When the Broncos face the Chiefs in their season finale on Saturday, Denver fans will be treated to a broadcast team that is synonymous with the college game. Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN's top announcer pairing, will be in the booth at Empower Field at Mile High as they call just their second NFL game.
Fowler, who hosted "College GameDay" before he became the play-by-play announcer for ABC's "Saturday Night Football" in 2014, is no stranger to the Broncos. He moved to the Centennial State as the Broncos made their run to their first Super Bowl appearance, attended the University of Colorado and remained a fan of the team in the years since.
On Saturday, Fowler will put aside his rooting interest for several hours as he calls the game between the Broncos and their division rival, but DenverBroncos.com caught up with Fowler about what the moment will be like for him, his memories as a fan and which players he's excited to see from the booth.
Aric DiLalla: What will it be like for you to call a Broncos game, and how would you describe your interest — and your fandom, generally — in the Broncos?
Chris Fowler: "Well, I moved to Colorado in 1977. My family was from Colorado, both of my parents were from the state. I moved there before high school, and the Broncos obviously had gone a long time without success until the magical year of '77. I wasn't a fan at first. These people are crazy. I just didn't get swept up in it initially because I wasn't a Bronco fan before, but you couldn't help it. The team was fun to watch, it was full of characters. You had Lyle Alzado running around. You had just a whole bunch of interesting personalities, and the energy around the state was just phenomenal. And so obviously they go to the Super Bowl — the whole Orange Crush era — and I hated the Cowboys, so I was a huge Bronco fan from that time on. It was really neat, the first football season that we moved back to Colorado was their Super Bowl run.
"It's been difficult when you work on Saturdays, [but] I watch Sundays as much as I can. There's been years when the Broncos have been on TV a lot nationally, there's years when they're not. I try to keep up with them as best I can. Obviously they are my NFL team."
AD: Will that be a cool moment for you on Saturday [to be in the booth]?
CF: "Yeah, ... calling any NFL game would be, to be honest with you. We just don't do it much, so it's a very cool change of pace. But yeah, to be in that stadium, I'll be very fired up. I wish they were still in the playoff hunt. That would be even better if there were more at stake, but it's going to feel cool to be there. A lot of my friends will watch the game. I don't know if they were going to watch before, but they said they're going to watch now, which will be nice because they haven't really heard me do an NFL game before. It'll be neat. I saw the Monday night game between these two teams a few years ago when [Patrick] Mahomes went crazy and was doing all this improvisational magical stuff, so [I] left that night disappointed. When you call the game, you can't allow yourself to be emotionally wrapped up in it, so we hope for the same thing we hope [for] in every college game we call, which is just a close, competitive game that comes down to the fourth quarter."
AD: What is the challenge for you and Kirk and Laura [Rutledge] getting ready for an NFL game when you guys are so used to the college game and are obviously engrained in that?
CF: "Well, it's a challenge because we have the championship game on Monday, so we're doing dual prep for Georgia and Alabama. [They're] two teams that we know well, but still, you want to leave no stone unturned in the championship game. And we come off a really crazy week — we did the Orange Bowl one night, flew overnight to Pasadena and did the Rose Bowl the next afternoon, which was something we were incredibly grateful to do. It was a blast. So we come off that to this other sort of double-header.
"I love a challenge — it's why I'm in this business. I think the preparation is really the challenge. When you're in the booth, hopefully you arrive there prepared and confident — and usually that's just pure fun. I think that will be the case on Saturday afternoon, as well. Getting ready, you feel an obligation. When it's a team that you've followed for a long time and you know a lot of Broncos fans, there's a little more intensity. I have a lot of people to reach out to and people who are fans and media to get their opinions. I want to do a great job every time, but I definitely want to be as up to speed as I can even though the preparation's far from ideal. We're not going to be as dialed in as people who follow the league every week. But everybody knows that. We'll bring kind of a fresh eye to it. We'll be very enthused to be there, I know that."
AD: You mentioned the '77 season before, and you were at CU when the Broncos got [John] Elway and started to get rolling a little bit. What do you remember about that time?
CF: "Just euphoric around the draft, and it worked out that he was going to land in Denver. It was just a little bit before I had really followed John at Stanford, but everybody was aware. And obviously [then] they built up the momentum. … [Almost] every time the Broncos have been to the Super Bowl, I go to that. I've been back for some games, some playoff games. It's been obviously hard with the college responsibilities for the last 28 years or so to get to too many games, but like I said, whenever I get an opportunity, I'll go. I saw Elway and the Broncos play at Lambeau Field, which was a real life moment for me. I was very emotionally invested."
AD: From your experience covering college, I assume you've gotten to see some of the younger guys that are now on the Broncos. Do any of these guys on the current team stand out to you that you enjoyed watching at the collegiate level that you're excited to see on Saturday?
CF: "The first guy that leaps to mind is Melvin Gordon [III], really enjoyed covering him at Wisconsin. Javonte Williams, he's so fresh to the league, we called a couple of huge games for him at Carolina. He just ran over Miami. Melvin obviously goes back — when he's on the awards circuit, you kind of get to know these guys with the Doak Walker [Award], with the Heisman [Trophy] and so on. Didn't cover Drew Lock a whole lot or [Teddy] Bridgewater too much in college, but Noah Fant's a guy that I knew. Jerry Jeudy, obviously. Anybody that comes out of the program at Alabama, you come into it very familiar with. Seth Williams caught a game-winning touchdown pass for Auburn against Oregon in a game that Kirk and I called, a season-opening game. … I'm sure that story will work its way into the broadcast at some point. Guys like Baron Browning — Bradley Chubb is a guy I knew from covering him at NC State — Jonathon Cooper. Anybody that comes from the programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, the major SEC programs, I'll be more familiar with.
"But it's fun to also dive into guys and the preparation I enjoy is, 'We never saw him in college. We never got to see this guy play. Let's dial it in now.' That's a fun part of it. It's neat to look at these guys who made journeys into the NFL who didn't come through a true power program where 'College GameDay' was hanging out. Talent rises, and they made the most of their opportunity. That's one of the things I love about the league. You look around at the rosters and see, 'Where'd these guys come from? How'd they get so good? How come we didn't do them on Saturdays?' And then you kind of dive into their stories and figure it out."
AD: It's been a tough year in Denver, and who knows what the coming days and weeks will bring, but is there anything that gives you optimism — the Broncos fan in you — about what the future might bring for the organization?
CF: "I think the draft picks they've got, the cap room — those are the business reasons. There's such a loyal, passionate fan base, that they need to be rewarded. I am optimistic going forward. You've seen tremendous turnarounds in the NFL. It's so common to go from near the bottom of the division to winning the division. It's almost [like] you don't even bat an eye anymore. You think, 'Why not Denver?' It's a tough division. You've got to do much better within the division, that goes without saying. But with a lot of adversity, they were right there in the mix this season for the stretch run. Whether it's a famous new signee at the quarterback position or something else, I think with some smart choices, there's reason to be optimistic because it's a league that's kind of built for quick turnarounds. Why not the Broncos? I'd be very excited to see that."