Ask any NFL fan what the “helicopter” is in football history and you’ll probably get the right answer. It was a great run by a great player on the game’s biggest stage, but it’s so much more than that.
That singular moment signified one man’s determination to erase past Super Bowl failures and validated a fan base’s lifelong love affair with a team that could never seem to reach the pinnacle of the NFL world. To fully understand why John Elway’s 8-yard helicopter dive is the greatest play in Denver Broncos history, you have to go back ... way back.
Long road to relevancy
Super Bowl 32 was so important to Broncos fans because of how the franchise started out its history. From 1960 through 1976, the Denver Broncos had zero playoff appearances and 13 losing seasons. They were a laughingstock, to be quite honest.
To prove this point, they lost 20 straight games to the hated Oakland Raiders during this time. They finally broke that streak in 1972, but it wasn’t until 1977 that the Broncos and the Orange Crush defense finally turned the tables on the Raiders franchise and became a legitimate AFC West powerhouse.
That 1977 season was special. The Broncos, spearheaded by the Orange Crush defense, beat those Raiders on the road for the first time since 1962 and ran up a 12-2 record. They then fully exorcised their Raider demons with a 20-17 victory over the hated rival in the AFC Championship Game.
In the Super Bowl, however, the Dallas Cowboys ran right over them. The Cowboys still only scored 27 points despite the Broncos offense turning the ball over a record eight times. It was just one game, but when the decade turned to the 1980s we would see the Broncos’ plight in Super Bowls magnified.
Super Bowl disasters
The Broncos were finally relevant, but with relevancy brought further embarrassment.
Denver had been competitive in the years after 1977, but they lacked a true franchise quarterback. When they landed John Elway in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts in 1983 that all changed. Elway took the league by storm and built up on his lore as a comeback king in the biggest playoff games in the AFC.
It always looked good until Elway and the Broncos had to take on the NFC team in a Super Bowl. First came Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants, who cruised to a 39-20 win over Elway and the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. Then Elway saw a hot start and a 10-0 first quarter lead against the then-Washington team evaporate to a 35-10 halftime deficit. They would lose Super Bowl XXII 42-10.
This series of disasters culminated with a showdown against one of the greatest teams in NFL history in the 1989 San Francisco 49ers. Elway and the Broncos were not even close to competing in that game as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and that great 49ers team ran up a 55-10 blowout.
For Broncos fans, they kept faith through those first 18 years only to find the misery of losing in the big game was almost as bad as rooting for a perennial doormat.
When Elway and the Broncos, under head coach Mike Shanahan, returned to Super Bowl form in 1997, literally everyone assumed another catastrophic beatdown was eminent. They were facing Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, who were looking to repeat as Super Bowl champions and had a defense that looked like — on paper at least — it would give Denver’s Terrell Davis issues on the ground.
It’s hard to describe the level of anxiety many fans felt heading into Super Bowl 32 given the history of the franchise up to that point. However, that anxiety gave way to anticipation when Denver found itself in a situation it had never been in during the second half: a tie game. The two teams were gripped in a heated contest three quarters of the way through Super Bowl 32 when the greatest play in Broncos history was made.
8 yards to redemption
This Super Bowl was unlike all the other Super Bowls Denver played in. It was late in the third quarter with the game tied and the game very much in doubt. Facing a third and six, Elway tucked the ball and ran. Instead of taking the slide, the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer dove head first into three Packers defenders. He spun around, landing 2 yards beyond the sticks.
The Broncos players all went crazy, the announcers calling the game went crazy, and Broncos fans everywhere went crazy. The tide in that game turned permanently in Denver’s favor. Terrell Davis would score a touchdown two plays later and the entire team was given a second wind that would carry them to victory in the fourth quarter.
38 years without a championship. Four Super Bowl blowout defeats. One 8-yard helicopter dive to catapult an underdog to a 31-24 upset win for the ages.
“This one’s for John!”