I don’t have one moment I can pinpoint as the reason I’m a diehard Broncos fan. I moved to Denver in 1997 when I was four, and my parents weren't big football fans. I was certainly too young to appreciate what happened those first two years living in Denver, and we were new to the area with no connection to the football team.
I started watching Broncos games because they were all anyone ever talked about at school, and I wanted to fit in and contribute to these conversations. I couldn’t tell you what year or what game was my first, I just know that it became part of my weekly routine to watch the Broncos game. It didn’t take long for this ritual to evolve into genuine passion, fueled by memorable victories like Champ’s pick against Brady, Bengals’ missed extra point on Christmas Eve, and Shanahan icing Janikowski, and heartbreaking defeats like Week 17 2006 to the 49ers, AFC Championship to the Steelers, and Favre’s 80-yard bomb in overtime. The magical experience of games at Mile High sucked me in. My fandom was born from the communal passion of Broncos Country.
I didn’t realize how special this communal bond was until I left Denver for college in 2012, where I was surprised that my three North Carolinian roommates were "fans" of the Steelers, Patriots, and 49ers. There was no community, no passion for the local Carolina Panthers. I got many an eyeroll when I chose to watch the Broncos on sketchy internet streams instead of hanging out with my friends. They didn’t get my passion. They had no connection to the "popular" teams they chose to "root" for. Most of them wouldn’t even watch their "favorite" team play. It was complete culture shock from what I had grown up with.
No one in North Carolina understood the heartbreak of the Baltimore playoff loss, or the nightmare of Super Bowl 48. I was like a zoo animal exhibit for them, my reactions and superstitions part of their weekly entertainment. You mean it’s not normal to leave a job interview dinner early because your team is down 14 to the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football and you need to put your jersey on so they can win? (thanks Roby).
To be fair, I was probably taking these defeats harder than before because of the Manning factor. Before, my blind optimism that Cutler/Bell/Marshall/Scheffler would be the next Elway/Davis/Smith/Sharpe and lead us to a Super Bowl drove my excitement through each season, though deep down I probably knew we were never a true contender. The presence alone of the legendary Manning turned around the entire franchise, and for the first time in my fandom I truly felt we were contenders. I knew we had a short window to win with Peyton, and each playoff loss became more agonizing because I wasn’t sure if we could ever get over the hump.
Fast forward two years, and Chapel Hill is all aboard the Panthers bandwagon. I’m at a Super Bowl party listening to girls talk about how they’ve been life-long Panthers fans. I challenge them to name five Panthers players, and their answers were Cam Newton, Luke "Krunchy", and "that guy they call Third Leg Greg, I don’t know his last name though." Others couldn’t care less about the game, but just wanted to see Beyoncé perform at halftime.
These "fans" don’t deserve a Super Bowl, I thought to myself, still nervously optimistic entering the game. I didn’t fully appreciate how awesome it is to have such a loyal and avid fan base until I witnessed these fair-weather fans come out of nowhere and pretend to care about something that truly mattered to me.
A couple Von strip sacks later, I was singing "We are the Champions" at a karaoke bar, wearing my foam Bronco hat made famous by Shannon Sharpe as Panthers "fans" booed and poured beers on me, and couldn’t have been any happier. This was my Super Bowl XXXII moment, my first championship as a fan, being too young to remember or appreciate the first two. I appreciated this win because of the struggle and heartbreak that it took to get to that moment. Don’t get me wrong, it would be awesome if we won every year, but then the championships wouldn’t feel as special as Super Bowl 50 did.
I’ve never considered myself a fanatic, just a normal Broncos fan. But that level of fandom is in a class of its own. Endlessly loyal, shamelessly passionate, relentlessly proud. I wasn’t born into a Broncos family, but the culture of Broncos Country cultivated me into one of its own, and for that I am eternally grateful.
"God bless all of you, and God bless football" –Peyton Manning