As the Denver Broncos head to Minnesota this week for the fourth and final preseason game of the 2010 campaign, this game marks the 11th time that these two franchises have met in the preseason. This preseason series goes back the farthest of any that Denver has against non-American Football League teams.
That is just about as many meetings as they have had in regular season play, having clashed 12 times for real since the Broncos became members of the National Football League in the 1970 season.
I was looking at some old stats recently and that first ever meeting caught my eye.
The merger between the NFL and AFL had taken place and while the two leagues would not become one until 1970, the teams began to play preseason (then still called Exhibition) games against each other in 1967.
The first two Super Bowls were won handily by the Green Bay Packers, so no AFL team had ever beaten an NFL team as they headed into 1967 exhibition play.
Denver had to contend with the fact that Bears Stadium was set up for baseball and thus was unavailable for exhibition games, so the Broncos would face their first two home opponents, the NFL Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings, at cozy University of Denver Stadium.
The Broncos had a new coach in 1967, with the Phipps brothers having signed Lou Saban to a ten-year contract as general manager and head coach of the team, finally establishing the Broncos’ desire to actually work toward being an actual competitive franchise.
For the first time, the front office of the team was generating respect.
Saban kept 11 rookies that year, trimming the roster of all vets whom he thought had no chance to make the Broncos better.
They played their first exhibition at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, before a smattering of fans, announced as 7,000, losing to the Miami Dolphins by an ignominious 19-2 score.
Then Denver truly shocked the pro football world the following week, defeating the Detroit Lions by a 13-7 score before 21,228 crazed Bronco fans who really formed the Neanderthal version of what would become Broncomania. After the win the fans rushed onto the field and carried Saban off on their shoulders — this was just an exhibition game, but Denver fans had their glimpse of a possible future that offered hope.
The Vikings came to Denver the following week.
It was a Friday night, August 18, again at DU’s historic Hilltop Stadium, this time before a standing room sellout crowd of 31,850 (the stadium only had seating capacity for 30,000) on a pleasant 64 degree summer night.
The Broncos roster was so young that their starting quarterback was a free agent from San Fernando Valley Teachers College, Max Choboian. Interestingly, he wore number 15, and the current player in that number, Tim Tebow, certainly has a far more illustrious background than Choboian brought to the field that night. Rose Bowl hero Ron VanderKellen started for the Vikings.
Of course, the game meant far more to the Broncos than to the Vikings, and Detroit had already been fitted for the NFL’s goat horns as the first established team to lose to an AFL club, but it was still very meaningful for Denver’s young fandom to again beat an NFL team, this time by a 14-3 margin. Denver wins over NFL teams were becoming commonplace!
Saban was a hero once more and it seemed certain the Broncos had turned the corner. But once reality replaced enthusiasm and the real season came, a Denver team with 22 rookies played like that, and the Broncos finished Saban’s first year 3-11, giving up 409 points in a 14-game season.
The groundwork of respectability was being established, but it would be a while before the Broncos would sit at the adult table for NFL dinners.
Nevertheless, on that August night in 1967 the Broncos became the first AFL team ever to post two wins against NFL teams, and that will forever be a piece of AFL lore and a memorable beginning to the Broncos’ preseason history against the Minnesota Vikings.