Great Moments in Denver Broncos Hype History

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Local sportscasters are denied seats in the crowded press box for the AFC title rematch between Denver and Cleveland. 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. 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 wide receiver Vance Johnson’s earring. “The Super Bowl is bringing out the animal in all of us,” burps Paige. 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, News columnist Jay Mariotti muses, “The pervading concern is whether two Super Bowl losses will devastate the franchise to the point it cannot rebound.”

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

1989-90: Mariotti predicts that the revamped Broncos will finish 8-8 again. 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. The Broncos whip the Browns in the AFC title game. KCNC leads off its evening news with seven minutes of Broncos 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. 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. 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.

1996: Bowlen finally has the coach he wants (Mike 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. But everyone knows any possible stadium vote may hinge on the team’s performance.

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. 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.”

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 the 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 Broncos flack about the new stadium that turns out to be a case of mistaken identity.

A wild-card underdog in the playoffs, the Broncos embark on a “revenge tour” that will right all past wrongs. After the team beats Jacksonville, the local TV crews swarm the locker room, shoving microphones into every available sweaty orifice, asking if this wasn’t the greatest Broncos 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 nation pulls for Elway again, and his team manages to win the Super Bowl two years in a row, sending fans and hypemongers alike into ecstasy.

2011-12: After a lost decade of post-Elway mediocrity, the touts and hucksters have found a new messiah in Tim Tebow, the genuflecting Heisman winner. A fearless scrambler who’s also brimming with nice manners, Christian cheer and rugged good looks, Tebow wows the home crowd as he takes the Broncos into the playoffs for the first time since 2005. His passing yards (316) and yards per completion (31.6) in a victory over Pittsburgh have pundits pondering John 3:16 and other Bible verses. But after an abysmal thumping by the Patriots, Tebow is traded to a team in the fleshpots of New York.

2012-13: With a rejuvenated Peyton Manning at the helm of a sizzling offense, the Broncos are expected to cruise through the playoffs. Shades of the ’96 thud of disappointment, they fall in the divisional round in a heart-stopper against the Baltimore Ravens. “I cover sports for a living, but times like this make me wonder why sports consumes so many lives,” muses Post writer Mike Klis, without a detectable trace of irony.

Wacky fans. Zany videos. Explosive hype and reckless optimism from the usual suspects. Manning has quite possibly the best regular season by any quarterback in NFL history. But the Big Game starts with a safety on the first play from scrimmage and goes downhill from there. Worst. Super. Bowl. Ever.

2015-16: The stage is set, the story line recycled from 1998: The Sheriff returns for one last showdown. An entire nation rallies behind him — well, okay, maybe a few shamelessly sentimental sportswriters. The oddsmakers give his team no chance. But, hey, you never know. Epic comeback starts right now. Got another week to hum that one. Let the games begin. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast