DENVER —**Rick Upchurch and his Broncos teammates weren't happy with what national commentators said about Denver when he was a player. They called it a "cow town." And Upchurch didn't take too kindly to Monday Night Football or Howard Cosell saying those words.
"We knew the type of fan base that we had and so what we did at that particular time was reach out to our fan base," he said.
What that meant was a grassroots style campaign crossing America's western states from Arizona to Wyoming to introduce themselves to strangers.
"We would go out, sit in their home, eat dinner with them, play with their children, sit in their RV's after the game, have a cocktail with them. We were really personal back in the '70s and '80s."
"Now look at what we have: a big fan base all over the country. We built that fan base right here in the Rocky Mountains and we're proud of it," Upchurch said. "I am so proud that we helped build that fan base that we have today because we realized that here in Denver that our gans were the number one objective of playing the game and making them proud of who we were."
With over 30 years separating the present from the last time former Bronco Rick Upchurch, it's easy to see the distinct changes the NFL has undergone since those days of knocking on doors.
With their inductions into the Broncos Ring of Fame, Upchurch, Gene Mingo and Dan Reeves spent their time Friday talking with fans on a conference call reflecting on their past that made them such memorable parts of team history worthy of recognition.
Mingo, whose football career is 40 years behind him, was surprised at all the memories people brought up that he had forgotten, like the time quarterback Frank Tripucka threw an interception but Mingo laid a hit so hard on the defender that he fumbled and Mingo recovered.
Though most of the time Mingo played as the place-kicker or kick returner, he was an extremely versatile talent also capable of running the ball as a halfback. However, sometimes he had to fill in at unusual spots, like the time he played on the offensive line.
"The guard got hurt and I had to rush out there. Otherwise we were going to get a penalty," Mingo recalled. He rushed out during the play call to the confusion of Tripucka and to the derision of the opposing defensive line.
On the other side of Mingo was Chargers defensive tackle Ernie Ladd, a 300-pound lineman nicknamed "The Big Cat" who moonlighted as a professional wrestler. Ladd was cracking up at the sight of the 205-pound Mingo coming to face him.
"What could I do at 205 against these 300-pounders?" Mingo recalled wondering. "So I did like you catch a baby. I just jumped in his arms and he laughed. He had to catch me."
The special anecdotes stand out, but the big moments are always there in his memory, too. Mingo of course remembers the first game, in which he scored the AFL's first punt return for a touchdown, but he also remembers the one when he broke Lou Groza's record for field goals made in a season.
Upchurch also had his memories, but chose to reflect more on the emotions the game has left with him.
"The number one thing was my teammates," Upchurch said on his favorite part of playing football. "The camaraderie that you build and the family atmosphere that you build with your teammates and then you go on to do positive things, it's something that you really can't explain. It sits in your heart for all your life, you reflect back on those things, you get on the phone and call your teammates and tell them a bunch of lies and little bit of the truth and the stories get bigger than what they really were. And with your teammates you can always come back to the alumni weekends, you can always call them on the phone if something's going wrong. My excitement, my greatest time, was being with my teammates."
He also briefly discussed the challenges of a punt returner in the decades past, about how punting was an exquisite art. "Those punters could do some magnificent things like a golf ball with a golf club, like a nine iron or pitching wedge," he said.
He wrapped up his segment on the call with fans by telling them abotu his mindset when he was a player. "The first thing is being true to yourself and being true to the game. You have to put in the work," Upchurch said. "Let me tell you, I didn't want anybody to outwork me and I don't think anybody did. If I knew somebody was working harder than me, that meant they had the advantage."
"I was always told by my high school coach if you make a commitment to the game, it'll make a commitment to you," Upchurch said in closing.
Former Broncos Head Coach Dan Reeves can certainly attest to that.
Reeves was asked about his transition from player to head coach, going from playing under Tom Landry to coaching on his staff before coming to Denver. He had never considered coaching in his career path, but when Reeves' playing career was coming to a close, Landry asked if he wanted to make that jump as a player-coach, so he did.
In his first two years the team went to the Super Bowl, winning the latter against the Miami Dolphins. Reeves had given himself to the game from an early age, and it would repay him with a long career.
"It kind of got in my blood," Reeves said of coaching football. "And they don't have a transfusion to get it out."
The Broncos would be his first head coaching opportunity, and that first game might have been his favorite memory. The Broncos took down the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders at home by a score of 9-7. Of course, the most famous win of his career forever marked by "The Drive" will hold a special spot in his heart. "A tremendous accomplishment that still brings chills to me when I watch it," as Reeves described it.
These days Reeves says he's doing speaking engagements and catching up on his "honey-do's" for Pam, his wife of 50 years, following his 39 years in football.
All these years later, Reeves said he won't forget his time in Denver. "Your first in anything is special and to be my first head coaching job here in Denver was tremendously special. I'll never forget those 12 years."