Denver in my mind
Late 1980s, Early 1990s
I started to like the Denver Broncos when I was a little kid and John Elway was a physical beast. I liked the orange jerseys and blue helmets, and I knew that Number 7 was the team leader and best player. I remember being in the family sedan and seeing a newspaper that had an article about Super Bowl XXIV. I couldn’t actually read the article, but I could read the headline. Even I was stunned that Elway and the Broncos lost so badly.
Their 55-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers is still the most one-sided in Super Bowl history. It was their third Super Bowl loss in four seasons, and they lost all three games by at least three touchdowns, excluding PATs. Elway already had a reputation for late heroics, but his team now had a reputation for big losses. The Elway-led Broncos were lampooned on The Simpsons in “Cape Feare” (episode 502) and later in my favorite, “You Only Move Twice” (episode 802).
Besides being the butt of jokes on a popular sitcom several years after Super Bowl XXIV, the Elway-led Broncos were a mediocre team during the first half of the 90s. I played as the 49ers in Madden NFL 95 on the Super Nintendo, and I started to prefer them in real-life, too. The 49ers roster that was replicated for this game won Super Bowl XXIX. In light of the decisive win, their offensive coordinator was hired as the new Broncos head coach.
Mike Shanahan had been the offensive coordinator for the Broncos when Elway lost his first two Super Bowls. Shanahan brought the teachings of coaching guru Bill Walsh who, like John Madden, had licensed his name for an EA video game and, like John Elway, had been a leading figure in Stanford football. Nate Jackson, who played for the Broncos under Shanahan, wrote about the Walsh-Shanahan connection in his memoir Slow Getting Up.
Shanahan and the Broncos soon drafted Terrell Davis from the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia was a prominent college, but Davis was widely overlooked because of durability concerns. These concerns were eventually realized, but for a handful of years, Davis was stellar. In his first season, he rushed for 1,117 yards and, as the 196th pick in the previous draft, he was the lowest-drafted rookie to ever reach the single-season milestone of 1,000 rushing yards.
While Davis plied his trade as a rookie halfback in the NFL, Peyton Manning honed his trade as a sophomore quarterback in the SEC. Manning had crossed paths with Davis in the previous season when their respective teams, the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs, played their annual matchup. Manning didn’t play because he was the Volunteers’ third-string quarterback, but later that season, injuries ended his role as an understudy.
For the next matchup between the Bulldogs and Volunteers, Manning was the undisputed starter of the Volunteers. Near the end of that year, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created an animated short film called The Spirit of Christmas aka Jesus vs Santa. Parker and Stone, both Colorado natives and Broncos fans, were commissioned by a client who had seen an earlier version of the film and who planned to use the newer one as a greeting card.
A year and a half later, I got a summer issue of Sport in the mail; I had a subscription that my parents bought from my sister’s school fundraiser. This issue had an in-depth preview of the season and predicted that the Broncos would beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Late in that summer, the first episode of South Park, the animated show that Parker and Stone created, made its debut. A friend introduced me to the show, later in that year.
I remember being in the school library, in the fall, and seeing a frenemy read a newspaper. “The Broncos won again,” he said, in shock and awe to a friend. I only followed the NBA at the time, but I was glad to hear that the Broncos were playing well, even though my friend replied that he hated the Broncos. I don’t remember how, when, or where I learned about Elway and the Broncos making losers of the winners of Super Bowl XXXI.
I do remember being in gym class on the Friday beforehand and listening to people talk about the matchup. Everybody said that the Packers would win. The Broncos were underdogs; the Sport editors were prophets. Terrell Davis was the MVP, but Elway was obviously the poster boy. A month later, Elway and the 1989 Broncos—the losers of Super Bowl XXIV—had unofficial cameos in the first-season finale of South Park.
As winter turned into spring, the hype for the draft was unprecedented. The debate over Manning and Ryan Leaf of the Washington State Cougars, though silly in hindsight, was intense. I remember reading about them in Sport; the consensus was that Manning had more polish, but Leaf had more potential. I was already a fan of Manning, so I was rooting for him to be drafted before Leaf like the Sport editors had predicted.
The 1998 season was only one in which my two football heroes were playing at the same time. Both Elway and Manning had been highly touted as collegiate quarterbacks and highly anticipated as first-overall selections. Their teams had opposite fortunes in the regular season: the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos ended with records of 3-13 and 14-2, respectively. Besides real-life, the Broncos were dominant in video games, too.
The Broncos were one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the arcade and console versions of the original NFL Blitz. They were also the best team, according to their Overall rating, in Madden 99. This game was one of the first sports sims to have a mode, called Franchise, with multiple seasons as well as player progression and regression. The goal of this mode was to, as the head coach, satisfy the boss’s expectations for the current season.
I played on All-Pro difficulty with 5-minute quarters. I struggled until I understood the particulars of the game. During my first or second Franchise season, I was actually fired. My Franchise campaign was effectively done, so I started another one. For both campaigns, I immediately traded some Bronco for Manning, who had an Overall rating of 80. I prepared Manning as the heir apparent, and I probably changed his jersey number to 16.
I probably won one or two Super Bowls with Elway before he retired in the game. I definitely won several Super Bowls with Manning, including two or three different three-peats. Manning was the only constant throughout my dynasty that spanned the maximum of 15 seasons. I always controlled the game clock with Terrell Davis and whoever replaced him, so Manning only progressed to an Overall rating of 82.
Ironically, I didn’t watch or listen to Super Bowl XXXIII. Like most other fans, I wanted Elway to return for one more season, like he did on my Nintendo 64. In their first season without him, the Broncos ended with a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs. I think that Elway could have won a third consecutive Super Bowl if Terrell Davis had stayed healthy. In any case, whenever people talk about riding into the proverbial sunset, they mention Elway.
I bought Madden 2001, but it wasn’t as magical as Madden 99. A few years later, I bought Madden 2004 and won two out of three consecutive Super Bowls. Then I traded the game for ESPN NFL Football, but I played as Houston Texans and the Colts. The next season, I bought the beloved ESPN NFL 2K5 and played over 400 hours’ worth of seasons as the Broncos over two years. I preferred mobile quarterbacks, so I traded for David Carr instead of Manning.
The real-life Broncos had only one playoff win in the 2000s. They had no true successor to Elway, who had been the face of the franchise for 16 years; Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, and Kyle Orton, as well as others, were all starters at some point. My only NFL joy came from Manning and the Colts winning Super Bowl XLI and the Patriots losing Super Bowl XLII. Mike Shanahan was fired in early 2009, and Josh McDaniel replaced him.
McDaniel came and went. Elway was hired as a team executive and then John Fox was hired as McDaniel’s successor. A year later, Tim Tebow, whom McDaniel had handpicked as a quarterback prospect, led the Broncos to a playoff win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the following offseason, the Broncos signed Manning, who had been injured for the entire season. My Franchise-defining acquisition in Madden 99 was made real, 14 years later.
For the past handful of years, I haven’t watched or even played a lot of NFL games as much as I have in the past. I tried to watch Super Bowl XLVIII, but I had to stop watching in the first half. I can’t remember if I’d been more bored or discouraged. The Broncos losing to the Colts and Andrew Luck, the worthy successor to Manning, in last season’s playoffs was discouraging. I thought Manning’s retirement was a real possibility.
Super Bowl L
The Super Bowl is almost upon us. I’m going to watch, not for the commercials, but for an entertaining game, if nothing else. Manning and the Broncos offense isn’t as potent this time, in fact, they seem average, but the Broncos defense is formidable. The Carolina Panthers seem like a balanced team, but it’s going to be the first big-show rodeo for their quarterback Cam Newton, and I doubt that he’s faced a bronco (pun intended) like Von Miller.
Manning has hinted that he’ll retire after the Super Bowl, win or lose. I hope that he wins and then retires. I’ve been following him for 20 years and I’ve been following the Broncos for 25 years. Manning winning and retiring would be the perfect ending to a chapter of his life and, in some ways, a chapter of mine. This year is an even number and, thus, as the AFC team, the Broncos have the choice between their white or non-white jerseys.
Like a classic Western movie, the good guys will be wearing white. In white jerseys, the Broncos are 1-1 in the Super Bowl. The Broncos wore blue jerseys in Elway’s first Super Bowl win and white jerseys in his second Super Bowl win. The real omen is that I’m trying to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. This reading is my second attempt at finishing the book like this Super Bowl is Manning’s second attempt at winning it with the Broncos.
I’m halfway through Part One and Sal has just arrived in Denver, of all places. I hope that 38 weeks from now, there’s an unusually high number of babies are born in the Mile-High City and I hope that some of them are named Peyton. Go Broncos!