Moments of Glory

As midnight draws near for the decade, the century and the millennium, humankind's most powerful, most undeniable impulse is to make lists. By now, of course, most of the good lists are already taken. Chiseled in stone. Scotch-taped to David Letterman's ego. Posted on the Internet. Magnetized to the refrigerator. At this late date, only a fool would try to come up with another Ten Loudest Talk Show Hosts of the Millennium or Fifteen Angriest Dictators in Latin America. As you know, Eight Most Ridiculous Husbands of Elizabeth Taylor has been done to death, and while ESPN dispenses its notorious Fifty Greatest Athletes list at the pace of two geezers playing chess by mail, assorted professors at Harvard and shoe salesmen in Iowa bang out their contradictory versions of Fifteen Most Influential Florists of the Christian Era.

What pickings are left for the rest of us aspiring listmakers?

Twenty-Seven Items to Buy at Safeway Today doesn't quite have the ceremonial air most people are looking for. And anyone who comes up with another Ten Greatest Concertos for Ukulele and Orchestra better get with the program. One Washington bureaucrat we've heard about is working up a Master List of the World's Listmakers and Their Lists, but that's folly, too: Al Gore did it last year.

Ten Best Beheadings Ordered by English Monarchs has some nice possibilities, and there's likely some intrigue in 100 Stupidest Leading Men in Motion Pictures. But this is the sports page. And we're in Denver. So sports in Denver it shall be. A little earlier in the game, with an eye on the public service angle, we considered the Ten Crookedest Horse Trainers at Arapahoe Park or 2,500 Drunks to Avoid in the South Stands. But neither of those concepts has the kind of historical resonance the occasion demands. Therefore, after rejecting Ten Most Frequently Arrested Colorado University Linebackers (too tough to pare down) and Two Greatest Denver Nuggets (shortage of candidates) we've come up (a little short) with a list that other listmakers may have already done or are about to do. Hey, it's inevitable. If we thought we could get away with the umpteenth take of the year on 50 Colorado Golfers Who Say They Roomed With JFK Jr. at College, we'd do it. Instead, here are:

The Four Most Significant Moments in Denver Sports History.

April 20, 1970: Mad Dog Vachon pins Bobby "The Brain" Heenan at the Auditorium Arena. What did you expect, that tired piece of business about the Broncos finally winning their first Super Bowl? Given 28 years of practice, any old football team is bound to prevail in the Big One. Especially if the owner dresses like a Gestapo officer and the glowering head coach motivates his players with a cattle prod. For fifteen years, Broncos quarterback John Elway may have been the most beloved human being in the Rocky Mountain West, if not the solar system. His fabled fourth-quarter comebacks may have taken on a certain sacramental quality by the time he retired. And the fact that he finally won a league championship (as a two-touchdown underdog to Green Bay, no less!) after enduring three gruesome Super Bowl wipeouts (by Washington, the New York Giants and San Francisco) may have sent soaring the spirits of an entire city long accustomed to disappointment and ridicule on the NFL gridiron. All that may be so. Along with the part about winning a second Super Bowl the following year. Great stuff. But if you never watched the Mad Dog -- bearded and growling and sweating like a furnace stoker -- slam Bobby Heenan's platinum tresses into a turnbuckle, then you never tasted the epitome of Denver's sporting life in the Golden Age.

January 1958: Points-leading calf-roper remains sober for 48 hours while competing at the National Western Stock Show. Now, some would claim that the local standard for frontier perseverance was set by Denver's beleaguered baseball fans, who waited half a century to win a major-league team for their city. Some would say that the fans' patience in the 1960s, when not a single millionaire visionary stepped forward here to bid for a big-league expansion club, was a model trait. Some would say that the soul-crushing events of 1977, during which oil tycoon Marvin Davis tried to bring the Chicago White Sox, then the Oakland Athletics, to town, but failed, were further evidence that baseball folk here were a saintly but ill-fated bunch. At sparsely attended Triple-A Denver Bears games, beer vendor Dave Flaming became famous for addressing his customers by name -- every last one of them. But the acres of empty baseball seats at Mile High Stadium symbolized a city suffering from acute growing pains -- self-conscious about its cowtown image, yearning to feel big-league. When it finally happened in 1993, 80,227 fans crammed into Mile High on opening day to greet the Colorado Rockies, and by year's end a major-league-record 4.5 million of them had turned out. Fine, fine. But how does that stack up against a rawboned dude from Cow Pie, Wyoming, who doesn't so much as sniff a shot of Old Crow in two days holed up at the Brown Palace? That's self-denial, pardner. That's big league.

May 1973: Denver Racquets win Team Tennis championship. Conventional wisdom holds that the city's first pro-sports title was a bolt from the blue. In June 1996, the city's brand-new National Hockey League team, the Colorado Avalanche, swept the Florida Panthers four straight to win the Stanley Cup, hockey's biggest prize. Denver's newly minted hockey fans, many of whom didn't know high-sticking from High Street, were delighted and astonished by the Avs' unexpected gift, especially those who had also suffered through the Broncos' indignities for so many years: The Avs' downtown victory parade was an unprecedented outpouring of affection for a team which, for years earlier, had been plying its trade in hockey-savvy Quebec. As irony would have it, it took a move to Denver, which had failed to support an earlier NHL club (also called Colorado Rockies, now the New Jersey Devils), to win the Cup. But the Avs were not the city's first pro champs. In the early 1970s, the Denver Racquets, led by team captain Tony Roche, outslugged clubs like the New York Sets and (one of the great team names in sports history) the Boston Lobsters, to win the U.S. Team Tennis League's first-ever championship. Up in the stands, you could hear the hot-dog man slathering on the mustard, so ill-attended were the doomed team's matches.

June 13, 1960: Dow Finsterwald picks up the dinner check at Cherry Hills while Julius Boros dawdles in the bar. Okay, okay. So maybe something of slightly greater import unfolded on that sun-kissed Denver afternoon almost forty years ago. Something like the eruption of professional golf as a major television attraction. And the emergence of a plainspoken, pants-hitching pro from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, as a major American hero. At the start of the final round of the 1960 United States Open, Arnold Palmer found himself seven strokes behind tournament leader Mike Souchak and down the leader board from fourteen players -- including legends like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Fueled by courage and aggression, Palmer took driver in hand on the 346-yard first hole, smashed the ball straight onto the green and two-putted for a birdie. Elated, he charged onto the second hole and birdied it, too. In fact, he birdied six of the first seven holes. By the tenth, he was tied with Souchak, and by the nineteenth, where the gin and tonics are poured, he was the Open champion. Arnie's Army was born, and his famous charge at Cherry Hills became the stuff of golf legend. Between 1960 and 1963, Palmer won 31 more tournaments, became the first million-dollar golfer in history and one of the game's most beloved figures.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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