I visited Mile High Stadium a dozen times before I ever played in it. It was 1991 when I drove my sister's beat-up Volkswagen Bug from San Antonio to Denver to try out for the Broncos as a free agent. I arrived on June 1 and had six weeks to kill before training camp started. I spent my time working out at the Broncos facility and seeing the sights of Colorado. That summer I drove up Pike's Peak, I went hiking in the mountains, I visited the museum and the zoo and I drove down the 16th Street Mall. I didn't understand why everyone was staring at me until a police officer patiently explained that I was driving on a pedestrian mall.
About once a week, I'd pull into the south parking lot at Mile High Stadium and walk up to the gate at the southeast corner. From there I could stare through the gap and see a small wedge of the field. No matter how hard I tried, I could never imagine what the place would look like when it was full of fans. The biggest crowd I'd ever seen in college was about 8,000 people; the very thought that 76,000 people would fill a stadium to watch a football game was awe-inspiring.
My first "real" visit to Mile High Stadium was a rain-soaked Friday night preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts back in 1991. The parking lot was buzzing with activity when the bus ferrying all the rookies pulled in. The locker room took my breath away. It was a cavernous space under the South Stands, painted orange and blue. Each locker was a generous 3 feet wide, 6 feet tall and 3 feet deep. Above each one was a piece of thick blue plastic engraved with the player's name and number. There was no locker assigned for me. Instead, I found my equipment in the middle of the room where four long tables had been set up to house the rookies. My space was marked by a piece of white tape on which "RIVERS 38" had been written.
The first time I walked out of that locker room wearing a Broncos uniform is a moment I will never forget. It was drizzling, but the stands were nearly three-quarters full. My heart was pounding as I raced out onto the field. I'd never been more excited and more scared in my life. The prospect of playing in front of so many people scared me. The thought of getting hit by NFL players scared me even more. But underneath all that fear was a bubble of joy muscling its way toward the surface. Being on that field, in that uniform, with that opportunity was a dream come true. I looked around the stadium intent on remembering every detail. I didn't think I'd make the team that first year, but I knew I'd always have that first moment to hang onto.
Now that Mile High Stadium is coming down, I'm sure people will be tucking away their last moments. Remembering in minute detail the game, the weather, how the seats felt, what the people next to them said, how long the bathroom lines were. No matter how nice the amenities in the new stadium, Mile High Stadium will always hold a special place in our hearts.
I remember running out onto the field for the first kickoff of my first regular season game. My teammate Kevin Clark was next to me on the kickoff team, and he was facing the stands, raising his arms, exhorting the crowd. From that game forward, it became a tradition for me to run out onto the field before every kickoff and pump my fists at the crowd.
Back in 1991, I wrote these words in a column for the Denver Rocky Mountain News: "Anyone who would suggest that a boisterous crowd doesn't affect the outcome of a football game has never played in Mile High Stadium. I felt the crowd like the cerulean waves of the ocean; a pounding surf that washed over the home team leaving a residue of excitement and enthusiasm; the retreating tide, a vicious undertow that tugged at the resolve of our opponent."
I remember running onto the field my rookie year when starting fullback Robert Perryman hurt his shoulder. We were playing the San Diego Chargers and John Elway glanced at the plays on his wristband (remember the brief period when Elway was calling his own plays?) and called a handoff to me. I dove up the middle for three yards and got up with a smile in my heart. That was my first NFL carry.
I remember taking the field in place of an injured Steve Sewell in 1992. There was less than a minute remaining in the game, and Elway had driven us down to the 1-yard line. He called a fake to tailback Gaston Green, then a handoff to me coming around on the reverse. The play worked to perfection and I ran into the corner of the north end zone for my first NFL touchdown, my first game-winning touchdown, and my first experience with the frenzy of the Mile High crowd at full volume.
I loved the band that used to be tucked into the corner of the South Stands. I still laugh about the time in 1992 when Thunder almost trampled quarterback Tommy Maddox when the horse was galloping after a touchdown. Maddox was talking to the coaches, backing onto the field, and the horse came charging past brushing against his back, almost taking him out. I'm still a little afraid of the way center Keith Kartz used to march around the locker room, humming rock and roll songs and periodically slamming his hands into the lockers or the pillars or ripping things off the wall.
I played exactly 100 games in my NFL career and precisely 50 of them were in Mile High Stadium. I have many treasured memories of the experience that go back to 1991. I've met season ticket holders who have memories about Mile High that stretch back to the 1960s. No matter how hard I try, it's hard to imagine Mile High Stadium being gone. Today the Broncos will play their final home game in the venerable old stadium. These walls of concrete and steel will soon come tumbling down leaving only the memories of the triumphs and defeats that were played out on the lush green carpet of the field.
We bid farewell today to a historic structure. We'll move into the new facility next year. We'll sit in new seats and we'll enjoy the new amenities, but we'll never surrender our memories of Mile High Stadium.
By Reggie Rivers, written January 2000
Denver Broncos Running Back, 1991-96