Many years ago, way back in the 1980's, I remember sitting at old Mile High and looking at the handful of names that had been enshrined in the Denver Broncos ring of fame. John Elway was still under center and a great many names that we recognize today were still years away from being added. Two names stuck out to me. "Goose" Gonsulin (for obvious reasons... Goose isn't a terribly typical name...) and Frank Tripucka. Just how was it pronounced? My dad didn't know. Puck-a? Sounded right. Was there a long 'u' in it? But then that pronunciation sounded a bit disrespectful... As years went by, I continued to stare at Frank's name and wonder who he was.
He must have been special. He only played for the Broncos for just a little over three seasons years, starting in just thirty-seven games. It wasn't until I was older that I came to learn just who this guy was and why he was so important (not to mention how to pronounce his name - long 'u'). It's not so much about the stats and wins with Frank. It was about the time he played. It was about him filling a void that needed to be filled in order to keep the Broncos and the American Football League viable.
It all began in 1959 when the Denver Broncos hired Frank Filchock to be their first head coach. Tripucka was brought on to be an assistant coach, but, due to poor play and injuries, he ended up becoming the starting quarterback at the conclusion of training camp in 1960.
With someone to throw the ball, the Broncos managed to win four games that first year, finishing 4-9-1. The major highlight of the season coming from Tripucka himself when he threw the very first touchdown pass in AFL history to WR Al Carmichael (oddly enough enshrined in the Green Bay Packers hall of fame).
In the 1962 season, Tripucka really caught on with fellow ring of famer, WR Lionel Taylor. The Broncos would muster a 7-7 record, their best until the early 1970's. Both Taylor and Tripucka were elected to the AFL All Star game where together they would connect score the game winning touchdown for the West in the 4th quarter.
So what's the big deal?
Without Tripucka, there would have been even worse quarterback play. Without decent play, there would have been very little community support. With diminished community support, the team could have folded or moved. Had it not lasted those first two seasons, initial owner Bob Howsam may never have sold the team to Gerald Phipps (who would oversee the teams rise to prominence in the 1970's). Basically, if you have a football team with no stars you got nothing. Thanks to Tripucka and Taylor (and Goose on defense), the Denver Broncos had something... and it was just enough to keep things going.
In gratitude to Frank for putting up with the crap of leading his floundering football team in rough times, Phipps retired Tripucka's jersey in 1963. It remained retired until Peyton Manning joined the Broncos last year. The two of them are the only Broncos to ever have worn it. Needless to say, both men have worn it well.
In June of 2008, Tim Lynch wrote this article about Tripucka. In it, Tim noted Frank's accolades....
Frank Tripucka [held] several team records which include[d] the most passing yards in a single game of 447(Record broken in 2000 by [Brian] Griese and then again in 2003 by [Jake] Plummer...) against the Buffalo Bills in September of 1962 and he also shares the team record with 5 touchdown passes in a game also against the Bills in October of 1962. He also holds the lesser distinction for throwing the most interceptions in a single season when he threw thirty-four in the 1960 inaugural season. Tripucka was enshrined in the Ring of Fame at Mile High Stadium in 1986 and remains an important part of the organizations past.
Tripucka's record stood until September 5th, 2013 when another #18 scored 7 touchdowns. Although Tripucka shared that record with John Elway and Gus Ferotte, it only seems fitting that Peyton Manning would again set the mark wearing Frank's number.
Tim Lynch said it best when asked to comment on Tripucka's passing.
People don't often understand why Frank Tripucka's number is retired. On the face of things, he didn't appear to really do anything of significance for the franchise. It wasn't about touchdowns or interceptions or even wins - rather it was about relevance. Relevance to the city of Denver and to the entire state of Colorado.
Frank Tripucka also threw the ball. A lot. Back when no self respecting football player wanted to end up in Denver, Tripucka and Lionel Taylor were lighting it up with little other talent on the roster. You ask yourself, 34 interceptions in a single season? How is his number retired?!? Well kind sir, how many interceptions would you have if the only guy who could catch the damn ball was nearly continuously triple covered? My guess is, a lot.
Once Frank Tripucka retired, the Broncos descended into a decade of horrendous football. The decade included 20 consecutive defeats to the hated Oakland Raiders and endless losing seasons. Tripucka's #18 was retired because he actually meant something to this franchise when the franchise was trying to survive. Respect that. Respect the game. R.I.P. Frank Tripucka from all of us in Broncos Country.