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Legend and Legacy: The first 'Orange Sunday'

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With the month of April comes the National Football League schedule, which is expected to be released in two or three weeks.

At that point, teams and fans begin to coordinate their work and social activities for the new season. Once you have the schedule, everything becomes "real" in anticipation of the coming season.

The Denver Broncos' outstanding marketing department will begin to work on its promotional programs for the year, and at some point the Broncos, like many teams, will likely choose a week or two in which the team's colors will fly higher than ever as "oOrange Sunday" or "Orange Monday," or a similar theme in many other cities.

Over the decades this has become one of the great ways that passionate fans around the country have celebrated their teams and put added focus on big games.

It is a great tradition, but like many traditions, at one point the concept of dressing in the colors and wearing team-oriented scarves, banners, etc., did not exist at all in the NFL.

The first time this concept appeared was in Denver. It was on October 17, 1971 and was born more out of despair than giddiness.

Lou Saban was in his fifth and what would turn out to be his final year as the Broncos' head coach. He had a 10-year contract but was in year five and had not experienced a winning season.

The losing was getting to him, and the fiery mentor had just about had enough.

The 1971 season had begun with a 10-10 tie with the Miami Dolphins at home, the infamous "Half a loaf" game, and fans were very bitter.

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Denver lost the next three contests—two at home—and fans were not only throwing half loaves of bread on the playing field at Mile High Stadium, but some had even found out where Saban lived and thrown bags of garbage on his front lawn, a classless move but symbolic of boiling frustrations.

The Broncos were 0-3-1 and everyone near the team and in the city felt the same depth of despair.

At that time, the Denver Broncos Quarterback Club, which is another entire topic for another time, was headed by an energetic local businessman named Charlie Goldberg.

Charlie was a great man, a local benefactor and get-it-done guy on so many levels, and one whom I would in coming years be very proud to call a dear friend.

Charlie could see what was happening, and he was determined to do something about it.

So with his intention being just to lift the spirits of the Broncos, their coach and the growing legions of fans, Charlie Goldberg basically created Orange Sunday, a concept that within a few seasons swept the nation, leading to team-based shirts, hats and a plethora of other promotional items, helping take pro football out of the Stone Age of marketing and promotions into a new world in which we all live today.

Goldberg approached the Broncos public relations department and asked if he could distribute a strip of orange cloth to every fan who attended that week's game against the San Diego Chargers, if he personally absorbed all the costs associated with the project.

The team said yes, and Charlie went about buying, at his own expense, all the orange cloth he could find in the city of Denver.

He had the cloth cut up into strips suitable for waving, and organized members of the Quarterback Club to distribute the orange strips to fans as they entered every gate.

At every juncture where money was needed or involved, Charlie picked up the tab.

Interestingly, this very significant game in Broncos history was one of the few which I missed entirely—no in-person attendance, no television, no radio.

I was in the Army. It was during the Vietnam War and I was stationed at the Fort Ord Army Hospital processing wounded soldiers returning from the conflict, and I only learned of the whole Orange Sunday situation later.

Charlie got the mayor to proclaim Orange Sunday, which became a mayoral tradition for many years to come, got the cloth passed out and the fans fired up. The stadium had been expanded to seat just over 51,000, and the official attendance on October 17 was 51,200, united in orange for the first time ever.

The lineups for that day show three future Ring of Famers starting on the Denver defense: Richard Jackson a defensive end, Paul Smith at defensive tackle and Billy Thompson at cornerback.

It is a peek back at another era, with John Hadl at quarterback for the Chargers, fabled USC tailback Mike Garrett at running back for San Diego, and former University of Colorado legend Bobby Anderson in the Broncos backfield along with future Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little.

The Broncos got a big win that day, 20-16 the final score, as Little and Anderson each scored on two-yard runs and future Ring of Famer Jim Turner added two field goals for the orange and blue.

But it would not be enough, as the season was another losing one in the books (4-9-1) and before it was over, Saban announced his resignation, with assistant coach Jerry Smith closing out the year as interim head coach.

The story of that game, however, which no one fully realized at the time, was the birth of Orange Sunday and concept days like it throughout the NFL.

It would be followed by the "Terrible Towels" in Pittsburgh, "Love Ya Blue" in Houston, and too many others to document.

But ours was the first.

In no time NFL marketing went from a neophyte speck on the NFL directory to a giant which generated every type of clothing and promotional items available, with other sports then copying the NFL model.

But there was only one place and one date when Orange Sunday began, and that was October 17, 1971 in Denver, led by a local businessman who was just trying to help the Broncos win and lift the spirits of an emotionally sagging fan base.

You did good, Charlie.

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