Things head south from jump street. The two-time defending Super Bowl champions limp through a pre-season memorable mainly for a quarterback controversy (Bubby Brister out, Brian Griese in) that most local media outlets inflate to gargantuan proportions. A number of them broadcast Coach Mike Shanahan's news conference about the switch live, and the Rocky Mountain News's next-day cover is dominated by a shot of the local press corps at Shanahan's feet -- an appropriate image if ever there was one. A pair of regular-season nosedives, to the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs, only make the situation worse. Deadly hurricane? Killer earthquake? We'll get to those stories as soon we find out how hacked off Bubby is.
This loony overreaction to the team's downturn feeds a fan frenzy. Boosters who seem willing to sacrifice their firstborn for a return to gridiron greatness flood local talk shows with panicky calls, and hosts such as the Fan's Sandy Clough attempt to pump up the frustration factor by arguing loudly and often that Shanahan, nicknamed The Mastermind, has been suffering more than his fair share of brain farts lately. Every sports commentator in town seems to be in a state of serious agitation.
Except for Scott Hastings.
As color commentator for the Broncos and co-host of KOA-AM's Sports Zoo -- by far the most popular talk program on Denver afternoon radio (and the most consistently entertaining) -- Hastings is hardly the world's most objective Bronco observer; after all, he had to be approved by the team before he was allowed to call games with Sports Zoo partner Dave Logan. Moreover, when he's shoving a microphone under the snouts of whipped behemoths following this year's humiliations, he can sound as bummed as they are. "I had a program director tell me one time to still be upbeat even after they lose, but that's someone talking who's never been in a locker room," he says in his eccentric voice, a wheezy tenor distinguished by exuberant stammering, dropped g's and sudden changes in volume. "You'd better get your mood to match theirs or you're in trouble."
But when he's on the Zoo, he gives his rah-rahing a comic spin that helps keep football in perspective. Take, for example, one of the main reasons why he always hopes for a Bronco victory: "If they don't win, I'm the guy who's got to go down on the field and ask 300-pound men why they blew." Imagine his glee, then, when the Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
Hastings strikes the same balance between cheerleading and absurdity when rapping with Zoo listeners. On one show in late September, after listening to a string of callers eager to engage in endless, tedious debates about which pigskin-flinger should be sliding his hands between the buttocks of the Broncos' center the next Sunday, he argues that the solution to all the team's problems can be found in the 1978 film Animal House. "When things went wrong, you know what they did?" he asks. "Road trip!" An instant later, after realizing that a number of defeats happened during just such excursions, he reconsiders. "Well, maybe not a road trip. How about a toga party?"
Two weeks down the line, the Broncos have yet to take Hastings's advice, and they're paying for it. They've lost twice more (to the offense-challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the pathetic, injury-plagued New York Jets), and to make the humiliation that much more acute, a Sports Illustrated cover story headlined "We're Finished" following the Jets game suggests that the once-proud men in predominantly orange have devolved into whining, sniveling malcontents. While his broadcasting peers vacillate between resignation and suicidal tendencies over this state of affairs, Hastings trots out two new slogans, "Change the karma" and "Spread the buttah," that he believes will replace bad vibrations with good ones, and he encourages callers to shout them in their workplaces, out their car windows or even in the privacy of their own homes.
When the Broncos respond by winning their next two contests, squeaking out a victory over the Oakland Raiders and pummeling the Green Bay Packers, Hastings winkingly takes credit for their change of course. "How can you argue that it was something else?" he wonders. Unfortunately, the approach isn't foolproof: The Broncos fall a point short to the New England Patriots, and even after Hastings spends a week alternately referring to Minnesota Vikings QB Jeff George as "Phyllis George" or "Boy George," the Vikes top the Broncos anyway. Still, Hastings refuses to succumb to the melancholy that's settled over Denver loyalists. On the day after the Vikings loss, he comes off like a yokel George Patton, telling the team and fans alike, "You've got to stand up and fight. Don't roll over and pee on yourself."