I’ve long thought about sharing this side of my fandom, but have always wondered if the timing wasn’t right. With the loss of Pat after his long battle with Alzheimer’s, it seems there won’t ever be a better opportunity. More than once I’ve mentioned how it’s been a dream come true to get a chance to write about the Broncos for Mile High Report, but I’ve never really explained why.
Way back in 2003, I fell head over heels in love with football. Up until that point I had interest, but upon my first opportunity to play contact football in Junior High, I was hooked. How the Broncos came into it was a bit of a fateful coincidence: I turned on a Steelers game because my dad had always been a fan and found the defense they played against far more interesting. The linebackers were so fast to read, especially Al Wilson, who quickly became my favorite player. It wasn’t two days after the game that I spent hours upon hours reading through the Broncos main site, poring over every blurb by Andrew Mason and obsessing over each player’s bio. The following weekend, my heart sank as Randy Moss hauled in a 44 yard pass on 3rd and 24. It was a crushing loss, but it was so thrilling.
I hated Peyton Manning for what he did to the Broncos defense that year. This was only reinforced after the Champ Bailey trade. For years he’d be my least favorite player in the league because he could methodically cut apart the secondary. In 2005, I was elated when the Steelers upset him in the playoffs because it meant the Broncos would have a much easier road to the Super Bowl. It felt like destiny.
Words fail to properly describe how crushing that AFC Championship loss was to me. 2005 was the first year I had the opportunity to see the Broncos in person. My mother flew my brother and I to Denver and I got to tailgate and watch Champ, Al, John Lynch, and the Browncos completely shut down the New York Jets. Little did I know the team would take on new meaning when two weeks after our trip my mom passed away due to lingering medical complications she’d told me nothing about. My parents had split up when I was much younger, and while my brother moved to live with my dad, I would be taken in by an aunt.
Jay Cutler was drafted in the first round the year I skipped prom weeks after a girlfriend of 3 years had broken up with me. My heartbreak forgotten for awhile in no small part because Ron Jaworski said he’d watched every snap of the Vanderbilt QBs career and that he’d be the best signal caller in the 2006 class. I momentarily believed I’d become a Bears fan when Josh McDaniels traded him to Chicago, only to find my blood had taken on the Rocky Mountain orange and blue hue. The Denver Patriots’ era would test me in a way I’d never experienced prior, yet my love for the Broncos grew deeper as I suffered through flubs like the 59-10 loss to Oakland in 2010. Even as the “McDumbials” error ran its course, the Broncos were still there for me as I went to college, dropped out, went to another school, stopped, moved to Georgia, and then back to finish my first degree.
2011 was clearly a turning point in franchise history: Elway was back in the saddle. I was cautiously optimistic, even as the national media mocked the decision. Like many in Broncos Country, I pored over every video of the first head coaching candidates and bought in to John Fox as the veteran presence and third leg of the stool with Brian Xanders and Elway. The year also marked my move to Montana, where I spent the season working at Big Sky Resort and snowboarding 140 straight days.
Every day, guests asked, “What do you think of Tebow?” because naturally, I always wore Broncos gear. I told them I was far more excited about the new rookie linebacker. On Sundays, I came home from Lone Mountain early to take in the unlikely victories. I’ll never forget Marion “Bumblin’” Barber’s fumble. I watched the Broncos overtime victory with a Steelers fan from Denver and Tebowed when I saw her the rest of the winter. I also fell to a knee when the Sheriff chose Denver, and when I received my Ski Area Management degree the following summer.
2012 marked the beginning of the Manning era, and it also marked the beginning of the end of my ski bum days. My brother needed a guardian in high school and it only made sense I do my best to provide him one. I moved back to my hometown in the Midwest and played the responsible adult. This was when our “Brother Bowl” Madden franchises began and I proudly ran off a Von Miller dynasty as he starred in a 46 defense little bro couldn’t solve. The virtual Broncos were my solace when Rahim Moore spoilted a 13-3 season and gave Joe Flacco his Super Bowl ring. Super Bowl XLVII goes down as the second most difficult championship game I’ve ever witnessed.
In 2013, I spent my mornings as an NFL analyst for my local radio station and volunteered as a defensive line coach at my old high school. Brother bear was off to college, but football had grown into an obsession and I was hesitant to let them go so soon, even with Big Sky calling me back to the mountains. The decision became a fateful one as I hit a tree snowboarding 8 days before Super Bowl XLVIII. As bad as shredding every ligament in my knee felt, it paled in comparison to the hollow pain Manny Ramirez’s high snap caused. Up until that point, my Broncos had never reached the mountaintop, and watching the Seattle run up 43 points hurdled me into turmoil.
I spent the winter in a pretty dark place. Football had always been my obsession, but snowboarding was the therapy to it. Something about riding had always forced me into a zen sort of state, and while I tried to bargain with the football gods over my knee during the Broncos’ championship loss, I had a really hard time accepting that my years of riding 100+ days were over.
The spring brought brighter days, especially when DeMarcus Ware came on board. Since he’d been drafted in 2011, Von had grown into my favorite player. After all, it was he who finally made the Broncos D fun to watch again. DWare gave me hope that the personal and professional crossroads Von seemed to have reached in his career could be navigated. Spring turned to summer and with it I took my motorcycle on its first cross country road trip, which marked my first return to Denver since 2005. I returned from this misadventure with some confidence that if I couldn’t just return to my ski bum days, I should go back and finish my degree, and I was back at a university bar in Marquette, Michigan when the John Fox era came to an end without enough kicking and screaming.
When Kubiak came on, I was skeptical. As much as I’d loved his work as Plummer’s offensive coordinator, it seemed like a peculiar fit with Peyton Manning at the helm. By now I had somehow landed an opportunity to work at the Denver Post with Woody Paige and Les Shapiro on the Sports Show. It remains one of the craziest gifts I’ve ever received. At the tail end of my junior year, I shot off emails to every newspaper I could think of in order to ask for a chance to work with them. 3 people got back to me. Mike Klis told me he had just left the post, but that he loved Marquette. The editor of Crested Butte got back to me to say they weren’t interested. Then there was Paige. He wrote me to tell me my email wasn’t personal enough. When I wrote back to apologize, I never thought it’d go any further. Instead, he told me to come out to Denver. So I did.
Once there, I worked as most interns do: behind the scenes. When the opportunity arose to dig up story ideas, I started immediately. In the process, I was there looking for angles on Deflategate when people started picking the Gase’s Dolphins to win the east. As someone who’d argued until I was blue in the face that Adam Gase would have been the wiser fit for Denver, I believed. At least so long as Brady missed games. What Paige told me will stick with me until the day I die.
“No one cares what you think,” he said. “Work until they do.”
I kept in touch with Shapiro and Paige when I returned to Michigan, pitching story ideas from afar. I did feel just a little bit justified when Manning looked like a zombie and the Kubiak offense seemed sluggish for the first time in years. Of course, it also stung because it looked like the Broncos Super Bowl window had slammed shut with Peyton’s health. For the first time since he’d come over from Indy, I didn’t believe Denver would win every game. With my personal expectations lower, it became a different kind of fun to watch the drama unfold. Fortunately, the No-Fly Zone carried the team all the way past Cam Newton and the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
“This one’s for Pat,” John Elway said.
I beamed bigger than the village idiot when Elway said it. Just like most of Broncos Country, an opportunity never presented itself for me to have any personal interaction with Denver’s longtime owner. But with his health questions hanging heavy over the team, it felt like a full circle for #7 to dedicate the title to the man that had done so much for the orange and blue faithful. It’s impossible for me to separate Pat Bowlen the man from the Denver Broncos. The two are synonymous to me.
Pat didn’t always make the right decisions, but he was quick to do all he could to fix it. He hired football people to run his football team and empowered them do their jobs. Mr. B was never one of those owners who wound up in the news for the wrong reasons, but because he donated time and money to make both the league and Denver’s community a better place. In this way, he served as a model for what an NFL owner, and leader, should look like.
On a personal level, Bowlen’s Broncos were my rock in a life filled with all sorts of change. The good, the bad, the ugly. They were still there to zero in on when I didn’t have anything else to distract from wandering thoughts. The highs brought me immense joy, and the lows tested my loyalty and lit a fire to learn all I could about the game of football in order to understand what exactly went wrong.
Looking back now, it’s insane to realize how far I’ve come. Working on a post yesterday, I came across a blog post I wrote way back during the early days on the Denver Broncos Forum. In many ways, the Broncos saved my life and inspired me to grow up.
What has being a fan of the Bowlen Broncos meant to you?