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Sacco Sez: More rags than riches in 1960s drafts

Posted Apr 14, 2018

Prior to the AFL-NFL merger, the draft was a frustrating event for the Broncos and other AFL teams.

There are no offseason NFL events that I look forward to more than the draft. By then the schedule is out and you have a sense of the new season, a new team being built.

Elsewhere on this site there are great features and pictorials on current and past players, so I thought I would take a quick look back at the Broncos' draft beginnings.

The first American Football League draft was in 1960. Except for a few teams, like the Dallas Texans, Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Oilers, there was no hope for the others — the Broncos especially — of keeping pace financially with the NFL in the signing of college players.

The Broncos' first draft in 1960 found penurious general manager Dean Griffing literally making his selections from players featured in "Street and Smith's College Football," a popular magazine at the time.

Denver first number one choice — no drumroll necessary — was linebacker and placekicker Roger LeClerc from Trinity College. He signed with the Chicago Bears and several years later played part of a season in Denver. To give you an idea of his kicking ability, in 1967 we lost a game to Buffalo by a 17-16 score, with LeClerc going 0-for-5 on field-goal attempts.

The Broncos did not sign or select any players of great note in 1961 either, but starting in 1962 they put the football magazines away and actually scouted some guys.

While not in a financial position to sign them, Denver selected such luminaries as Merlin Olsen (1962) and Kermit Alexander (1963).

Denver's hands were tied by money and reputation, but the Broncos selected three future Pro Football Hall of Famers in 1964.

The Broncos chose offensive lineman Bob Brown, defensive back Paul Krause and Olympic sprinter and wide receiver Bob Hayes in that draft.

Our final choice in 1964, quarterback Bob Berry from Oregon, was in the 26th round. Berry had a fine career in the NFL, but at the time he said he did not sign with Denver over a financial difference in the proposed contract of $200. I think that sums things up pretty well.

In 1965 Denver knew it could not sign their first pick, but largely for public relations and face-saving purposes selected Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus, who was also chosen by the Chicago Bears. Butkus, of course, signed with the Bears in the NFL and became a pro football legend.

Things continued along the same path into 1966, but the AFL-NFL war reached its peak that year, as the two leagues spent a combined $7 million to sign their 1966 draft choices.

The NFL signed 75 percent of its 232 draftees, and the AFL got 46 percent of its 181. The two leagues were bleeding money and the major team owners sought a common solution.

A series of secret meetings regarding a possible AFL-NFL merger were held in the spring between Lamar Hunt of Kansas City and Tex Schramm of Dallas.

The merger of the two leagues was announced on June 8, 1966, combining the two leagues to form one expanded league with 24 teams. Every team in the AFL was accepted into the NFL, and one of the criteria of the merger was a common draft.

There is no question that the merger gave the Broncos the life raft they desperately needed to survive, and the common draft meant Denver would be able to sign the players they selected.

Broncos owner Gerry Phipps hired Lou Saban as head coach and general manager following the 1966 season, and that was the first major executive signing that helped the Broncos build a solid foundation.

In 1967 Saban drafted and signed future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little, and in fact each of the Broncos' first 10 draftees that year made the team.

That really was the beginning of the beginning for the Broncos as a competitive team.

Future Broncos Ring of Famer Paul Smith was drafted in 1968, and special mention should be made than Saban also selected Marlin Briscoe that year.

A 14th-round choice and the 357th-overall selection, Briscoe made history in his rookie year as the first African-American to start at quarterback in pro football.

Saban closed out the decade of the 1960s with the selection of another future Ring of Famer in 1969, the legendary Billy Thompson, from what was then Maryland State (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore).

Thompson set a rookie mark for the ages as the only player in history to lead the league in both yards per kick return and yards per punt return in the same season.

The Broncos were still not a good team, but Saban had Little and the beginnings of a strong Broncos defense.

He resigned during the middle of the 1971 season and John Ralston took over as general manager and head coach in 1972.

There is an excellent photo essay on our team website showing the high number of outstanding 1970s draft choices who paved the way for Denver to become a Super Bowl team, as well as numerous pieces on this year's draft and college prospects.

But it all started in the 1960s.

As you can see, the going was rough in those early years, but the future for the Denver Broncos turned out to be very bright indeed.