In our Broncos Legends series, we're revisiting the careers of some of the best players in franchise history with video highlights and rarely seen photos — and they'll join us to break down their favorite moments as a Bronco and more. Here's a refresher on Rick Upchurch's time in Denver.
After making his name at the University of Minnesota as a speedy running back, Upchurch arrived in Denver as a fourth-round pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. But his future would be at wide receiver and as a return specialist, where the Broncos could best utilize his speed.
That skill set was evident in his first game, as he scored two touchdowns against the Chiefs, including one that went 90 yards. And though he wouldn't score on any of his punt or kick returns that year, his total return yardage as a rookie ranked third in the NFL.
With nimble feet, fantastic speed and the ability to change direction with tremendous vision, Upchurch proved himself to be a force as a return specialist, perhaps the most talented one of the era. For five consecutive seasons from 1975-1979, he ranked in the top five in punt return average, and he ranked first in that statistic in 1976, 1978 and 1982. His career average of 12.1 on punt returns ranks fifth all time.
His eight touchdowns on punt returns also rank tied for fourth in pro football history. During his 1976 first-team All-Pro season, Upchurch became just the third player to return two punts for a touchdown in a single game.
Upchurch also had the honor of recording the Broncos' longest play of Super Bowl XII, a 67-yard kick return, which at the time was a Super Bowl record.
In 1979, Upchurch surpassed Emlen Tunnell to become the NFL's all-time record holder in punt return yardage.
Though Upchurch was most-widely known for his talent as a return specialist, he also was a more than capable receiver. In 1979, he became a full-time starter for the team and led Denver in receptions with 64, a total that ranked ninth in the NFL that year.
Simply put, Upchurch was one of the NFL's most dangerous players. Only Rod Smith and Floyd Little totaled more all-purpose yards during their Broncos careers.
"The Broncos religiously went to Upchurch on Sundays," Woody Paige once wrote.
His prowess earned him selections to the NFL's 1970s and 1980s all-decade teams at the kick returner position, and in 2014, he was at long last elected to the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame.
First-team NFL 1970s All-Decade Team selection, second-team NFL 1980s All-Decade Team selection, Denver Broncos Ring of Fame inductee (2014), Broncos Top 100 Team member, first-team Broncos 50th Anniversary Team selection, three first-team All-Pro selections, four Pro Bowls, tied for fourth in punt return touchdowns in NFL history, fifth in punt return average in NFL history, 11th in career punt return yards in NFL history, most career punt return yards in franchise history, most career punt return yards in a single season in franchise history, most all-purpose yards in a single season by a rookie in franchise history, most all-purpose yards in a single game by a rookie in franchise history, third in career all-purpose yards in franchise history, second in receiving yards in a single game by a rookie in franchise history
Stats to know
119 games, 248 punt returns, 3,008 punt return yards, eight punt return touchdowns, 95 kick returns, 2,355 kick return yards, 267 receptions, 4,369 receiving yards, 24 receiving touchdowns, 49 rushing attempts, 349 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns
In his own words
"I was fearless. The game didn't scare me at all. I wanted to be a game-breaker, and I think I was that. I could turn the game around quickly. And I was a team player. My teammates meant more to me than anything else — individual type of accomplishments — because it is a team game. We all work together to achieve the same goal."
Three games to remember
Week 1, 1975 season: Broncos 37, Chiefs 33
Upchurch began his career by showing his speed was not to be underestimated and that he could succeed just about anywhere on the field. After Denver fell behind two scores, Upchurch rushed for a touchdown to tie the game in the second quarter. Then, during the Broncos' first possession of the third quarter, Upchurch sprinted downfield and caught a deep pass for a 90-yard touchdown. The play set a franchise record for the longest reception by a rookie since the AFL-NFL merger and now ranks third in team history.
This game, in fact, may be the best example of Upchurch's ability to excel anywhere on the field. His total of 284 all-purpose yards in this game remains the franchise rookie record. He averaged almost 30 yards per punt return, and his final return of the day, which went for 30 yards, set the Broncos up near midfield for their game-winning drive with just minutes left in the game.
Week 3, 1976 season: Broncos 44, Browns 13
In this game, Rick Upchurch became the first player after the AFL-NFL merger to return two punts for touchdowns in the same contest. The first was a dazzling display of speed, as he knifed through the closing ranks of Browns defenders to score on a 73-yard return to open the Broncos' 44-point effort. The second return was more of the same, as he pushed Denver's lead to 30-7. He was not touched by a single defender on either return.
Week 2, 1982 season: Broncos 24, 49ers 21
In his final two-touchdown game of his career, Upchurch helped the Broncos with two timely scores. The first, a 67-yard punt return, evened the score at 7 apiece. He scored his second in the final frame of the game when he got free in the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown reception, which tied the game at 21-21. That allowed the Broncos to have a chance to win the game on their final possession, as Rich Karlis nailed an 18-yard field goal as time expired.