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City of Hype

Great moments in Bronco history--and hysteria.

Smiling, frosted-haired matrons, their teeth capped in orange and blue. A naked man in a barrel making a heartfelt plea for playoff tickets. Nightly weather bulletins on the field conditions in Kansas City or Pittsburgh, pre-empting the local snow report.

If it all sounds vaguely familiar, then consider yourself a semi-native. The Denver Broncos are heading for the Super Bowl for the fifth time in two decades, and once again our city is drowning in a tidal wave of Orange Gush.

It's deja vu all over again. Orange you glad?
Every time the Broncos have marched into post-season play, the team has been mobbed by a horde of fawning, cheerleading, jock-sniffing, rabble-rousing Broncomaniacs--and that's just the local media. The fans, of course, get really excited.

And there's plenty to get excited about. Over the years the Broncos have reached a level of futility undreamed of by lesser sports franchises: four Super Bowls, four blowout defeats. One more, and they'll surpass the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings as the greatest also-rans in the history of the game. We're talking dynasty here.

True Broncomaniacs shrug off these past humiliations as if they never happened. They've been aided in their selective amnesia by the Denver dailies and TV stations, which have buried the truly sordid saga of the Broncos' Super Bowl quest under a mountain of hype.

No other city in the world has to put up with so much drivel in the name of sports journalism. Every year the scribes trot out the same headlines and cliches, the same manufactured "controversies" and rivalries, the same old orange blizzard of hyperbole, trivia and shameless boosterism, whipping up the usual frenzy of Broncomania--leading to the same agonizing thud of disappointment.

True, this year's team has a few advantages over earlier models. It has a running game, a back-up quarterback named Bubby, an expectorating linebacker, a coach who isn't Dan Reeves, and a good chance of beating the spread, if not the Green Bay Packers. All of which has propelled the local hype machine into overdrive.

"Those who do not learn from the hype are doomed to repeat it." Those are the words of a weary fan that appeared in these pages eight years ago, the last time the Broncos went to the Super Bowl, and they bear repeating. The following capsule history of Bronco hype should remind us all that, no matter how tough things may get on the field on Sunday, it won't be half as embarrassing as what goes on in the press box.

1960
Designated 16-point underdogs, the Denver Broncos upset the Boston Patriots 13-10 in the first regular-season game of the upstart American Football League. The game receives only a few paragraphs in the sports sections of both dailies, which are preoccupied with the Denver Bears' chances of winning a minor-league pennant.

1967
The Broncos land on the front page of the Denver Post by defeating the Detroit Lions 13-7, the first time an AFL team has beaten an NFL team. The Post's Dick Connor writes that the win "erased for all time the ragtag label the Broncos have worn through seven previous years." Unfortunately, the victory is an exhibition game; the ragtag Broncos will wait another seven years for their first winning season.

1971
In the season opener, Lou Saban orders his team to play for a tie against the Miami Dolphins. He tells an outraged press corps that "half a loaf is better than none." The Dolphins go on to the Super Bowl, and the Broncos go weeks without a victory. The dailies rip into Saban; deranged "fans" dump garbage on his lawn. Cool Lou resigns, the first case of Bronco burnout.

1977-78
The term "Broncomania" surfaces in a front-page Post article. "If you have Broncomania," writes Dana Parsons, "enjoy this year, because it may never be this much fun again." The Post is quick to capitalize on the Super Bowl-bound Orange Crush, offering a ghastly poster of Red Miller for fifty cents and cranking out predictable stories about zany fans and their wacky Bronco fight songs. The Rocky Mountain News consults an astrologer, who predicts that the Broncos will beat Dallas by a narrow margin.

KOA's Bronco Talk expands to elephantine proportions. Governor Dick Lamm declares a state holiday in honor of the team, then rescinds it after a brick sails through a window of the Governor's Mansion. One hundred thousand people show up for a Broncos parade before the big game.

Woody Paige and Bob Collins of the News and Connor and "Candid" Cameron of the Post all pick Denver to win handily. THIS IS IT FOR BRONCOS! the News bellows on Super Sunday. Craig Morton is intercepted four times (a Super Bowl record), and the Broncos fall 27-10. A measly thousand fans greet the losers at Stapleton.

1981
Edgar Kaiser buys the Broncos from Gerald and Allan Phipps for $30 million and replaces Miller with Dan Reeves, who models his moptop haircut for the toadying press with visible discomfort. KCNC outbids KUSA for the right to air Bronco pre-season games, advancing the hilarious notion that exhibition games are worth televising. The official Bronco coach's show is part of the package, which results in the historic pairing of Reeves and Ron Zappolo, a broadcast duo with all the chemistry of motor oil and Georgia mud.

1982
The Broncos go on strike. The hype-starved Post interviews Susie Hermann, wife of the striking back-up quarterback, who notes that hubby Mark is "cooking, planning meals, cleaning, vacuuming--he even does toilets!"

1983
Kaiser steals John Elway from the Baltimore Colts. The Post launches the infamous Elway Watch, chronicling the crown prince's turn-ons (video games, red meat and potatoes, Petticoat Junction, his girlfriend, Janet) and turn-offs (chick flicks, quiche, Frank Kush). HE JUST WANTS TO BE ORDINARY, a Post headline sighs. "John's not perfect," Elway's dad tells reporters. "He's been known to have a beer, and he chews tobacco."

1984
After trying to buy the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, Pat Bowlen settles for the Broncos, shelling out a reported $70 million. Heavily favored at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver manages to lose its fourth playoff game in four appearances since 1978, choking off the Super Bowl chatter. Somewhere, Edgar Kaiser is smiling.

1986-87
Sportscaster Jim Celania is fired after a series of gaffes make him unpopular with Bronco management and fans. Bronco talk shows multiply on the airwaves, and as the team heads for the playoffs, the media blitz takes off, with the usual madcap stories about zany fans and their wacky fight songs. "You can't go wrong with anything you put on about the Broncos," notes Mike Nolan, Celania's successor (and predecessor).

The News dusts off the hoary question of how the altitude will affect the visiting New England Patriots. The Post asks the players to rate the fans. Local sportscasters high-five the team on their way off the field after the game. Denver's playoff victory dominates the media the next day. INJURED ELWAY PLAYS FLAWLESSLY, the News declares, making Elway the first flawless quarterback to complete 13 of 32 passes.

The Drive in the AFC championship game in Cleveland sends the headline writers into rapture. ELWAY HELD IN AWE BY THE VANQUISHED, swoons the Post. SUPER! gasps the News. WOW! shrieks the Post, quoting Elway. The News consults a biorhythms analyst and psychic Lou Wright, who both predict the Broncos will win it all this time. In a time of shrinking editorial budgets, the Post pays novelist/fan Leon Uris $10,000 to cover the Super Bowl.

(The Denver media sends a total of 125 people to Pasadena to cover the game, roughly 115 more than they'd send to cover a major earthquake.) All but two of Denver's sportswriters ignore the obvious strengths of the favored New York Giants and pick the Broncos to win; Dick Connor says Denver ought to win by at least twenty points.

Elway shows up in national ads promoting Denver as a thriving center of commerce; 63,426 fans attend a pep rally at Mile High Stadium before the game. A hapless citizen tries to protest saturation Broncos coverage by forming a Non-Fan Club, which disbands after his children receive threatening phone calls.

When the big day arrives, Phil Simms completes a Super Bowl record 22 of 25 passes, and the Broncos flame out, 39-20. A hundred thousand fans attend a post-game parade in downtown Denver. Elway gets a new contract at double his existing salary. The Post publishes a quickie book (That Super Season); so does the News (The Super Season).

1987-88
Local sportscasters are denied seats in the crowded press box for the AFC title rematch between Denver and Cleveland; Mike Nolan is told he can stand in the back. Both papers recap The Drive in numbing detail, and the Post decides that the altitude should have no effect on the Browns. DAWGGONE SUPER!, enthuses the Post, after The Fumble wins the game for the Broncos. The News again consults psychic Lou Wright, who sees the Broncos winning the Super Bowl by a narrow margin. "Another defeat will diminish the lunacy in a depressing way," frets News columnist Jay Mariotti.

Woody Paige, Buddy Martin and eight of ten News sportswriters pick the Broncos to beat Washington. The thundering herd of scribes stampedes to San Diego, but it's getting tougher to freshen up the stories about zany fans, wacky fight songs and Vance Johnson's earring. "The Super Bowl is bringing out the animal in all of us," burps Paige. "What we are doing is covering ourselves. Stop us, someone," pleads Mariotti.

The Redskins set a Super Bowl record for most points in one quarter (35) and butcher the Broncos 42-10. An indeterminate number of fans show up in freezing cold for the post-game losers' parade. Adopting the kind of hushed tone usually reserved for pondering the Holocaust or the nuclear arms race, Mariotti muses, "The pervading concern is whether two Super Bowl losses will devastate the franchise to the point it cannot rebound." Elway gets his own TV show.

1988
The Broncos finish 8-8, out of the playoffs. The Denver media quickly rediscovers the National Western Stock Show.

1989-90
Mariotti predicts the revamped Broncos will finish 8-8 again. The News trades Mariotti to the Post for The Quigmans and two comic strips to be named later. Getting tough, the News reports that Elway is a lousy tipper, gives crummy Halloween candy and likes to have a beer now and then. Between television shows and chocolate-bar endorsements, Elway complains that the press is suffocating him.

Bronco Talk reaches a milestone as Sandy Clough abuses his 100,000th caller ("Sir, you obviously know nothing about football..."). After the Broncos pull off a last-minute playoff victory over Pittsburgh, the sagacious Mariotti suggests that "Denver just might die" after another Super Bowl loss--"if not literally, then certainly spiritually"--and argues that the "community" will be better off if the Broncos lose to Cleveland in the AFC title game. Both papers recap The Drive and The Fumble and write stories about the altitude and fan noise. The News interviews a guy named Cleveland Brown; the Post describes Browns owner Art Modell as "one of the key figures in pregame hype." The Broncos whip the Browns. SUPER! gurgles the News, recycling its 1987 front page. NEXT STOP--MONTANA, puns the Post. Fans start booking flights to Missoula.

KCNC leads off its evening news with seven minutes of Bronco celebration before noting the death of a mother and four children from carbon monoxide poisoning. The News gives up on Lou Wright and consults a tarot-card reader, who says the Broncos will win the Super Bowl by a narrow margin. Mariotti, who had previously called Elway a punk, now takes credit for the Broncos' win over Cleveland (by suggesting they should lose). He decides that the town "needed" this victory and that the Broncos have a chance to win the big one after all. Comparing his guys to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Reeves hints that Denver might just pull off "the second-greatest upset in sports history."

From the moment a panicky-looking Elway hurls his first wild pass into the Superdome carpet, the game is never in doubt. San Francisco 55, Denver 10.

One week after the massacre, the News publishes a story about Vance Johnson's history of domestic violence as part of a series titled "Men Who Beat Women." The reporter--not a member of the paper's sports department, which was less than eager to tackle the subject while the Broncos were driving for the Super Bowl--receives death threats.

1991-92
The Post debuts a short-lived football column by a female known only as Flo. After a dismal 5-11 record in 1990, the Broncos rebound with a 12-4 season and eke out a home-field playoff win over Houston. Still licking their wounds over the 49er debacle, fans agonize over the prospect of another Super Bowl defeat; KOA's Mike Rosen denounces all the "defeatist blabber." Not to worry. David Treadwell misses three field goals in the AFC title match in Buffalo, and the Broncos pass the also-ran torch to the hapless Bills.

Woody Paige argues that the team gained national respect in the 10-7 loss, but much of the national media attention on the Broncos these days is focused on the bad actors Reeves has kept on his squad in an effort to compete with NFC levels of thuggishness. The Vance is one of several members of the 1991 Broncos charged with violent crimes against women, from assault to rape; only two spend more than a week in jail.

1993-94
Reeves is booed, then booted after a lackluster 1992 season. Pat Bowlen names Wade Phillips as the new head coach after Mike Shanahan turns down the job. Unimpressed, Post columnist Mark Kiszla predicts that the New York-bound Reeves will win a Super Bowl before the Broncos do. The amiable Phillips jokes with reporters that if he doesn't win it all right away, he deserves the ax. But in Bronco country, it's no joke; the sportswriters are crabby, the fans impatient, and Bowlen is hinting around about needing a new stadium.

When Phillips takes the injury-plagued Broncos to a wild-card playoff loss against the Raiders in his first season, local pundits tout him as the best rookie coach in the league. The following year, after a 7-9 record, he's fired.

1996
Bowlen finally has the coach he wants (Shanahan), a running back who can take the offense off Elway's aching shoulders (Terrell Davis), and the ear of the state legislature. He promises cheap tickets, affordable beer and world peace if the taxpayers cough up $180 million for a new stadium--and adds that he won't move the team if voters reject his bid for new digs. But everyone knows any possible stadium vote may hinge on the team's performance.

The hype has cooled down in recent years, thanks to the arrival of the Rockies and the Avalanche, but as the 13-3 Broncos march into the playoffs with home-field advantage, the feeding frenzy begins. Even though Elway hasn't made a Super Bowl appearance in ages other than in halftime Frito-Lay commercials, the Post's Adam Schefter declares that the entire country is rooting for his return: A NATION RALLIES BEHIND ELWAY. Mark Wolf and Bob Kravitz of the News confidently predict that the Broncos will whump the Jacksonville Jaguars by two touchdowns. (Never mind that Sports Illustrated just put Elway on its cover--usually the kiss of death for the Broncos.)

"What's to make anybody think this team, so level-headed all season, will lay an egg on the most important day of the season?" asks Kravitz, as if any recollection of the Broncos' previous playoff failures has been erased from his memory banks.

Not to be outdone, the Post's Paige figures Denver will smoke the pathetic "Jagwads" by three touchdowns. Such hubris provides Jacksonville with just enough motivation to stiff the homeboys, 30-27. The upset devastates the hype-mongers, who now have to scrap all those Super Bowl stories already in the hopper. For solace, they turn to the team's most prolific hype generator, Shannon Sharpe, who says the defeat "will set the organization back four years. It's going to be at least the year 2000 before we recover from this loss."

Mournful, maudlin Mark Kiszla agrees. "This morning, the most football-crazy town in America would rather plop down alongside Sharpe on the sofa for a good cry," he writes. "The ramifications of this loss will hurt the Broncos for years."

1997-98
Snakebit and gun-shy, the infallible press corps doesn't know what to make of its beloved Broncos anymore. They can't make up their minds about the new uniforms or the old Elway, whose shoulder problems loom as career-threatening and then vanish with a snip of a tendon.

Over at the Post, confusion reigns. A hoax about Elway having a nipple ring makes its way into the paper, followed by an alleged interview with a Bronco flack about the new stadium that turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. But the most flustered hypester on the scene is the News's Kravitz, who is vying to replace the long-departed Jay Mariotti as the state's resident oracle.

A deep thinker who once suggested that the Broncos should trade Elway because "it would be good for Elway and the team to start anew," Kravitz demonstrates an uncanny ability to hop on and off the Bronco bandwagon all season long. A 6-0 start has him contemplating the impossible dream that the team will go undefeated ("Maybe, just maybe, the Broncos are poised to forge a season for the ages.") Three weeks later, after the team has gone into the tank against the lowly Raiders--and worse, after one media-weary player has beaned a sportswriter in the back of the head with a basketball--he wonders if the Broncos are "just setting themselves up for another playoff loss."

Hot and cold, that's our boy. After a loss at Pittsburgh crushes the team's division-title hopes, Kravitz insists the team is still going to the Super Bowl; the next week, following the San Francisco beating, he decides it's time "to face the hard truth about this football team: they're done. Doomed." He forecasts a playoff loss at Kansas City. When the Broncos fail to oblige him, he predicts they'll lose the AFC title game at Pittsburgh. He can't lose for winning.

But at least Kravitz is honest about his ambivalence. Most of his print brethren and practically all of the TV and radio types are homies with a vengeance--they can't wait to promote every aspect of every Broncos playoff game this year as part of a "Revenge Tour" or "Unfinished Business" that will right past wrongs. On the Denver airwaves, revenge is a dish best served all the time, reaching new heights of hyperbole.

Woody Paige makes amends for last year's Jacksonville jinx by predicting the Jags will prevail 65-0--a stunning piece of reverse hype that gets him off the hook with the fans on both sides. After the Jacksonville game, the local TV crews swarm the locker room, shoving microphones into every available sweaty orifice, asking if this wasn't the greatest Bronco victory of all time (never mind the 1977 AFC title game). After the AFC championship is secured with an eighteen-yard Elway pass to Sharpe, the stadium-hungry Bowlen calls the play "the biggest first down in the history of the franchise" (so much for The Drive).

The story lines all but exhausted, the assembled faithful can only repeat themselves. Super! Wow! Borrowing a tear or two from Chuck Green's letters from doggy heaven, Mark Kiszla describes Elway's father looking down on his son from the stands--and "Grandpa Harry" watching them both from heaven. But even Kiszla, who gets all misty-eyed at the notion that his hero might retire ("The rest of us can only hope [eight-year-old] Jack Elway asks his daddy to stay in a Denver uniform a little while longer"), can't match Post veteran Joseph Sanchez for pure bombast. On the front page, Sanchez reprises Schefter's story of a year earlier about how the whole country wants Elway to win the Super Bowl: A NATION PULLS FOR ELWAY, AND THAT'S OK BY HIM.

Broncomania rules the airwaves. Wacky fans. Zany fight songs. Cheese-eating contests. Public officials making jingoistic wagers on the game, pitting Rocky Mountain oysters against Wisconsin brats.

Deep in the media fishbowl, the Denver pundits are preparing their final pre-game column, the one about how the city's image, its psyche, its cosmic destiny hinges on what the Broncos do on Super Sunday. At the same time, the post-game column, the one they've written so many times before, is already taking shape. The one that begins:

"It's only a football game. Get over it.

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