For Part One in this two-part series documenting the Broncos' 1966 duels against George Blanda and the Oilers, please follow this link.
When last we convened for the "Legend and Legacy" series the Denver Broncos had just sustained a serious thumping, 45-7 to the Houston Oilers on opening day in 1966, amassing the fewest number of first downs (zero) in the history of pro football.
I wrote that Broncos defensive end Ray Jacobs took the clippings from that game and affixed them to the Denver bulletin board for the rematch. That anecdote was told to me by someone who watched him do it. This is about the rematch.
It was another lousy year for the Broncos, as they tended to be at that time.
So how could the rematch vs. Denver have any historical significance?
I have seen 886 games in person and that game still sticks in my mind. Sometimes you see something that moves you on a couple levels.
One was it was second part of one of the most remarkable two-game series any pro football player ever had — George Blanda in this case.
And second, for one of the few times in the sorry early history of the Denver Broncos, the team rose up and played with a sense of pride, passion and mission at its highest level thus far for this franchise.
Houston would finish 3-11, a total underachievement for a pretty talented squad, but Denver finished 4-12 and genuinely earned that record.
It was another day, another time.
It was Oct. 2, 1966 at Bears Stadium, even before the city was given the venerable park and changed its name to a much more lofty sounding Mile High Stadium.
Capacity was just over 35,000 but the dusty old cow town was developing a passion and loyalty to the Broncos, and 27,203 fans elbowed their way in to watch the Broncos have what we all presumed to be very little chance against the Oilers and Blanda, their great quarterback and eventual Hall of Famer.
Head Coach Mac Speedie had been dismissed after Week Two and Ray Malavasi was now the head coach. It was a time of revolving coaches, and while we did not know it then, Malavasi was to be the last through that door.
The Broncos played inspired football all afternoon, driven by a desire to show that they were more than their record and history said they were.
Do you remember Goldie Sellers, who had the 88-yard kickoff return touchdown for Denver's only trip to the end zone in Game One?
Sellers reprised that performance in Denver, taking another Houston kickoff back 100 yards for a score.
The Broncos had to scrape all day and when they could not reach the end zone, placekicker Gary Kroner (nice kicker, mediocre leg) obliged with four field goals to keep the Broncos in a game in which the opposing quarterback was running the scoreboard like a cash register.
Blanda had touchdown passes of nine, 18, 79, 27 and 23 yards—five in all—kicked all five Houston extra points and just for the heck of it, added a 49-yard field goal.
Thirty-eight points. The Houston quarterback accounted for 38 points and had 300 passing yards.
Combined with the 33 points he accounted for in the first game, Blanda's two-game points total against Denver in 1966 was 71 by passing and kicking, an all-time pro football record in that manner that likely will never be broken, or at least will last until the next Hall of Fame quarterback also handles the placekicking for his team!
In the fourth quarter Houston took a 38-37 lead on Blanda's fifth scoring pass of the day, and the Broncos followed up with an eight-play drive, but Kroner was short on a 52-yard field goal attempt.
The Denver defense held, and with 1:18 to go the Broncos had a last ditch drive from their 32 to the Houston 36, where Kroner redeemed himself, kicking a 46-yard field goal with 27 seconds left to play. The final score was Denver 40, Houston 38.
A team that would finish 4-12 had beaten a team that would finish 3-11. But all euphoria is relative.
As one who was in the stands that day, and who had watched George Blanda mercilessly carve the Broncos up in game after game, year after year, with seemingly no end in sight, it was a watershed moment for every fan.
Blanda had passed for nine touchdowns, kicked 11 extra points and two field goals in two games, but the Broncos had beaten him.
Malavasi did a good job with that Denver team, lending some stability and finishing 4-8 after taking over, but it was a time of change in pro football.
Secret merger talks were underway between the National and American Football Leagues, as Gerry Phipps and his brother Allen well knew, and it was time for the Broncos to take a true step toward respectability.
At season's end Lou Saban was hired as Head Coach and General Manager and the Denver Broncos would never be ragtag again.
The game described above was a great moment of pride for the 1966 season, and symbolically a peek forward at the greatness that lied ahead for Denver and the team that measures the soul of the city.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Beating George Blanda in one of the greatest games of his Hall of Fame career was their last step in the River of No Respectability for the Denver Broncos.