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From the back of fire trucks, how the Broncos felt the love from one million fans

DENVER --Wade Phillips pointed out last week that 83 Hall of Famers did not win a Super Bowl. And that says nothing of all the great players who flourished, were celebrated and honored, but never held up a Lombardi Trophy.

That's why Truck 19 was the place to be -- because it was a reminder of the many players that did not win Super Bowls, but can -- and should -- share in this moment, too.

In the staging area near Coors Field late Tuesday morning I climbed up the ladder in the rear of the truck and found myself in the center of Broncos history.


Behind the current players and in front of the cheerleaders, Karl Mecklenburg commandeered a spot at the end of the ladder. Billy Thompson, Rick Upchurch, Randy Gradishar and Le-Lo Lang, perhaps the most active member of the Broncos' alumni group, were waiting.

Lang wanted to know where he could get my windbreaker -- the white media-night model worn by players and coaches last week. He wore a Super Bowl 50 sweatshirt, having attended the game.

Meanwhile, Mecklenburg took the pole position at the end of the ladder. As he was on the defenses of Joe Collier and Wade Phillips for 12 seasons, he was ever the boss, ready to roll.

"Randy! He's got your number!" called Upchurch, who as the former No. 80, has seen his number pass through luminaries like Mark Jackson, Rod Smith and Julius Thomas before landing on the back of Vernon Davis this season.

As the fire trucks awaited their turns to leave the staging area near Coors Field, Upchurch and Gradishar debated politics. Then all on the truck gazed to the rising condominiums on the north and west sides of Coors Field, marveling at how LoDo continues to change, evolving the entire city along with it.

But as Denver changes, the Broncos remain the city's beating heart. That was evident the moment the convoy began rolling down Wynkoop Street before bearing a hard left at 17th Street.

The Broncos are the city's heart, and its blood is colored orange -- the same orange that was so ubiquitous as the trucks lurched down Wynkoop Street, and then turned at 17th, pausing as they passed by a horde of fans crowded outside Union Station.

Lang whipped out his smartphone and shot video. Mecklenburg waved to fans near and far.


All were awestruck at the sight of an endless throng in orange. Fans hung from trees and on balconies. They dropped confetti from the highest windows of buildings along 17th Street.

And they remembered the Broncos who paved the way. The roars and squeals grew louder as the alumni drew near. For fans of multiple generations, these were their heroes.

The cheering wouldn't stop. The alumni waved and saluted. Upchurch raised the roof.

"We love you, Randy!"

"Meck, you're the man!"

"BT -- over here, BT!"

And on and on it went.

A football was tossed into the back of the truck; all players signed it and threw it back to the fan, giddy in a circa 2000 Rod Smith replica jersey.

Upchurch showed off his 1977 AFC Championship ring. His face beamed with pride. It wasn't a Super Bowl ring, but his voice quaked when he spoke of the symbol of their success.

That ring, of course, also symbolized how the Broncos rose from the nether regions of the Western Division standings in the AFL and AFC to perennial contenders. The 1977 team is particularly celebrated -- as it forever should be -- but generations of players that followed forged the path that the current team took to the promised land.

To the nation, it happened overnight. But locals, like so many who were among the estimated one million in attendance Tuesday, knew the truth that Thompson, Gradishar and Upchurch know, that 1977 was the product of years of struggle before finally breaking through -- just like the character of these Broncos was forged by four seasons of agonizing playoff defeats.

So Tuesday's parade was more than just a celebration of the 2015 Broncos. It was an emotional outpouring that belongs to all Broncos, past and present.

It was true love, expressed though cheers and tears and resplendent orange as far as the eye could see.

That's why this day is theirs, too. Three world championships, eight Super Bowl trips, 15 division titles and 22 playoff appearances in total have come in the last 39 seasons. It began and continued with them.

The current Broncos are their legacy. They share a team, the adulation of the same fans, and most importantly, 56 years of love that poured out along the streets of downtown at the biggest Mile High party possible.

Go along with the Broncos through downtown Denver to see the photos that captured the team's Super Bowl parade. (photos by Eric Bakke, unless otherwise noted)

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