Dear Bronco Fans,
You are cordially invited to an informal Coming-Out Party for Mr. John Albert Elway. The date for this historic event is January 11, 1987 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Please RSVP with Destiny at 777-7777. We look forward to seeing you there.
The Football Gods
This is an exciting post for me. I've always told people that I became a Bronco fan on January 11, 1987, but during the course of my research for this piece I realized that my first Bronco memory took place several months before that date. It was just eleven days after my eighth birthday on October 20, 1986.
I can't quite remember all the details, but my memory tells me it was a Monday Night Football game. If I am mistaken, please let it be because I cherish this memory whether or not its completely accurate. ;) The Broncos were undefeated at the time and they were traveling to New York to face the Jets - who had only lost one game thus far. So it was an important AFC match up. I remember the Broncos getting dominated that game, with Mark Gasteneau(sp?) terrorizing Elway for much of the game. The Jets were a good football team that year, starting 10-1 before losing their final five games that season. In fact that was one of the most monumental collapses in NFL history. The Jets were outscored 183-61 in those final five games after dominating nearly every team in the first 11 games.
Anyways, my memories of that Monday night game are of my Broncos getting trounced, but because that was the first game I remember as a Broncos fan, I cherish it. It was the beginning of a long life of cheering for this great team.
The Broncos started 8-1 that season before struggling to finish 11-5, which included a tough road loss at the New York Giants, 19-16, late in the season. Though we played them tough on the road. Their 11-5 record was good for the second best in the AFC(11-5 nowadays is hardly good enough for a playoff spot!), while the number one seed went to the 12-4 Cleveland Browns.
The Cleveland Browns had the opposite year from the late season struggles of the Jets and Broncos. They started out with a wholly average 4-3 record before steamrolling through the final nine games to finish with homefield advantage. To top it off they were also undefeated through three overtime games, which included an exciting double overtime victory in the Divisional Playoffs against the New York Jets. They headed into the AFC Championship Game with confidence and the odds on favorite to go to the Super Bowl.
The Denver Broncos on the other hand squeaked by the New England Patriots, 22-17, in their home playoff game and entered the Championship Game with many questions. The media, who blasted John Elway prior to their victory over the Patriots as not being able to win a playoff game, were now attacking Elway as skittish and a quarterback who doesn't perform well under pressure in important games. Can you believe that? The day after the game, however, the headlines would read, There's Always A Chance With Elway.
In a way they were right to disregard the Broncos as a threat, because they didn't have a very powerful running game and their leading receiver was Gerald Willhite, a running back! This was typical of a Dan Reeves style offense, which helped win many football games - but usually with the help of Elway's last minute improvisation.
The day was dark and dreary with a strong gust coming in off of Lake Eerie. There was a freezing rain the night before that caused the field to become a frozen wasteland. The wind chill factor was -5 degrees, but the incessant barking that began in the city the day before continued. The chorus of barking grew to a thunder as the game began. What was predicted to be a offensive shootout quickly turned into a defensive struggle as the weather pounded both offenses into submission.
The Browns struck first with a magnificent 86 yard drive capped by a six yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to Herman Fontenot in the first quarter. However, the Bronco defense stiffened and shut down the Browns offense for the rest of the half.
The Bronco offense came alive in the second quarter. The Browns held at the goaline for the Broncos first drive, holding them to a 19 yard field from Rich Karlis. On Broncos next drive, they were able to punch it in for a touchdown with Gerald Willhite's one yard leap into the end zone. With the score 10-7, the Browns put together one final drive just before half time and capped it with a 29 yard field goal from Mark Moseley to tie the game.
Much of the third quarter was spent punting the ball back and forth, but midway through the fourth quarter the stage was set for an amazing finish. With the score tied at 13, Bernie Kosar and the Browns put together a drive that Brown fans everywhere would think would be the death blow of Elway and the Broncos. A 48 yard touchdown bomb from Kosar to Brian Brennan sent the Dawg Pound into a deafening roar. The ensuring kickoff was muffed by the Broncos and the Browns were able to pin them back at the one and a half yard line.
I would like to share my experience up to this point. I was living in southern Colorado at the time and my parents were having a party of sorts at our house with a bunch of Broncomaniacs. The mood during the game was a roller coaster ride, but after that kick off the house fell silent for the first time all day. Most of the heads were cast down in dejected sorrow. No one believed that even Elway could lead a drive, in that weather, in that stadium, in that dog bone infested end of the field, with just five minutes and thirty-two seconds left in the game, 98 yards for the tying touchdown. We all felt the momentum had shifted to the Browns and any hope at getting to the Super Bowl was crushed. What we didn't know at the time was that Elway was to become the all-time master at stealing momentum from the opposition.
What followed was a fifteen play, ninety-eight yard drive that chewed up all but thirty-six seconds off the clock. The stage had been set for The Drive. As the Bronco offense trotted onto the field and huddled to call the first play, Keith Bishop will forever be remembered for saying, "We got these guys right where we want 'em!"
-First down and 10, Own 2 yard line. Elway faked a handoff to Willhite, then passed to the left to Sammy Winder for a meager five yard gain. This play is memorable because Bowlen yells out to the field, "Come on Sammy baby!" during the NFL Films replay of the game.
-Second down and 5, Own 7 yard line. Elway pitches the ball to Winder who rushes for a short three yard gain. The Broncos call a timeout as they face a critical third down.
-Third down and 2, Own 10 yard line. Elway hands off to Winder for a two yard gain and a barely gets the first down. The clock is beginning to become a factor here as the Dawg Pound begins roaring louder and louder.
-First down and 10, Own 12 yard line. Dan Reeves, determined to lose this game, has Elway hand off to Winder yet again for another short three yard gain.
-Second down and 7, Own 15 yard line. Elway takes the snap and is flushed out of the pocket, he takes off down field for an eleven yard gain and a first down.
-First down and 10, Own 26 yard line. Elway drops back and throws a deep pass over the middle to Steve Sewell who gots hit hard in the back, but holds onto the ball at the Broncos 48 yard line.
-First down and 10, Own 48 yard line. Elway tosses a pass to Steve Watson for a quick twelve yard gain to the Browns 40 yard line just before the two minute warning.
-First down and 10, Cleveland 40 yard line. Incomplete pass to Vance Johnson.
-Second down and 10, Cleveland 40 yard line. Dave Puzzuoli sacks John Elway for an eight yard loss, sending the Dawg Pound(who had been quieted during the drive) into a frenzy.
-Third down and 18, Cleveland 48 yard line. The deep snap hits Steve Watson in the hip as he crosses the line in motion, but Elway was able to snatch the ball out of the air. With the pocket collapsing around him, Elway throws a laser to Mark Jackson for a twenty yard gain and a first down. The Dawg Pound is forever deflated after this play, nothing it seems can slow Elway down.
-First down and 10, Cleveland 28 yard line. Incomplete pass to Watson.
-Second down and 10, Cleveland 28 yard line. Elway throws a strike to Sewell for a fourteen yard gain.
-First down and 10, Cleveland 14 yard line. Incomplete pass to Watson.
-Second down and 10, Cleveland 14 yard line. Elway is forced out of the pocket and runs nine yards, sliding feet first at the Browns five yard line.
-Third down and 1, Cleveland 5 yard line. Elway shifts to the left and throws a low heater to Mark Jackson in the end zone. Jackson slides low and snatches the ball eight inches off the ground for the touchdown with 36 seconds left. Extra point kicked by Karlis, game tied at 20.
Overtime begins with the Browns getting the ball first. At this point, we must take the time to thank Marty Schottenheimer for "Marty Ball". Three laughable plays after the Browns get the ball, they punt to Elway and the Broncos. Elway takes over at his own twenty-five yard line and promptly drives the Broncos down to the Browns fifteen yard line. The overtime drive included a third down and twelve pass to Steve Watson who made a finger tip catch at the Cleveland twenty-two yard line, putting the Broncos into field goal range. A couple of plays later, the Broncos set up for the game winning field goal.
As Elway comes off the field he says to Rich Karlis, "It's just like practice, it's just like practice!". For Elway it may have been just like practice, but for Rich Karlis it was anything but. He hooked his kick and every Browns fan on Earth still believes to this day that it went wide, but the referees signaled it was good and the Broncos earned their second trip to the Super Bowl.
This game was the Elway's coming-out party and this game also goes down as one of sports All-Time Greatest Games. In fact it ranks 13th(3rd best NFL game) out of all sports in the twentieth century at SI's Century's Best.