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'It's one heck of an honor': Randy Gradishar proud to represent 'Orange Crush' defense as Pro Football Hall of Fame Senior finalist

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For Randy Gradishar, being named a Senior finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a tremendous individual accomplishment.

The penultimate step toward being into the Pro Football Hall of Fame offered recognition of a career that featured 1978 Defensive Player of the Year honors and seven Pro Bowl selections.

"As you know, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a great, great honor," Gradishar said Wednesday. "… It is a very prestigious award, and I am very excited about that and for the committee to actually choose me as a senior finalist. It has been a real blessing. I cannot remember the last time I was this happy — yesterday and today — after getting this kind of news and being part of the NFL for a long, long time."

And yet while the significant jump toward being enshrined in Canton honored Gradishar's individual accomplishments, it was also the long-awaited recognition of Denver's famed "Orange Crush" defense.

For more than 40 years, the Broncos have been without a single Hall of Famer from the dominant defense of the 1970s — and not one of the other 73 teams to participate in the first 37 Super Bowls are without at least one gold jacket.

Therefore, should Gradishar soon be officially elected to the Hall of Fame, he will carry more than just his own career through the doors of Canton. He'll also represent his former teammates and coaches in pro football's most exclusive fraternity.

"I don't know that there are words to describe it, but it's one heck of an honor to be able to represent the other guys on the 'Orange Crush' defense, the Broncos organization, our offense, and the whole team and whole club," Gradishar said. "Being one of the guys to play on that 'Orange Crush' defense was amazing because [former Broncos Defensive Coordinator] Joe Collier put it together. We were one heck of a defense at that point. We were almost scoring more points than the offense was back then. … That was our goal.

"Even when we were in the Super Bowl down in New Orleans, it was 20-10 going into the fourth quarter. Our defense tried to rally because that's what we did all year long, and for the years to come. We always had some kind of rally. … They scored a touchdown, and it ended up being 27-10. It was a phenomenal opportunity to be part of that first group to win a lot of games, go to a Super Bowl, and bring that recognition to the state of Colorado."

Ring of Famers Tom Jackson, Billy Thompson, Paul Smith and Louis Wright joined a slew of other talented players — including Rubin Carter, Barney Chavous, Bob Swenson and Steve Foley — on a defense that gave up the third-fewest points in the league and ranked first against the run in 1977. The Broncos earned a 12-2 regular-season record that season and made both the franchise's first playoff and first Super Bowl appearance.

"As an individual ball player being part of a team, I'm glad to finally represent the 'Orange Crush' defense," Gradishar said. "The 'Orange Crush' defense went from 1977 until I retired in 1983. There were still a couple 'Orange Crush' guys left. That went on for seven or eight years, and we were very, very good."

Of that, there was little doubt. And yet, the "Orange Crush" defense went decades without representation in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With any luck, that will soon change — and Gradishar will carry his teammates and coaches into pro football immortality.

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