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Rick Upchurch finally gets credit he deserves with Ring of Fame honor

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After three decades, the Denver Broncos will add another No. 80 to the Ring of Fame - the first star to wear that jersey.

Denver Broncos Football Club

As of Sunday afternoon, there will be two No. 80s in the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame.

Both were wide receivers.

Both electrified the offenses they played with.

Both are highly deserving of the ROF status.

Only one has waited three decades to have his bronze pillar take its rightful place among the Broncos greats.

But for those special moments this Sunday afternoon when three players are inducted in the Ring of Fame, that No. 80 will be the one in the spotlight.

Always a Bronco

Rick Upchurch took off his jersey 31 years ago, but the 62-year-old has never stopped being a Bronco - in his heart or those of Broncos fans.

The wide receiver/kick & punt returner was a Bronco his entire nine-year NFL career (1975-1983) and was among those responsible for making the Broncos a team to contend with rather than beat up on.

He is a four-time Pro Bowler and five-time Associated Press All-Pro. Named by the Pro Football Hall of Fame committee to the first team of the 1970s NFL All-Decade Team and second team for the 1980s version, Upchurch is the only player in Broncos history to be named to multiple all-decade teams.

Upchurch was known as much for his kick and punt returning as his receiving, and the fact that both were stellar is why the Ring of Fame committee finally realized what the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame understood in 2003 - this guy needs to be honored by and for the fans he impressed every game.

I put in the work. I didn't want anyone to outwork me, and I'm telling you, no one did. -Rick Upchurch, 2014 Ring of Fame inductee

In a conversation Friday with season ticket holders, Upchurch explained his big secret to success - working hard.

"I put in the work. I didn't want anyone to outwork me and I'm telling you, no one did," Upchurch said. "I made a commitment to the game. I had a high school coach who said if you make a commitment to the game, it will make a commitment to you. And it sure did."

It is even more fitting that the game during which Upchurch will be honored - along with fellow inductees Dan Reeves and Gene Mingo - is against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Upchurch 'torches' Chiefs in rookie debut

It was against the AFC West rival that Upchurch made a dazzling rookie debut in 1975 with three receptions for 153 yards, including a 90-yard touchdown pass from Charley Johnson.

It was Upchurch's 13-yard touchdown run off a reverse in the second quarter that jumpstarted the offense, down 10-0 at that point. The Broncos won 37-33, thanks in large part to No. 80's two TDs and 284 total yards - yards he accumulated by receiving (153), rushing (13), kick returns (88) and punt returns (30).

Those total yards, by the way, still stand as a Broncos rookie record for game one. And making that record even more impressive is its comparisons - Eddie Royal is second on the list for his rookie game one at 185 yards. Clinton Portis, who holds the Broncos' rookie record for total yards in a season, had just 34 yards in his first game, and running back legend Terrell Davis posted 79.

And of any single game performance for a Broncos rookie, Upchurch is second overall and shows up seven times among the top 100 single-game rookie performances.

To do that well in that first game was something else. Plus we came back to beat Kansas City. -Rick Upchurch, wide receiver/special teams

"To do that well in that first game was something else, plus we came back to beat Kansas City,'' Upchurch told the Rocky Mountain News in 2003. "But then going to the Super Bowl was the very top. To achieve something as a team, not only for the city of Denver but for the whole state of Colorado, that was the pinnacle.''

Although Upchurch and the rest of the 1977 Broncos didn't get the Super Bowl ring they hoped for, the receiver/returner still racked up a lustrous career. In fact, it was his 67-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XII that set up the Broncos' only touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys.

Retiring in 1983 - just before Super Boy John Elway came to town - it's intoxicating to think what the veteran star might have done in the era of passing QBs, catching from the young superstar-in-the-making.

The fourth-round draft pick out of Minnesota was truly an all-around player on offense and special teams.

In his nine seasons, Upchurch had 267 receptions for 4,369 yards with 24 touchdowns plus 49 rushes for 349 yards and three scores. His average reception was 16.4 yards and average rush 7.1 yards.

Upchurch fielded 95 kickoff returns for 2,355 yards, nearly a 25-yard return average.

But it was his 248 punt returns for 3,008 yards and eight touchdowns that stands out in NFL history. When Upchurch retired in 1983, his eight punt return TDs tied Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Jack Christiansen for the most in NFL history. It currently ranks fourth in the NFL and first in franchise annals.

In 1976, the Ohio native led the NFL with a 13.7-yard punt return average and four punt return scores, which tied an NFL record that still hasn't been broken.

Six years later, Upchurch again finished first in the league in punt return average (16.1) and punt return touchdowns (2).

Upchurch's best offensive season came in 1979 when he paced the Broncos with 64 receptions for 937 yards (14.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns. His 937 yards marked the sixth-highest single-season total in franchise history at the time and his seven receiving scores tied for sixth.

Although the Broncos couldn't win the ultimate prize while Upchurch was playing, he was as happy as anyone when the team he played his heart and soul for finally got the Lombardi more than 20 years later.

"I just thought it was an all-time classic,'' Upchurch said after the Broncos beat the Packers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. "It puts a flower in everyone's cap. I was so happy for the guys that I could hardly sleep. We had an opportunity when I played and didn't do it. But we did our part for the organization.''

Yes he did.

A star player

When I was 7 years old, my grandpa and dad took me to Broncos training camp at CSU a few months after the Super Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Like all the excited kids, I held my autograph book over the fence, hoping I'd get any signature, let alone a good one. I couldn't really tell who was signing my book, but when I was able to pull it back from the melee of kids and players, I saw Rick Upchurch's name with a star by it.

I had just begun understanding the game and recognizing how cool it was that "our Broncos" had gone to the Super Bowl. I didn't really know players, just the big names - Upchurch, Craig Morton, Lyle Alzado and the Orange Crush.

I barely had time to realize what a keeper I had until my grandpa, a Cowboys fan, saw it.

"Rick Upchurch? That's a really great one!"

80 has always been a star number for the Broncos - Upchurch, Mark Jackson, Rod Smith and now Julius Thomas.

The current guy wearing it just may find his pillar in the ROF someday.

But this weekend, all the glory goes to the first star to wear the No. 80 jersey.

Poll

Who is your favorite Broncos player to wear No. 80?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    The first star to wear No. 80 - Rick Upchurch
    (48 votes)
  • 2%
    Amigo numero dos, Mark Jackson
    (3 votes)
  • 59%
    Rod 'Best Undrafted Player Ever' Smith
    (78 votes)
  • 2%
    Orange Julius
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Another No. 80 (there are 14!)
    (0 votes)
132 votes total Vote Now