Twelve players wore #53 in the annals of the Denver Broncos. One Center and eleven Linebackers. There are a few good players in the list below, but I think we will all agree who holds this title. As usual, I'll save the best for last. Here we go.
Don Gulseth played 5 games at Linebacker for the Broncos in 1966.
Ken Criter had a 6-year career with the Broncos beginning in 1969, but only wore #53 from 1971-74. He played 47 games, recovered two Fumbles, recorded a Safety, returned a punt for no yards and returned 8 kickoffs for a 16.1 average.
Danté Jones was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 2nd round (51st overall) of the 1988 NFL Draft. He played 7 seasons with the Bears before joining the Broncos in 1995. He started 5 games at Middle Linebacker and recorded 18 Tackles.
Johnny Rutledge was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2nd round (51st overall) of the 1999 NFL Draft. He played in Arizona for 4 seasons before coming to Denver where he played in 6 games during the 2003 season.
Niko Koutouvides was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the 4th round (116th overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft. After playing out his rookie contract, Niko signed a 3-year deal with the Broncos worth $7.5 Million in 2008. He appeared in 14 games and made 2 Tackles. He was summarily released on February 16, 2009 after just one season in Denver. Koutouvides latched on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009 and is still on their roster.
While Bill Romanowski had a successful if tarnished career, the Greatest Bronco to wear #53 is...
"Gradishar penetrated and stopped two running plays, as Gradishar did time and time again on the goal line in his career. It was the trademark of both Gradishar and the defense overall."
In another excerpt from Frei's book, the late legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes said this about his former player:
"Randy was always the best. His ability at (play) recognition allowed him to move quickly. He's quick mentally. He's quick visually. He made the plays from sideline to sideline and yes, sir, he's the best we've ever had."
"He was as good a Linebacker as I have ever been around, and I have been around some great ones. He was a leader without question of our defense while I was with Denver. He was an exceptional football player. I had a great deal of respect for him when I was at Dallas before I ever went to Denver. After I arrived in Denver and saw what kind of a leader he was my respect for him grew. He never missed a game and was a dominant force on the field. The opposing team always had to take him into account when they devised their game plans."
"If you ask me to name the 5 best Linebackers I played against, or had a chance to cover in my broadcasting career, Randy Gradishar would be on that list ... There is no question about his credentials; Randy Gradishar belongs in the Hall of Fame."
"Superior diagnostician with exception strength, balance, tackling form and very good lateral mobility. Not as flashy or brutal as some ILBs but means almost as much to Denver's defense as Walter Payton does to Chicago's offense" and "Is most dominant defender in AFC when healthy.Although not as brutal as Butkus or Bergey, he's strong at the point of attack, does a superb job of playing off blocks and getting to the ball, gets good depth on his pass drops and is consistently excellent"
Zander Hollander, author of The Complete Handbook of Pro Football, said:
"Not as nasty as Butkus, doesn't snarl like Lambert, but Gradishar makes all the plays. Hey, he can hit, too. Just ask Saints' Henry Childs, after Gradishar knocked his helmet off, "It was the first in my career like that, in the open field."
"His range separated him from others at his position. A sure and determined tackler, he was also an excellent pass defender. He had special qualities in terms of intelligence, preparation and athletic ability. His "play anticipation" was the best in football. He had a great ability to square his body into the ball carrier at the moment of impact; which made him an incredible performer on third or fourth and short."
Former Detroit Lions GM and fellow Inside Linebacker Matt Millen:
"Randy Gradishar was one of the most productive players I've watched. He was always around the ball, rarely out of position, and constantly making plays. Linebackers are difficult to evaluate because there is a lack of statistics. But someone like a Randy Gradishar was easy to judge because of what he produced."
- 7-time Pro Bowl selection (1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983)
- 5-time 1st-team All-Pro selection (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981)
- 1-time 2nd-team All-Pro selection (1983)
- 7-time All-AFC selection (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983)
- 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
- 2-time Denver Broncos MVP (1978, 1980)
- 2-time All-American (1972, 1973)
- Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (1989)
- Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame (1983)
- Colorado Sports Hall of Fame (1987)
- Champion High School Hall of Fame for Athletics
It is extremely difficult to fathom why such a force of nature is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Regardless of that fact, MHR proudly and adamantly gives a Mile High Salute to Randy Gradishar as not only the Greatest Bronco to wear #53, but one of the Greatest Linebackers in NFL History.