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. This time, we're looking back on the late Lyle Alzado's career, including his unlikely path from Yankton College in South Dakota to his All-Pro peak with the Broncos as part of the "Orange Crush" defense.
That the Broncos found Lyle Alzado at all was a stroke of luck.
As the story goes, Denver's defensive line coach, Stan Jones, was on a scouting trip to Montana when his car began to have transmission trouble. Jones stopped in Butte to have it repaired, and while it was being worked on, Jones found a ride to nearby Montana Tech to watch film on their football team. It was there that Jones took note of an opposing player from South Dakota's Yankton College.
"This one kid kept popping up from the other team," Jones told the Rocky Mountain News in 1992. "We got a program, and the kid's name was Lyle Alzado."
What Jones saw was impressive enough to convince the Broncos to pick Alzado with a fourth-round pick in the 1971 draft.
Alzado later recalled it as "the happiest moment of my life."
"I remember when the draft was — Jan. 24, 1971," he told The Denver Post's Dick Connor years later. "It started at 9 a.m. I was in college in Yankton, S.D. I got up at 5 that morning and went over to the athletic director's office and never left. I sat there all day. At four that afternoon I was still in that same chair when the phone rang. It was Lou Saban. He said, 'Lyle, you are now a Bronco.' I was so happy I knocked the projector off a table running out. I broke the door. It was the happiest moment of my life. I was the 79th player taken."
That passion and, at times, reckless energy would come to define the kind of player Alzado would be on the field, and when veteran Pete Duranko suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the preseason slate, Alzado would rely on his developing skills and character to adapt quickly.
By the end of his rookie season in these unexpected circumstances, Alzado had exceeded expectations. He recorded eight sacks and 55 total tackles, according to unofficial defensive stats. What he'd shown as a rookie was enough to prove that he could succeed in the NFL and be a starter for years to come.
In addition to the production, Alzado also showed that his mental makeup was invaluable at his position. He had an unrelenting drive, a love for the game's physicality and a wild intensity that made him a terror in the trenches. With those traits and his physical skills, Alzado emerged as one of the Broncos' best young players.
Over the next four seasons, Alzado started every Broncos game. In 1974, he led the team with 13 sacks and seemed poised to maintain his position as the team's best pass-rusher for years to come. But that came to a sudden halt in 1976 when he suffered a season-ending injury.
Upon his return in 1977, Alzado showed he was no different from the player he had been before.
While the Broncos put together their finest campaign with the magnificent "Orange Crush" defense, Alzado earned his first Pro Bowl selection. Based on Broncos coaches' film review, Alzado tallied 119 total tackles, eight sacks and two fumble recoveries.
"It's a tremendous honor for me personally," Alzado said of the honor, "but it's nicer to be able to represent the Broncos and Colorado. I owe everything to Stan Jones. He showed a lot of patience with me coming off an injury. He's been like my father."
Behind stellar defensive play, Denver also found tremendous team success. In their first playoff appearance, the Broncos topped the Steelers at home to advance to the AFC Championship, where they would face the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders.
Oakland tried to run behind Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell against Alzado, but he and Denver's stout run defense were up to the task. The Raiders mustered just 2.6 yards per carry for the game, and only 2.1 yards per carry in the first half as they tried to impose their normally strong running game on the Broncos.
"I don't want to sound cocky or anything, but I knew they were going to come my way," Alzado said. "Me and Tommy [Jackson] shut 'em down pretty good."
Though the Broncos' magical run ended with a loss in Super Bowl XII, Alzado continued to stack individual accomplishments. He earned first-team All-Pro honors, was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year by the Kansas City 101 Club and came in second place by two votes for the Associated Press' NFL defensive player of the year honors.
The following season, Alzado picked up nine more sacks and added second-team All-Pro honors and a second Pro Bowl selection, but his time with the Broncos was coming to an end. Alzado grew dissatisfied with his contract, and it eventually came to a head in training camp. Eventually, the Broncos traded him to Cleveland, and he would be traded again three years later to the Raiders.
Because of his personality, Alzado's legacy is an interesting and complicated one.
In 2020, he was selected No. 26 on the NFL's top-100 ranking of the greatest characters in pro football history. His temper on the field made him one of the most-feared players in the game.
At one point, it seemed like football wasn't enough for him. A former boxer who competed in the Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, Alzado rekindled his love for the sport in 1979 when he took part in an exhibition match against Muhammad Ali, who would announce a short-lived retirement from boxing two weeks later. Still, Alzado took it seriously. He trained with Bobby Lewis, who had been the coach for world heavyweight champion George Foreman.
Though Ali was well past his prime and admitted that he didn't train hard before the bout, he said Alzado was a talented foe in the ring, which was constructed on the field at Mile High Stadium.
"Right now he's good enough, with some conditioning, to turn pro," Ali said after the fight.
Aside from his on-field and in-the-ring antics, he was also a very kind and generous person, and always made time for children in the community. The 1977 winner of the NFL Players Association's Alan Page Community Award, Alzado was constantly working to leave a positive impact on less-fortunate people and children.
"There were hours of unpublicized visits to local hospitals, schools, kids," Connor wrote in 1979. "I had one hospital official tell me once that they had invited a lot of athletes to come out over the years. 'Lyle's the only one that comes without being asked. He just shows up.'"
Of the numerous contributions, donations and visits in the Post's archives, several stand out. There was the 1975 fundraiser to help 52 children get the funding necessary to compete in the International Special Olympics, a visit to a children's hospital to help out at a Halloween party and the time he visited a class and offered to pay for two tickets to any Broncos game for students who raised their grades by two letters in at least three of their classes. If the whole group did it, he promised to charter a bus to Fort Collins for a day at Broncos training camp.
Connor documented one of Alzado's visits to a children's hospital in 1977.
He walks into a darkened room containing a youth in traction.
"Whatsa matter? You don't like smilin'?" The youngster grins. Alzado autographs a picture, chats for a moment, goes back into the corridor. "Good. I got him to laugh."
"Lyle lived in the fast lane," linebacker Randy Gradishar said in 1992 after Alzado's death. "He played football in the fast lane, he lived his personal life in the fast lane he did all his community and charity work in the fast lane. He was always a risk taker.
"He was a scrapper and a survivor kind of guy. That was certainly atypical from my upbringing. I don't know if Lyle ever turned down a chance to go somewhere to help people, whether it be a kid or a senior citizen. He had that side of him too."
Three Pro Bowl selections (1977-78, '80), two first-team All-Pro selections (1977, 1980), one second-team All-Pro selection (1978), 1975 defensive Earl Hartman Award Winner (Broncos' team MVP awards), 1977 AFC Defensive Player of the Year by the Kansas City 101 Club, 1977 NFLPA Alan Page Community Award winner, 1982 Pro Football Weekly Comeback Player of the Year
Stats to know
Broncos career stats (unofficial — based on press box stats or coaches' film review): 99 games, 98 starts, 593 tackles, 64.5 sacks, 12 fumble recoveries
A look back through Lyle Alzado's time with the Broncos in photos.