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Tripucka Took Wacky, Winding Road

Posted Sep 12, 2013

Andrew Mason looks back at the unique pro football career of Frank Tripucka, who passed away Thursday.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Of all the Broncos players who have passed through their locker rooms throughout the Denver metropolitan area, only one had already been a head coach of a professional team by the time he first donned a Broncos jersey.

Such a story encapsulates the pro career of Frank Tripucka, who died Thursday at age 85. Even by the more barnstorming standards of mid-20th century football, Tripucka's 15-year pro career remains among the most unusual treks ever seen in the sport.

He was the first Broncos starting quarterback, the only player to wear No. 18 until he gave his blessing for Peyton Manning to share it last year, and, by the time the Broncos played their first game at Boston University Field on Sept. 9, 1960, the former head coach of the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Yes, "former."

Even before Tripucka was aware that vertically striped socks existed, he had the unique distinction of being the only professional coach to lead his team to a win that had already gone into the books as a forfeit loss -- all because he'd inserted himself into the lineup at quarterback because of injuries. He did this for two games -- one a 20-19 defeat, the other a stunning 37-30 win for the hapless Roughriders over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, whose head coach just happened to be a future Pro Football Hall of Famer: Bud Grant. As the Pro Football Researchers Association noted in a 1979 story:

"The idea was about as legal as clipping the referee. As the thirteenth import, Tripucka had no more eligibility than he had feathers ...

... He zinged the Bomber defense for a lusty 208 yards, completing 17 of 29 passes. When he wasn't passing the Bombers blue, he handed off to Ferdy Burket, an American out of East Oklahoma State, who ran for over 100 yards and five touchdowns, one short of the CFL record. When it was all over, the Roughriders, who hadn't scored more than three TDs in any game all season had defeated the champs 37-30 -- on the scoreboard."

And believe it or not, this might not have been the most unusual circumstance Tripucka had endured as a pro! Seven years earlier, he was in his fourth season as an NFL quarterback, having bounced from the Detroit Lions to the Chicago Cardinals and then on to the Dallas Texans -- the latter of which lasted just a single, depressing season.

Those Texans, quarterbacked by Tripucka at the end of the season, actually began the tradition of Dallas' NFL team hosting a Thanksgiving Day game. But their home field by then was the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, more than 1,000 miles away. The league had taken over the Texans earlier in the season, and "home games" were now in Akron and Hershey, Pa.

The Texans were playing out the string. The team would be dissolved after the season; some players would end up as part of the new Baltimore Colts; others would leave the sport altogether. They were 0-9; all the losses were by double digits; the average score of their defeats was opponents 36.1, Texans 14.2.

Playing in front of a few hundred fans who stayed around for the second game of a doubleheader -- the first end being a high-school game that played to a packed house -- the Texans bolted to a 20-2 lead. The Bears, coached by another future Hall of Famer, George Halas, stormed back with 21 consecutive points. But it was Tripucka who provided the winning margin, scoring on a 1-yard run to give the Texans their only win, preventing them from going 0-for-forever.

That Texans stint would have been Tripucka's last in the U.S. if the AFL had not formed and the Broncos called. Tripucka was 31 by then, having played 11 seasons in the NFL and CFL since graduating from Notre Dame. Many considered him washed up, and by taking the Roughriders' coaching position, he gave the impression that he had moved on from playing.

But his successful two-week cameo stoked the embers within him, and when his old CFL coach, Frank Filchock, was hired to build the Broncos from scratch, Tripucka took one more crack at playing pro football stateside -- and promptly threw the first touchdown pass in AFL history and became the first 3,000-yard passer in the history of the AFL or NFL; he and future Congressman Jack Kemp hit that previously unattainable standard in the AFL's first season.

One of his finest moments as a Broncos quarterback actually came in the AFL All-Star Game; he hit Lionel Taylor, a Broncos teammate, for a 20-yard touchdown pass to give the West a 21-14 win. After the game, Tripucka retired, telling the Associated Press, "It would take a fantastic amount of money to get me back next year."

Then he came back for the 1963 season -- proving that un-retirements are not a recent trend -- quarterbacked two games in Denver, was dissatisfied with his play and walked away. He briefly returned to Saskatchewan later that season before retiring, ending a meandering trek through three leagues, six teams -- he briefly played for CFL's the Ottawa Rough Riders -- and three-plus seasons in Denver that offered the first hint of legitimacy for a fledgling franchise.