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Denver Broncos Greats... By The Numbers: #53

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. 

Niko Koutouvides LB 2008
Louis Green LB 2004-07
Johnny Rutledge LB 2003
Bill Romanowski LB 1996-2001
Danté Jones LB 1995
Anthony Thompson LB 1990
Randy Gradishar LB 1976-83
Ken Criter LB 1971-74
Roger LeClerc C 1967
Don Gulseth LB 1966
Tom Erlandson LB 1962-65
Bob Hudson LB 1960-61

Bob Hudson was drafted by the New York Giants in the 12th round (146th overall) of the 1951 NFL Draft. He played 10 seasons with the Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Dallas Texans before joining the Broncos near the end of the 1960 season. He played two games in 1960 and another 14 in 1961 at Left Linebacker where he had 3 interceptions. 

Tom Erlandson played at the Left Linebacker spot for 4 seasons with the Broncos from 1962-65. He appeared in 34 games and made 2 interceptions.

Don Gulseth played 5 games at Linebacker for the Broncos in 1966.

Roger LeClerc was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 15th round (177th overall) of the 1959 NFL Draft. He played 7 years in Chicago as a Center, Linebacker and Kicker. Roger played 8 games for the Broncos in 1967 where he played Center, but did some kicking too, going 1/6 and making 2 Extra Point Conversions.

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.

Anthony Thompson was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 10th round (275th overall) of the 1990 NFL Draft. His career lasted 10 games.

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.

Louis Green wore #53 in his first four seasons (2004-07) with the Broncos. He played in 52 games and made 32 Tackles, Forced 2 Fumbles and recovered one.

Bill Romanowski was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the 3rd round (80th overall) of the 1988 NFL Draft. He played 6 years for the Niners, before a 2-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. Romo joined the Broncos in 1996 and made an impact right away, going to his first of two Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections. He was also a member of both Bronco Super Bowl Championships. Bill wasn't the most liked player in the league and was often fined by the NFL for one incident or another. He even spat in the face of 49ers Wide Receiver J.J. Stokes on a  Monday Night Football in response to Stokes' taunting. During his time with the Broncos, Romanowski started all 96 games, made 433 Tackles, 23 Sacks, 11 interceptions, one pick-six, 2 pass deflections, 9 Forced Fumbles and 9 recoveries. Upon leaving Denver, Romo went to Oakland and was a perfect fit, since he was a derelict "Roid Rager" and a dirty player besides. 

While Bill Romanowski had a successful if tarnished career, the Greatest Bronco to wear #53 is...

Randy Gradishar

Randy Gradishar was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 1st round (14th overall) of the 1974 NFL Draft. Highly touted out of Ohio State after finishing 6th in the Heisman balloting, Gradishar had suffered a knee injury in his junior year (1972). He had surgery and considered himself fully healed. Randy was examined by the Colts orthopedic surgeon and a Lions trainer before the Draft. The Colts doctor said he was good to go, but the Lions medic cried Red Alert and put the word out that Gradishar had a bum knee. Broncos Head Coach John Ralston called Randy and requested a medical evaluation, but he refused and told Ralston to call (Ohio State Head) Coach Woody Hayes. Hayes vouched for Gradishar and so Denver selected him.

The Broncos put him behind starter Ray May as a rookie, which ticked him off. He knew he could play in the NFL and by season's end, (Defensive Coordinator) Joe Collier finally let Randy start 3 games. He was named to his 1st Pro Bowl after his second season in the League. Randy played alongside Tom Jackson, Bob Swenson and Joe Rizzo as part of the "Orange Crush" Defense and is considered by some to be the greatest defensive player in Broncos history. 

Gradishar was the heart and soul of the original Orange Crush defense. He was the centerpiece of Joe Collier's 3-4 and the glue that held a ragtag bunch of degenerates and hand-me-downs together. The Broncos "Orange Crush" defense allowed the 3rd fewest rushing yards in the NFL, behind only the Steelers "Steel Curtain" defense and the Cowboys"Doomsday" defense.

Randy became nationally known in a 1975 Monday Night Football game versus the Green Bay Packers in which he picked off a pass and returned it for a game-sealing victory while also recording a sack, two tackles for loss and knocked down two passes and recorded six solo tackles.

In 1976 the Broncos switched to a 3-4 defense in which Randy moved from Middle Linebacker to Inside Linebacker, where he stayed the remainder of his career. The switch to the 3-4 defense gave Gradishar responsibilities relative to rush-lane discipline and pass coverage that are beyond those of a Middle Linebacker in the 4-3 defense. In addition to leading the Broncos in tackles for the 2nd straight year, Gradishar led all NFL linebackers in sacks, with seven. He was voted 2nd-team All-AFC by UPI.

In 1977 Gradishar helped the Broncos get to Super Bowl XII. He made the Pro Bowl for the 2nd time and began a string of 6 consecutive appearances from 1977 to 1983. Gradishar was First Team All-Pro and led a defense that led the AFC in fewest points allowed with 148 in that 14-game season and was 6th in allowing the fewest yards.

He was named consensus NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 by winning the AP Award, along with the UPI Defensive Player of the Year award and the NEA Defensive MVP award, receiving the George S. Halas Trophy for his efforts as the Broncos reached the playoffs for the 3nd straight season.

The Broncos defense allowed 198 points in 16 games, which was second in the NFL behind the Super Bowl champion Steelers. Additionally, Gradishar was the Football Digest NFL Linebacker of the year in 1978, an honor he repeated in 1979.

In the 1979 season, the Bronco defense ranked 5th in fewest points allowed and Gradishar led the team in tackles for the 5th consecutive year.

The 1980 season was average in terms of record (8–8) and statistics as the Broncos defense ranked in the middle of the pack in many defensive categories except the Bronco defense was 5th in allowing the fewest rushing touchdowns in the NFL. Against the Cleveland Browns at Mile High Stadium Gradishar returned an interception 93 yards for a touchdown which was his career long interception return and one of four defensive touchdowns Gradishar scored in his career. He was also named All-Pro and was voted the Broncos MVP for the 2nd time in 3 years.

However, under new coach Dan Reeves the Bronco defense rebounded in 1981, ranking 6th in total defense, 3rd in lowest rushing average allowed in the NFL and 9th in fewest points allowed as Broncos were 11–5. Randy had one of his best seasons as he was consensus All-Pro and All-AFC as well as being voted to the Pro Bowl.

In 1983 the Broncos returned to the playoffs with rookie quarterback John Elway and Gradishar capped of his career with his 7th Pro Bowl in 10 NFL seasons. In Week 12 of 1983 season, against the Seattle Seahawks, Gradishar intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, recorded a sack, and a tackle for loss to go with his season-high 15 tackles in a key 38–27 win.

Gradishar retired after the 1983 season, finishing his career with the NFL record for most tackles all time with 2,049, and 20 interceptions, which he returned for 335 yards and three touchdowns. He also recovered 13 fumbles, returning them for 72 yards and one touchdown. He also recorded 20 sacks according to Bronco team records. Since his retirement, he has been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame several times, but has yet to be enshrined. He was among the 15 finalists in 2003 and 2008, and made the top 25 list in 2005 and 2007. The closest he came to induction was the day before the 2003 Super Bowl, when he made it to the final ten.

Former Denver Post staff writer Terry Frei's book, '77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age, put it this way:

"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."

Dan Reeves:

"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."

Merlin Olsen:

"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."

In 2006 was named by Riddell author Jonathan Rand as one of the Top 25 Linebackers of all-time.

Pro Football Weekly published these comments collected from NFL scouts:
 "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."


Gradishar's hitting ability was a sentiment echoed in Rick Korch's book, The Truly Great. In it Tony Dorsett recalled the hit Gradishar gave him in a 1980 game, "I ran a pass pattern and was wide open but Danny White did not see me. I go back to the huddle and tell Danny that I am wide open. I ran the same route again but this time I was almost decapitated. My eyes were only partially open when I hit the ground. Trainers and doctors came running onto the field. They thought I was dead. Hey, I thought I was dead, too." 

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton remembers asking the Walter Payton, "Walter, who gave you the hardest hit you ever took in the NFL?". According to Hampton, Payton replied, "Randy Gradishar, 1978". In 1981 SPORT magazine named Gradishar one of the Top 5 hardest hitters in the NFL, quoting the modest Gradishar, "The chance for a real good shot comes very seldom, but when it's there I take full advantage of it".

NFL Films' Steve Sabol said this:

"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."

In January 2008, he was voted by a panel of former NFL players and coaches to Pro Football Weekly 's All-Time 3-4 defensive team along with Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor, Andre Tippett, Howie Long, Lee Roy Selmon, and Curley Culp.

When you think of Linebackers and the Denver Broncos, Randy Gradishar is the guy you think of first. He finished his distinguished career as the Broncos' all-time leader in Tackles with 2,049 and appeared in 145 consecutive games. 

  • 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.

Go Broncos!