DENVER — On the south end of Empower Field at Mile High, the Broncos' greatest players are honored for their accomplishments and contributions to the franchise.
John Elway. Shannon Sharpe. Gary Zimmerman. Terrell Davis. Steve Atwater. Rod Smith.
Those men — their names and faces immortalized on bronze-and-steel pillars — are just a few of the franchise's most impressive and impactful players.
And on this mid-October evening in Denver, their coach joined them in the Broncos' most elite group.
Former head coach Mike Shanahan unveiled his pillar in Ring of Fame Plaza on Friday evening and officially took his place as the 34th member of the Ring of Fame.
"It's kind of the highest honor you can have because of how special this group of people is," Shanahan said of joining his former players in the Ring of Fame. "When you coached them, you knew how well they played, how hard they played and what type of athletes and people they were. To be with this type of team is something I'll always cherish, I'll always honor."
The third Broncos coach to enter the Ring of Fame, Shanahan is the franchise's all-time winningest coach and one of just six coaches in the history of the league to win back-to-back world championships.
As Shanahan's former players gathered to recognize his accomplishments, they reflected on what separated Shanahan from other coaches during his 14 years as the team's head coach. Elway said Friday that he "wouldn't have got where I got without Mike Shanahan."
"Us winning the two Super Bowls before I retired was the highlight of my career," Elway said. "But to be able to do it with Mike [was special] — and Mike was a big reason why we were able to get it done. He was the best coach I've ever had. I'm thrilled that he's going into the Ring of Fame, and the Hall of Fame will be next."
Ring of Famer Rod Smith, too, was impacted greatly by Shanahan. He called Shanahan's arrival in Denver "one of the biggest blessings of my career."
"As an undrafted free agent, I love [former Broncos head coach] Wade Phillips — Wade Phillips gave me a chance," Smith said. "I still tell him that to this day, but Coach Shanahan came in and just said — the way he coaches is everyone gets an opportunity. He gave me an opportunity, but at the same time, he was grooming me to be great. It's not about being good; it's about being great.
"… For me, probably the biggest thing was, I never wanted to let him down. So, if it took going in early, staying extra late, watching more film, doing whatever you have to do, that guy you want on your side because he'll do whatever he can to change your life. He was a big part of changing my life."
The celebration, though, was about more than Shanahan's Ring of Fame induction. Atwater unveiled the Hall of Fame plaque on his Ring of Fame pillar, and Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker was in attendance to present Atwater with his Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence.
"It's enjoyable to be able to … share this moment with the fans here in Denver, with all of our wonderful fans, my teammates," Atwater said. "… It's special to be able to do it here. It brings back up some of the great memories that I have from the Hall of Fame experience, really over the last year and a half or so."
And for Atwater, to be honored on the same night as Shanahan — the coach who helped lead the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls — made the night a bit more impactful.
"That makes it super special," Atwater said. "Obviously, we won the first two Super Bowls in the franchise's history. We had gone several times before and were knocking on the door so many times. To be able to finally do that was super special. All the great relationships that were developed and built over the years — a lot of those relationships still exist today. To be honored at the same time as Mike is really special because he's a special guy in my life and in my heart."