played then. And then counted as much as now. The moments are separated only by time.
Frank Tripucka was a college star at Notre Dame and was the first round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949, but was traded to Detroit, where he played in 1949 before spending three years with the Chicago Cardinals (stick with me here), one with the ORIGINAL Dallas Texans (not a predecessor of the Cowboys, not related to the AFL’s Dallas Texans, but the team that became the Baltimore Colts one year later). In 1953 The Tripper headed north to Canada, where continued to sling the football.
He thought he was retired as a player when he came down to Denver’s 1960 training camp in Golden, never realized he would lead the Broncos to their first .500 season (7-7 in 1962), team with Lionel Taylor to set numerous passing-receiving records, and total 7,645 passing yards and 51 touchdown passes from 1960-62, the second highest totals in the AFL during that three-year period.
The Tripper was selected to play in the AFL All Star game following the 1962 season in which he led the Broncos to a 7-7 record that remained Denver’s best until the first winning season of 1973.
He prepared himself well for the business world while at Notre Dame and Tripucka established a very successful New Jersey beer distributorship in the off seasons, and Tripucka now is retired and still lives in the Garden State.
His son Kelly achieved fame as a National Basketball Association player of note, but the family member who first laced up the shoes for athletic fame was Frank Tripucka, The Tripper, the only number 18 in Denver Broncos history.