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A Sporting Chance

Colorado sports went on a downhill slide in '99.

All right, then. Just how long has it been since your Denver Broncos rose from the slough of despond to win a pair of Super Bowls? A thousand days? How long since the icon John Elway hung up his cleats and Terrell Davis went into traction and Shannon Sharpe decided that the Aussies are all barbarians? A thousand years?

It only seems that way, of course. Thanks to retirements, retrenchments and a nearly biblical scourge of injuries, the Broncos' 1999 season has become the definition of "worst-case scenario." The fans can only pray that the new millenium brings better things along with Pat Bowlen's new stadium.

Sunday, January 31: Lest we forget, that was the day Elway and company took the whuppin' stick to Dan Reeves's overmatched Atlanta Falcons and won their second straight Lombardi Trophy, 34-19. In the wake of the tumultuous sports year that followed, it does seem like a very, very long time ago. In 1999, after all, Joe DiMaggio died and Michael Jordan retired with 35,000 points and six NBA titles. After four seasons of sliding downhill at the University of Colorado, Slick Rick Neuheisel slipped away from Boulder to become head football coach at the University of Washington. Imagining that the game and the public loved them, major-league umpires rose up in a revolt that failed. A 31-1 shot named Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby, Barry Sanders abruptly quit the Detroit Lions, and former CU wide receiver Rae Carruth was indicted for first-degree murder in the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend.

Wayne Gretzky, a condition of life in the NHL for two decades, turned in his skates. U.S. Open winner Payne Stewart was killed in a bizarre airplane mishap. Peerless Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton succumbed to liver cancer at 45, the great center Wilt Chamberlain, who'd averaged fifty points per game, to a heart attack at 63. In this cruel year, we lost Jackie Robinson's teammate and friend, former Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, as well as Houston Comets point guard Kim Perrot and 24-year-old race-car driver Greg Moore. At a May 1 Indy Racing League event in North Carolina, three spectators died when crash debris careened into the grandstand, and in College Station, Texas, twelve Texas A&M students were killed when a huge structure of bonfire logs collapsed.

Denverites felt an especially keen pang the day Bob "Chopper" Travaglini, the longtime trainer of the Denver Nuggets, died in his hospital bed.

The late, great hope of the Golden Buffaloes to finally beat Nebraska again expired in the gloaming on the day after Thanksgiving, when a CU placekicker missed the winning chip shot with a few seconds remaining. After mounting a furious second-half comeback, Gary Barnett's Buffs lost the game in overtime. But then, it had already been one very bizarre season. After losing their opener 41-14, to Colorado State, Colorado players were pelted with bottles from the CSU student section. This, in turn, prompted Denver police to Mace and teargas every animal, vegetable and mineral in sight.

Even greater weirdness abounded. By year's end, bad-boy Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski had been stung in a prescription-drug scandal and paid out more than $45,000 in league fines for various assaults on opposing players. On August 2, pro golfers Lee Janzen and Scott McCarron made back-to-back holes in one in a tournament at Barrington, Rhode Island. And by late November, two of Denver's five pro-sports franchises found themselves in corporate limbo, where they remain. After unhappy shareholders of Ascent Entertainment Group, owners of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, the NBA's Denver Nuggets and their new joint home, the Pepsi Center, killed a deal to sell all three entities to Missouri billionaires Bill and Nancy Laurie for $400 million, Denver financier Donald Sturm stepped in with a $461 million offer. But that deal, too, fell through after Sturm and Denver mayor Wellington Webb got into a nasty beef over contract language and franchise permanence. The Avs are contenders for a second Stanley Cup, and the revamped Nuggets, with franchise player Antonio McDyess back in the fold, are having their best season in years. But they're orphans in a storm.

Some happier news: On June 29 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an eleven-year-old golfer named Tom Flanagan, playing his first round ever on a regulation golf course, stepped into the tee box on the first hole, took a swing with his $14 junior graphite driver and put the ball into the cup, 108 yards away, for a hole in one. "I just thought it was a really good shot and not that important," the boy said. "Now I know." The management at Belle Terre Golf Course promptly gave Flanagan a lifetime membership.

Two weeks earlier, 87-year-old Joe Dean became the oldest bowler to roll an officially sanctioned 300 game.

The year had gotten off to a sad start on January 3, when former heavyweight Jerry Quarry, who once fought Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, died at age 53. The cause? "Dementia pugilistica" -- brain damage inflicted in the ring. On January 4, the University of Tennessee football team upset Florida State 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the largely mythical "national championship." But all was not well in Knoxville, at least not at the university library: It was revealed that only 27 percent of Tennessee football players graduate, and of those, some cannot read even a children's book.

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