ATLANTA — Denver had to wait 41 years after the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrined its first class before the first Bronco was inducted.
John Elway, in 2004, became the first player to represent the organization — and Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe, Gary Zimmerman and Terrell Davis were each added over the next decade and a half. Those five comprise the franchise’s representation in the Hall of Fame.
But that could change on Saturday, as Owner Pat Bowlen, cornerback Champ Bailey, safety Steve Atwater and safety John Lynch could transition from Hall of Fame finalists to Pro Football Hall of Famers.
Little, who was one of dozens of Hall of Famers to attend the Merlin Olsen Super Bowl Luncheon on Friday, said he knows each one of the candidates is deserving of the honor.
“The first one I know that will go in will be Pat,” Little said. “When you’ve got a John Lynch and a Steve Atwater and Champ Bailey, you can’t go wrong with any of them. It’s just exciting we have this kind of representation, because early on we had none. They didn’t even consider us as a football team, and it was a hard-fought effort to get our first Hall of Famer, which was John. And certainly, he deserves to be in. But there are so many others guys that are deserving, and we have four representatives this week.”
Little said he knows all four men likely won’t be elected, but he said he believes Pat Bowlen will make the cut.
“We’ll start, I think, tomorrow when they vote, with Pat Bowlen,” he said.
Bowlen, who was represented Friday by his daughters Brittany Bowlen and Beth Bowlen Wallace, is one of the Contributor Committee’s two nominees for this year’s class. And both daughters said hearing people like Little speak on behalf of their father’s candidacy has meant a great deal.
“It’s really neat,” Brittany Bowlen said. “When I think about how my dad would have reacted to this, he would’ve said that this is about everyone. This is a reflection of the fans, it’s a reflection of the players. The employees of the Broncos, the media, they all lifted the Broncos up. This award should be shared with all of them.”
Added Bowlen Wallace, “Heartwarming, important, validating [are] the words I really can use. People have always said great things about my father. So, it’s not surprising, but certainly it’s very validating for what his career has been.”
In addition to Bowlen’s election, the Broncos could also see a defensive player head to Canton, which would be a first for the franchise.
“It is a little bit perplexing to notice how many great defenses the Broncos have had and we don’t have one defensive player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Atwater said. “There are so many guys who are deserving — Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg, my man Dennis Smith, the list goes on and on. We really haven’t gotten a ton of love. I’m hoping I can break that door down for that and hopefully get an opportunity to get in and start advocating for more of our guys.”
Atwater and Lynch could see their waits end Saturday, while Bailey could be elected as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But Bailey, who made the Pro Bowl 12 times as a player, said the gold jacket means the same whether you wait one year or many.
“When you look these guys in here with all these gold jackets, nobody really pays attention to if they were first-ballot or not,” Bailey said. “All of them are Hall of Famers. So it does mean something [to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer], and I can’t act like it doesn’t. But I think once you get that jacket, all that before is erased.”
As the finalists gathered at the luncheon, they were just a few hours away from potentially earning that gold jacket. And even as the nerve-wracking afternoon of waiting approached, the candidates seemed to appreciate the moment — regardless of the eventual result.
“People ask, ‘Is that gut-wrenching?’” Lynch said. “Yes, it is, and it’s probably more so each and every year. But it’s also an unbelievable honor. I pinch myself to be in the same group with guys like Champ and Atwater and Mr. B.
“I mean, how cool is that?”