When Lamar Hunt founded the American Football League in the latter part of 1959, he knew that one of the most challenging obstacles would be stocking that new league with quality players.
Back in 1959, the draft was a vastly different process than the prime time spectacle we know today. First, there was no "scouting combine" for either league (the first official combine was held in 1977). The only evaluation tools available to the hastily assembled front offices of the original eight teams (including Minnesota) were nothing more than player notoriety and college football periodicals of the day. Just imagine John Elway, Brian Xanders and John Fox thumbing through a Sports Illustrated to select the #2 overall for this year's draft. Stick with me after the fold to learn more about how the very first Denver Broncos team was assembled.
Though the AFL had yet to play a game, the NFL was already very aware of the upstart league and was undertaking aggressive measures to thwart its development. First, the NFL held its draft in total secrecy. Such secrecy, in fact, that all my efforts to figure out where and when the draft took place have been soundly defeated. It was little more than a secret business meeting where the teams claimed the rights to sign players - no television coverage, no Mr. Irrelevant and certainly no Mel Kiper (the draft wasn't televised until 1980 and Kiper didn't join the ESPN broadcast until 1984.)
The AFL, on the other hand, understood the daunting task that stocking its new teams would be and went about its draft in a very different fashion. It was held on November 22, 1959 and lasted a laborious thirty three rounds. Players weren't "drafted" so much as the teams just generally agreed on who was to go where with the highest consideration being the region where that player played college football. Hunt understood that the success of his new league depended on the acquisition of local heroes.
The first overall pick (in the history of time) for the Broncos was Roger LeClerc, a center out of Trinity. Instead, of coming to Denver, LeClerc chose to sign with the NFL's Chicago Bears where he would be a placekicker and defensive tackle until 1966. He was the Bears fifteenth round selection, #117 overall. The Broncos began their first draft with one of the biggest reaches in team history. On an interesting note, LeClerc would play the final year of his career, 1967, as a Denver Bronco.
The AFL's inability to sign players would dog the new league for its entire existence. Even though those initial thirty three-rounds were thought to be sufficient to field teams, a second twenty round draft had to be arranged less than two weeks later. With two leagues competing for talent, there seemingly weren't enough new young players to go around.
The second thing the NFL did to thwart the emerging AFL was to expand into new territories. The head of the NFL Expansion Committee, George Halas of the Bears, allowed the Chicago Cardinals to move to St. Louis while awarding new franchises to Dallas and Minnesota. Minnesota, one of the eight original franchises of the AFL, jumped ship - abandoning its responsibility to the new league and its draft choices. Fearing the players reserved for the Minnesota franchise would go to the NFL; the remaining franchises swooped in and signed many of the players to AFL contracts. It was more important to sign the players with the league than with any individual team and they worked together to lock up as many players as possible.
Barron Hilton, the founder of the Los Angeles Chargers (named not for the electricity/lightning we know them to be associated with, but rather for Barron Hilton's Carte Blanche credit card company), desired an interstate rivalry for his team. He urged Lamar Hunt and newly named AFL commissioner Joe Foss to find a replacement for Minnesota somewhere in California. Shortly thereafter, the Oakland Raiders were born.
Since the other seven AFL teams had already poached many of Minnesota's picks there needed to be a third and final draft in order for the Oakland Raiders to field a full team and begin the 1960 season. This was an "allocation draft" wherein the seven AFL franchises designated eleven players that they definitely wanted to keep and then allowed the rest to enter a pool from which the Raiders could choose twenty-four players. With each franchise in the AFL now listing a complete thirty three man roster, the Broncos opened training camp at the "Colorado College of Mines" on July 4, 1960.
Growing pains were many in the new league, especially in Denver. With scant equipment and no uniforms, two hundred people reported to the chaotic and unorganized mess that was the Broncos first training camp. Frank Filchock, the first coach of the Broncos, didn't put any of the hopefuls through any type of drills or training. Instead, he opted to play touch football games to vet the talent pool. Of the initial 33 draftees, only one would make the 1960 roster - Bob Hudson (DE out of Clemson). The majority of players that comprised that first Broncos team were primarily NFL castoffs and Canadian Football League rejects, free agents with something to prove.
Though the 1960 season got off to a rocky start, the Broncos did briefly enjoy sole possession of the AFL West for the first third of the season (even beating the Raiders in our first match-up) before collapsing to a 4-9-1 last place record. Looking back on that first team and the struggles that would follow throughout the 1960's, drafting quality players would be an elusive goal for the Broncos - one that would haunt them for the rest of the decade.