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Vote for the best of the best among early-era Broncos for the 2016 Hall of Fame

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This just may be the toughest category yet.

And now our Mile High Report Hall of Fame Class of 2016 selection process continues with our favorite legendary Broncos - the "early-era" guys that helped build this franchise into an actual contender - some even doing it long before it really was one.

It is no easy task selecting just a few Broncos to induct into our Hall of Fame every year since so many greats belong here. But the following made the top of the list, and you get to vote for your favorites here.

Rich "Tombstone" Jackson

Rich Jackson went undrafted out of Southern University, signing with the AFL Oakland Raiders in 1966. He joined the AFL Denver Broncos in 1967 and played through the league merger into 1971, and splitting the 1972 season between Denver and the Cleveland Browns. He started 52 of 67 games in 5.5 years with the Broncos from 1967-72.

Injuries cut his career short, but he tallied an impressive 43 sacks in just over four seasons of work in the AFL/NFL.

The nickname "Tombstone" came from his famous use of the head slap and head spinner, which he used to throw opposing offensive lineman off balance. Even the tough-as-nails Lyle Alzado called Jackson the toughest man he'd ever met.

His accolades included:

  • AFL All-Time 2nd Team

  • 3-time Pro Bowler (1968, 1969, 1970)

  • 3-time 1st Team All-Pro (1968, 1969, 1970)

  • Colorado Sports Hall of Fame (1975)

  • Inaugural class of inductees into the Broncos' Ring of Fame (1984 along with Goose Gonsoulin, Floyd Little, and Lionel Taylor)

Rick Upchurch

Drafted by the Broncos in the fourth round (95th overall) of the 1975 NFL Draft, he appeared in 119 games with 69 starts. Upchurch caught 267 passes for 4,369 yards with 24 touchdowns. He had 49 rushing attempts for 349 yards with 3 touchdowns.

He returned 248 punts for 3008 yards with 8 touchdowns. Upchurch returned 95 kicks for 2,355 yards. He fumbled 27 times and recovered 9 fumbles.

Upchurch appeared in four Pro Bowls (1976, 1978, 1979, 1982) and was named to the 1st Team All-Pro three times (1976, 1978, 1982). He appeared in six postseason games (2 Wildcard, 2 Divisional, 1 AFC Championship, Super Bowl XII).

In Super Bowl XII, No. 80 recorded 94 kickoff return yards, 22 punt return yards and 9 receiving yards.

The wide receiver/kick returner set a Super Bowl record with a 67-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, which set up Denver's only touchdown in the game. After football, Upchurch coached at the college and high school levels. He was inducted into the Broncos' Ring of Fame in 2014.

Louis Wright

Louis Wright was drafted by the Broncos with the 17th overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. He played his entire 12-year NFL career for the Denver Broncos. It didn't take him long to break into the starting lineup. He started 11 games as a rookie, making two interceptions and recovering a fumble. He followed that up with a breakout year (1977), intercepting three passes for 128 yards and a touchdown and helping lead the Broncos to their first Super Bowl (XII).

In his NFL career, Wright finished with 26 interceptions for 360 yards and one touchdown. He also recovered 11 fumbles and returned two for touchdowns. In addition to his cover skills, Wright was also one of the best run supporting Cornerbacks of his era. His feats eventually earned him the nickname "Lou-dini."

Here is a sample of Wright's accomplishments:

  • 1977 Football Digest NFL Defensive Back of the Year.

  • NFL 1970s All-Decade Team.

  • One of nine players in franchise history to be selected to at least 5 Pro Bowls (1977, 1978, 1979, 1983 and 1985).

  • Made his 1st pick-six in 1977 against the Raiders in Week 5.

  • Named 1st-Team All-Pro in both 1978 and 1979.

  • Named 2nd-Team All-Conference in 1980 and 1981.

  • Had a career-high 6 passes interceptions in 1983.

  • Had 2 career Fumble returns for a touchdown (82 yards in 1979 and 27 yards in 1984).

  • Blocked a Field Goal in 1985 during the Week 11 game against the Chargers, running it back 60 yards for his 4th and final career touchdown. That block won the game (in OT) for the Broncos.

  • Played in two Super Bowls (XII, XXI).

  • Named to the Broncos 50th Anniversary Team.

  • He was inducted to the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 1993.

Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 4th round (88th overall) of the 1973 NFL Draft. He played 14 seasons for the Broncos (13 seasons wearing #57) and started every possible game in a season 7 times for his career.

T.J. played in Super Bowls XII and XXI for the Broncos and held Denver team records for most seasons (14) and games played (191) for many years after his retirement until both marks were broken by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.

He helped the Broncos to 6 playoff berths (1977-79,‘83-84, ‘86), four division titles (1977-78, ‘84, ‘86) and two Super Bowls (XII in 1977, XXI in 1986). Jackson was one of only four players to play for the Broncos in both of the aforementioned Super Bowls, played 9 years apart.

He finished his career with 20 interceptions (returned for 340 yards and three touchdowns), eight fumble recoveries (returned for 104 yards), 13 sacks (season high was 5.5) as a weak-side blitzer in Denver's 3-4 defense.

In addition, Jackson was seen as Enemy No. 1 by the then hated rival Oakland Raiders - so that's justification right there for putting him in our Hall of Fame.

Card

Upon his retirement in 1987, Tommy immediately joined ESPN as its NFL studio analyst for the launch of the network's NFL game coverage. 24 years later, he remains one of sports television's foremost pro football analysts.

  • 3-time Pro Bowler (1977, 1978, 1979)

  • 1-time 1st-Team All-Pro (1977)

  • Broncos' Most Inspirational Player six consecutive seasons (1981-86)

  • Team Defensive MVP (1974, 1976, 1977)

  • 2nd (Tie) most games started by a Bronco (177)

  • 1 of 5 Broncos to wear a Denver uniform for at least 14 seasons.

  • Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (1992)

Lionel Taylor

Lionel Taylor was an undrafted rookie signed by the Chicago Bears out of New Mexico Highlands University in 1959. He played eight games with the NFL Bears before moving to the Denver Broncos of the AFL in 1960 (which means he wore those crazy Broncos helmets - and that is cool).

Taylor worked his way from fourth-string wide receiver to the most dangerous receiving threat in the AFL. He would lead the AFL in receptions through the first six seasons of its existence, setting a record for most receptions in a six-year span that would not be broken until Sterling Sharpe in the 1990s. Often triple-teamed by opposing defense as the only offensive threat a woeful Denver Broncos team.

Lionel was the Broncos' MVP three times (1963, 1964, and 1965). He played 96 games in 7 seasons as a split end for the Broncos from 1960-66. He caught 543 passes for 6,872 yards, a 12.7 average, 44 touchdowns and rushed four times for 20 yards.

And as Tim Lynch said in his nomination, "Dude was a beast."

  • 4-time 1st Team All-Pro (1960, 1961, 1962, 1965)

  • First player to catch 100 passes (1961)

  • AFL's all-time reception leader (567)

  • A member of the AFL Hall of Fame

  • Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (Inaugural member)

  • Colorado Sports Hall Of Fame

  • New Mexico Highlands Hall Of Fame


Craig Morton

The Broncos' first quarterback to take the team to the Super Bowl played in Denver for the final six years of his career.

But aside from a worthy statistical resume, MHR member ChuckDarwin describes perfectly in his nomination post exactly why Morton deserves to be in our Hall of Fame:

Craig Morton was the leader of the team that finally put us on the map - the 12-2 Broncos of 1977-78. The first Broncos playoff team. The first Broncos Super Bowl team. The team that first ignited Broncomania. Yeah, that team. The original Orange Crush team.

And the only real difference between that Broncos team and the team that had finished 8-6 and out of the playoffs the year before? The quarterback: Craig Morton.

The story may be apocryphal, but they say that when Lyle Alzado met Morton for the first time in the Broncos locker room, he said, "Maybe now we'll finally win a championship."

Morton's bomb to Haven Moses in the AFC Championship game against the hated Raiders remains in my memory as the most electrifying moment in Broncos history.

Unless you're about my age (56) or older, you can't possibly know how daunting it was for the Broncos to play the Raiders back then. The Broncos had been perennial doormats. I mean, perennial. We had never reached the playoffs before that year, and most years, we were out of contention by Thanksgiving. Only once before had we even finished above .500.

Meanwhile the Raiders were not only the defending Super Bowl champs, they had owned the Broncos since the founding of the AFL. Every year, they'd beat us like a drum. Twice. Even in the one or two seasons when the Broncos managed to be decent, a loss to the Raiders would eliminate us from contention. Sure, people said, the Broncos had surprised the Raiders in Oakland earlier in the year. But the Real Raiders had showed up at Mile High four weeks later and spiked the Broncos. The Real Raiders, people said, are the team that is going to show up there again for the title game. The Real Raiders are going to send these pretenders home.

This Raiders team was absolutly loaded with players who were already legendary—the Snake, the Tooz, the Stork. Upshaw, Bilitnekoff, Casper. Otis Sistrunk. Cliff Branch. Lester Hayes. Jack Tatum. I mean, half their freaking team were household names.

The Broncos, not so much. Our best-known player was Morton, who had quarterbacked the Cowboys to a loss in Super Bowl V before giving way to the more talented and younger Roger Staubach. The Broncos got Morton as a cast-off from the Giants, a team that was pretty crummy in its own right.

But when Morton stepped up to avoid the ferocious Raiders pass rush and said, "Fuck it, I'm throwing a bomb," and then connected with Moses, you knew it was finally, for once, going to be different.

Granted, even greater Broncos plays were still to come - from Elway, TD, Peyton, and Von Miller among others - but none of them produced the emotional shock of that Morton-to-Moses touchdown against the Raiders in the AFC Title Game. The football world changed with that pass. Denver had shed its larval doormat skin and become, finally, For Real.

Craig Morton went on to quarterback the Broncos for five more seasons, compiling a 50-28 regular season record and piloting the team to three more playoff appearances. His best season statistically came in 1981, when he threw for 3,195 yards with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The original No. 7 more than deserves a place in the Broncos Hall of Fame.

To see highlights of this incredible feat, enjoy this 20-minute video of one of the Broncos' greatest games. The Morton-Moses TD comes at 3:26.


Joe Collier

If you're going to highlight many of the biggest names in the Broncos' Orange Crush defense of the late 70s/early 80s, you really need to first give credit to the architect of that defense - defensive coordinator Joe Collier.

After six years with the Buffalo Bills, Collier became Broncos' defensive coordinator in 1969 and spent 20 years with the team, who reached three Super Bowls with him.

Collier was the mastermind of the Broncos' 3-4 defense in the late 1970s, which became known as the Orange Crush. Although he preferred to set up the Broncos' defense with four linemen, Collier occasionally experimented with the 3-4 defense. After an injury to Lyle Alzado early in the 1976 season, Collier used the system more regularly and came up with ways to make it even better.

Haven Moses

Haven Moses was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the first round (9th overall) of the 1968 NFL Draft. Moses spent five years with the Bills before being traded to the Denver Broncos for wide receiver Dwight Harrison in 1972.

The very next season, Moses went to the Pro Bowl. In 10 years with the Broncos, Moses started 127 of 140 games. He had 302 receptions, 5,450 yards, an 18.0 yard average per catch, and 44 touchdowns.

Once again, Tim wrote a nice piece on Haven Moses here and there's always that video above of his 74-yard touchdown catch in the 1977 AFC Championship or this highlight of the Morton-Moses connection.

Most of the team records Moses set have been surpassed by the likes of Steve Watson, Ed McCaffrey, Rod Smith, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, but there are a few left.

  • Tied for 4th in Career touchdown catches (44)

  • Tied for most touchdowns in a Game (3)

  • 2nd highest average per completion (18.0)

  • Inducted to the Broncos Ring of Fame in 1988.

Rulon Jones

Rulon Jones was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 2nd round (42nd overall) of the 1980 NFL Draft. He spent his entire nine-year career with the Broncos from 1980-88.

Jones started 99 of 129 games primarily at the right defensive end position, recording 52.5 official quarterback sacks. Sacks were not an official stat in Rulon's first two years, when he had 11.5 in 1980 and 9.5 in 1981. Otherwise he has 72.5 career sacks.

  • 2-time Super Bowl starter (XXI, XXII)

  • 2-time Pro Bowler (1985, 1986)

  • 1st-Team All-Pro (1986)

Goose Gonsoulin

Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin was a friend of Mile High Report during the early years and was a frequent emailer with Tim Lynch and a few members like "firstfan." His death in September 2014 was a particularly sad moment for us as Goose was a personality unlike many. He has been missed.

Goose Gonsoulin is the Original Denver Bronco, being the first selection in the 1960 season. He made the first interception ever in the American Football League, in the very first AFL game against the Boston Patriots. Goose had seven interceptions in his first three games, and his 11 picks in 1960 are still a Denver club record. He spent 7 years as the Broncos Right Safety, with 43 interceptions including 2 for touchdowns.

With Lionel Taylor as the team's only offensive star, Gonsoulin was its only defensive one. Despite opposing offenses avoiding him at all costs, he feasted on them anyway.

  • AFL All-Star in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1966.

  • 2nd team, All-Time All-AFL

  • A member of the American Football League Hall of Fame.

  • All-Time AFL interception leader (43)

  • Inducted with the Inaugural Class to the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame


Steve Watson

One of the early undrafted players who became a star with the Broncos, Steve Watson appeared in 126 games with 87 starts. He caught 353 passes for 6,112 yards with 36 touchdowns. He rushed six times for 19 yards and fumbled twice while recovering three fumbles. He returned one kick for five yards.

Watson was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1981 and had three 1,000+ receiving yards seasons. He also had 16 100+ receiving yards games and a streak of 49 games with at least one reception. No. 81 played in nine postseason games (2 Wildcard, 3 Divisional, 2 AFC Championships, 2 Super Bowls - XXI, XXII).

After retiring as a player, Watson served as a Broncos assistant coach, helping on defense from 2001 to 2002 and moving to the offensive side of the ball as the Broncos wide receivers coach from 2003 to 2006. He was given the title of "associate head coach" from 2007 to 2008.

As a coach, he helped three different receivers record 1,000+ receiving yards seasons (Rod Smith, 2004 & 2005; Ashley Lelie, 2004; Javon Walker, 2006). He also helped Denver's offense to a No. 6 rank in passing in 2004.

In his nomination, SickBoy67 put Watson's stats in context: "Three seasons of over 1,000 yards when that was still pretty hard to do. Had a stretch of 4 out of 5 years where he averaged 60 catches a year and was on pace for 64 in the strike-shortened season. This was also at a time when 60 catches was considered a pretty good season for receivers not named Jerry Rice."

Watson played much of his career with the comeback king John Elway and was one of key receivers in Elway's iconic AFC championship comeback, "The Drive." Watson's catch appears about halfway through (4:06 mark), but who doesn't want to watch that entire drive again?


Vote now for MHR Hall of Fame early-era Broncos!

And if you were somehow able to narrow down your choices, let us know which Broncos you chose!