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Back in the Day: Broncos vs. Vikings

As is the nature of memories — for teams as well as for people — they vary greatly depending on perspective.

But this is a look back at what I consider the top Denver Broncos highlight against the Minnesota Vikings.

The Broncos are 7-7 against the Vikings in regular season play: 4-3 in Denver and 3-4 in Minnesota. That is about as even as two teams can be. 

But it is particularly fitting that this week's game is a preseason contest, as the moment that I consider the top one for the Broncos against Minnesota came in preseason play, or, as these games were called in those days, "exhibition" games. 

It was 1967 and marked the first season that National Football League teams played American Football League teams in preseason contests. The bidding war for players had ended and the two leagues had merged, but they would not begin regular season play as common opponents until 1970.    

That era in Denver was totally different than the one today.

The Broncos were the only "established" or league franchise in the city. The Denver Rockets — years before they became the Nuggets — were in their infancy.  

The Denver Bears played minor league baseball, and in fact the Broncos’ games were played in the venue still known as Bears Stadium. 

The Colorado Rockies were years away, as was major league hockey.

As much as it made the sophisticates in Denver bristle, our town was best described as a cow town.

I remember mentioning to a friend in New York that we did not have a Saks store, and actually asked where in the world we shopped, as if there were no clothing stores here at all.

So Denver was a city screaming for a national identity, and the Broncos, as newly minted members of the NFL, provided that identity.

The Green Bay Packers had won the first two Super Bowl games and the national media proclaimed that it would be years before the AFL teams would be competitive with their big brothers from the NFL.

But the first preseason games between teams from the two leagues were scheduled for 1967, and Denver had back-to-back meetings with Detroit and Minnesota.

As incredible as it seems today, due to minor league baseball, Bears Stadium was not even available so the Broncos-Vikings tilt was slated for Hilltop Stadium at the University of Denver.

The Broncos came into the 1967 season with a new head coach in Lou Saban. Certainly, Denver had been the worst team in pro football and absolutely nothing was expected of the Broncos.

So you cannot imagine the shock when Denver defeated the Detroit Lions at DU Stadium and Saban was literally carried off the field on the shoulders of the city's neophyte pro football fans.

Absolutely no one expected that Denver could win two straight over NFL competition, even in preseason play. But that is exactly what took place on August 18, 1967. 

The Broncos' most significant game vs. Minnesota came on a 64-degree night described in the play-by-play sheets as "partly cloudy" but it seemed perfect to a young season-ticket holder such as myself.

Denver took the lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Floyd Little with 1:11 left in the first half and in the third period, veteran fullback Cookie Gilchrist also score on a 1-yard run.

The young Bronco defenders, including an all-rookie linebacker unit, staved off Vikings and the Broncos held on for a 14-9 victory. 

Saban had vowed to rid the team of veterans whom he deemed less than adequate and planned to have 22 rookies on the Broncos' 37-man 1967 roster.

Other than the factor of embarrassment, this game meant little to the Vikings veteran players but it meant everything to us. 

For one night, Denver was significant in the world of pro football. "Cool Lou," who was anything but cool, had brought respect to an entire city as his young charges had won two straight over NFL teams. Of course, it could not be sustained, but that was beside the point.

The Vikings had outgained Denver by 280 total yards to just 162 for the Broncos, and although the sell-out, capacity audience at Hilltop Stadium was just 31,850, it meant everything at the time.

Little, a future Hall of Fame running back, was playing in just his second home game, and other Bronco "stars" at the time included future Ring of Famer Richard Jackson, a truly great player, along with Gilchrist, quarterback Steve Tensi and flanker Bob Scarpitto, who also was a very talented punter for Denver. There were many others, but mostly they are consigned to that special place in a memory bank reserved for those who were never really special but seemed magical on an August night more than fifty years ago.

For the city of Denver and the small but growing coterie of Bronco fans, that win over Minnesota reeked of symbolism. The Broncos had become the first AFL team to win two games over NFL teams, and as is the case with firsts, it remains forever so.

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