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Sacco Sez: How the Broncos were really built

Posted Apr 21, 2018

Jim Saccomano takes a look back at a trade that changed the course of the Broncos' history.

Most avid readers of pro-football material are familiar with the charts that are available for all teams, generally called "How the Broncos Were Built," with the only variation being the name of team.

The chart then lists all the players and how they were acquired — whether through draft, free agency, by trade, or undrafted free agency.

On the Broncos, for example, the chart would show that Demaryius Thomas was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Chris Harris Jr. was signed as a college free agent in 2011 and kicker Brandon McManus was acquired via a trade with the New York Giants in 2014.

But while the chart is very important showing all the current players, I have a revisionist view of how the Broncos were built at the beginning, and when that beginning was.

To me, it came on a Sunday morning, Nov. 28, 1982.

The Broncos, who played their first season in 1960, struggled throughout their first decade and did not piece together a winning season until 1973. They then made one fantastic and memorable Super Bowl appearance in 1977 before a downward drift at the end of the decade.

Edgar F. Kaiser, Jr. had purchased the team in 1981 and was not well received by the public or press, an attitude which he wished to reverse.

On Nov. 28, I was called into his hotel suite at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego, where we were to play the Chargers that afternoon.

Mr. Kaiser had asked me there to share my opinion as to whether or not it was worth it to acquire Stanford quarterback John Elway, the best quarterback prospect since Johnny Unitas and the certain first pick in the 1983 draft.

I said there was no way we could get Elway, as he was certain to be the first pick in the draft.

Kaiser, who had degrees from Stanford and Harvard and had served on the Trilateral Commission, calmly replied, "Jim, anything can be bought and sold in America. It is just about setting the price."

With that, I gave him the obvious response that there was no prospect like Elway and acquiring him would have long-term positives beyond the scope of imagination.

He thanked me, and I got ready to get on the bus to the game.

I had no idea the seeds of the building of what the Broncos would be — and still are — had already been planted and nurtured.

The 1983 NFL Draft arrived, and the Baltimore Colts selected Elway with the first-overall pick.

I was in the draft room with the coaches and our personnel people when Kaiser politely entered and informed the group that he was beginning the process of inquiring about trading for Elway.

I will never forget that when he left the room, there was more than a little bemusement, chuckling and head shaking — all relative to the perceived naiveté of our young owner in thinking he could make such a move.

All the subsequent phone calls and conversations would better fill a book than this column, so I will choose to reduce events to the basics.

Late in the day, I spoke with Mr. Kaiser about making sure the press was not aware of his clandestine moves regarding Elway.

He sat back and said, "Jim, I have made the initial phone calls. We are moving on Elway. We are halfway there and have halfway to go."

I had no idea if the trade would happen, but I certainly did not dismiss that Mr. Kaiser could make it happen.

But at the end of the draft, in an era before laptops, when I was disposing of all the prospect bios that would no longer be needed for Broncos public relations books, I saved Elway's.

It was four legal pages, single spaced, I knew that I would never be able to reproduce this on a tight deadline, so I just slipped it in my top desk drawer, just in case.

The pages stayed there for one week.

I was on the phone with sportscaster Dan Walker of KIMN radio when then-General Manager Hein Poulus calmly walked into my office. I cupped the phone with my freehand and listened as Hein said, "The Elway deal is done. Come see me after you get off your phone call."

I calmly — I hope — finished my call and went to see Hein.

He asked how long it would take me to do a press release in advance of a potential press conference that night.

I informed Hein that the release had been ready to go since Mr. Kaiser had informed me of the possibility one week ago.

"Good boy," Hein said.

No contract had been finalized, but Elway, his father and his agent would fly to Denver by private plane, where the Broncos would meet with them.

If there was a deal, I would arrange a press conference.

If not, they would fly away.

Of course, the deal got done. That night we held a press conference at 10:30 p.m. and the foundation of the next four decades of Broncos history was laid.

You know the history, the litany of championships and other memorable historical moments the Broncos have enjoyed since. Elway engineered those moments as a player for 16 seasons.

A veteran coach and scout once told me, "You want to know who the best quarterbacks have been? Choose between Unitas and Elway and line the other guys up after them."

We are talking about, in my opinion, the best in the history of the game.

His next chapter has been just as good. Elway now enters his eighth season running football operations for the Broncos and has already presided over two Super Bowl appearances. Of course, he built the team that captured the team’s third world championship, Super Bowl 50.

I like lists.

There are not many players who have gone on to run teams. George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Ozzie Newsome the Baltimore Ravens come to mind. John Lynch, a Broncos Ring of Famer who enters his second season as the San Francisco 49ers’ general manager, is another.

But only one person in history has quarterbacked a team to a Super Bowl championship — which Elway did twice —and then become the general manager of the same team and lead it to another Super Bowl championship.

One guy.

That is a very short list indeed. And Denver’s acquisition of John Elway very late on the night of May 2, 1983, was the beginning of how the Broncos were really built.