Fight, Team, Fight!

Eleven years ago, Bronco Vance Johnson was ready to explode into the national consciousness. A cocky little wide receiver known for his pigtails, flashy lifestyle, motormouth and allegedly artistic drawings, he parlayed the Super Bowl hoopla into an appearance on the Joan Rivers Show, during which "The Vance," as he called himself, proclaimed, "I want to be famous so bad it hurts. I'll do anything legally possible to be famous."

"Infamous" is more like it. Football was his game, but woman-beating was his true calling.

When it comes to off-field Broncos tragedy, Vance Johnson leads the pack. He liked to tout himself and fellow receivers Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel as the "Three Amigos." But Johnson is more properly remembered as one of the team's Three Maniacs, along with Lyle Alzado and Clarence Kay.

Sure, there were others. Fans probably remember Gerald Perry, the 6-6, 305-pound, extremely offensive tackle drafted by the club in 1988 and known as its most ferocious blocker. In two short years he was convicted twice of soliciting prostitutes, acquitted of rape, busted for beating up various men, accused of assaulting a teammate's girlfriend and shipped off to alcohol detox. Finally, after this stallion was removed from an Aurora woman's apartment at 3 a.m. in December 1990 and charged with sexual assault, the Broncos cut him loose.

Several other Broncos from that era were accused of such thuggery as smashing up bars and smashing up other human beings. Tyrone Braxton, one of only three Broncos remaining from those days under Coach Dan Reeves, recalled last year how much things had settled down. "I guess you could say Dan didn't put as much emphasis on character because we had so many problems," Braxton told reporters. "We had fights in the bars at training camp, off-season problems, things happening during the season."

From 1988 through 1995, according to press accounts, at least seven Broncos were accused of assaulting women: In addition to Kay and Johnson, there were Alton Montgomery, Robert Perryman, Simon Fletcher, Ronnie Haliburton and Mark Jackson. As a result, the team launched a domestic-counseling program for players. (Perryman and Montgomery pleaded guilty to assault; charges against Jackson were dropped by Denver city attorneys; the case against Fletcher was dropped after the alleged victim failed to testify; and Haliburton pleaded guilty to sexual assault.)

Not that there weren't some innocent Broncos who were themselves stalked by tragedy. Reserve quarterback Norris Weese, who brought a brief, shining moment to one of the team's four Super Bowl losses, contracted fatal brain cancer and died at age forty. Jim White, a Broncos lineman in the Seventies, died of cancer in 1982. His was the first known death of an NFL player that could be linked to steroid use.

A few years ago, after the news broke that Alzado, an Orange Crush hero of the Seventies, had contracted a rare form of brain cancer, former assistant coach Stan Jones worried aloud to a Florida reporter about the team's old practice facility in north Denver, which it didn't abandon until the late Eighties. Jones noted that fellow assistants Whitey Dovell, Richie McCabe and Fran Polsfoot--all of them with the Broncos when the team drafted Alzado--had also died of cancer. So had former Broncos public-relations director Bob Peck and longtime play-by-play announcer Bob Martin.

Broncos players and coaches often griped about the stench near the cramped training facility, which was located in a heavily industrialized area, Jones told the Florida reporter. Veteran NFL assistant Joe Collier, a colleague of Jones's at the time, mentioned his own concerns to the same reporter. "Sure, I think about it," Collier said. "I don't like to talk about it. But a number of years ago, after Richie and Fran died, I started to think about it. I know the air wasn't pure, besides whatever we were running around on."

Of course, Alzado was running around on something else: steroids. Maybe that explained his abusive behavior. And The Vance was running around on his wives. There's no definitive explanation yet, however, for the bizarre stalking conducted for years by former tight end Clarence Kay. At present he's in a Denver jail, thinking about his next move.

While the city is still high on the Broncos, here are the lows of the Three Maniacs:

Called by the Denver Post the "meanest game-day combatant in Broncos history," Clarence Kay was even meaner off the field. He arrived in Denver in 1984 from the University of Georgia and, at 6-6 and 230 pounds, was a frightening presence, as at least a couple of women will attest.

Even the Broncos couldn't overlook some of his missteps. He was fined in 1985 for an unapproved absence, arrested in August 1986 for speeding, suspended for a game in November 1986 for "conduct detrimental to the team," sent to rehab in December 1986 for failing a drug test, arrested in September 1989 for speeding and ticketed for driving while impaired, and convicted in June 1990 for DWI.