ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Generations of Broncos players have sought him out for medical treatment and advice, and for much of his years with the team, Director of Sports Medicine Steve Antonopulos was perhaps the most reliable and most trusted person at Broncos headquarters.
That incredible run was unparalleled in Denver, as the man more commonly known as "Greek" became the only person on staff for each of the Broncos' eight Super Bowl appearances, including three title victories.
But after 45 memorable years with the Broncos — four as an assistant trainer, one as the director of rehabilitation, 36 as the head athletic trainer and four as the director of sports medicine — Antonopulos is retiring.
After building the kind of bonds that comes with nearly half a century with a single organization, Antonopulos represents a lot of things to a lot of people.
To players of all statures, he's a dear friend — someone who was, above all, committed to their physical and mental well-being at times of uncertainty during their careers. To those who worked for or with him, he was a cherished mentor, a prolific and pioneering figure in profession that he helped develop.
And to most people who were lucky enough to spend considerable amounts of time around him, he simply represented the Broncos organization at its best.
"Steve Antonopulos is what the Denver Broncos are all about," John Elway says. "In 45 years and the amount of players that he's helped and cured and got healthy and counseled — including me in all those instances — for 45 years, he has been the Broncos. We were very, very lucky as the Broncos to be able to have a guy like Steve Antonopulos. He cared about the Broncos and it was such a priority for him. The only guy to be involved in all eight of the Super Bowls.
"He's a guy that has been a mainstay for the Broncos and not only a great trainer when I played, but it was great working with him when I was the GM and is also a great friend. We are all blessed in Broncos Country to be able to say Steve Antonopulos was our trainer for 45 years."
That honor was something that Antonopulos cherished, and leaving it behind can come as no easy thing.
"I love the Denver Broncos," Antonopulos says. "I have put my heart and soul into this, and the Denver Broncos are first-class. They've had great leadership. They do everything the right way. It's a people business, and they care about people. … It's a relationship business, and the relationships that I've developed over the years have been phenomenal.
"... You learn to love people. You love the players. It's a bittersweet thing. You work hard to have the opportunity to retire, but to walk away from something you love, that's why I've been here so long. … To have the opportunity to stay in this position all these years, it's because you love doing what you do. And I loved doing what I'm doing."
What allowed Antonopulos to hold his position for that long was his unique combination of traits — a dedication to the organization and its players' health and wellness; his ability to build trust through communication and his warm personality; and a passion for serving his vocation as a loyal mentor and a devoted professional.
For those working alongside him, Antonopulos' unique dedication became apparent soon after they started working for him.
Whether at UCHealth Training Center or the team's previous headquarters at 5700 Logan Street, no one beat Antonopulos and his truck into the parking lot. This ritual became a legend in its own right; over the years, many of his disciples would unsuccessfully try to best him.
"You know what, we never know when Greek gets to the facility," former Broncos assistant trainer Corey Oshikoya says. "He's kind of like the lightbulb in the refrigerator: It's always on. So whenever you pull into the parking lot, his truck was there. You eventually get to the point where you realize you're not going to beat him, so then you just stop trying to beat him and just try to be the next person or the next of the next three people, just because you're not going to beat him. You're not going to beat him to the facility, you're not going to beat him to the stadium, none of that is going to happen."
In those early hours, he would mostly prepare for the day ahead of him, perhaps sometimes get a workout in or do some reading. More than anything, though, it was a testament to his devotion and loyalty.
"I think that was just a part of understanding that his commitment to making sure that the Denver Broncos got the best medical care possible and that being prepared each and every day that the players came into the athletic training room," says James Collins, Chargers director of football/medical services and another former Broncos assistant trainer, "[meant] being prepared to take care of them at a level that he set the standard for."
That dedication surely came across in Antonopulos' work with players, but he also had a tremendous way of working with them in a way that built trust and respect. In Keith Bishop's 10 years with the Broncos as an offensive lineman, he never let anyone else tape his ankles. Elway, who worked through several injuries in his 16-year career under Antonopulos' guidance, was so close with him that Elway admits he "kept pulling him back" from any thoughts of retiring after the former quarterback returned to the Broncos as a personnel executive in 2010.
"I trusted Steve Antonopulos and I think all our players trusted Steve Antonopulos, and all my teammates," Elway says. "And that's the thing. That's one of the great qualities of a great trainer is the trust that he created and also was great at what he did. What he gave us got us healthy and got us back on the football field, which was the most important thing. I'm blessed to be able to call him a friend because of the type of person he is and the type of work ethic that he has and how important the Denver Broncos were to him."
As an athletic trainer, Antonopulos and others in his position are more than just staffers that help diagnose and treat injuries. They also play a significant role as a confidant and friend who sees someone at their most vulnerable and works to help them through difficult times.
"He is the epitome of good people, and like I said, he knew how to bring out the most in people," says Jim Keller, who was an assistant trainer for Antonopulos for a decade. "Obviously an injury is a trying time for a professional athlete. They're scared, they don't know their future, and his demeanor, his foresight, his ability to work with the player mentally and physically. So I've talked to many of the Hall of Famers and many of the old players, and they just can't say enough good things about how they knew that Greek had their back and Greek was looking out for their best interest."
Counting Elway, Antonopulos has worked with more than 10 Hall of Famers in his time with the Broncos — a list that includes recent inductees Peyton Manning and John Lynch, as well as Steve Atwater, Gary Zimmerman, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, Ty Law and Tony Dorsett.
The list of Ring of Famers is even more extensive. Of the 29 players enshrined, only six finished their careers before Antonopulos arrived in Denver ahead of the 1976 season.
Since the former Fort Hays head athletic trainer launched his NFL career, a lot has changed in the sport and in the world of athletic training, but Antonopulos' career had such remarkable longevity because he constantly worked to keep up with updating practices and help shape the evolving field.
"For Greek, it never has felt like it's about him," says Trae Tashiro, a former Broncos assistant trainer from 2007-10. "It's about the greater good. It's about the team, it's about the organization, it's about the profession. And so there was always this strive for, 'How can I make myself better? How can I make the team better?' If I can do that, it makes the organization better. And the same thing goes for the profession of athletic training. I'm going improve myself. I'm going to represent the profession of athletic training in the best light I can, so that all these people behind me will benefit from this."
Antonopulos will assuredly continue to shape the future of the profession, even after his retirement, too. Just like Mike Shanahan's coaching tree has shaped offenses in today's game, Antonopulos' training tree has reached far and wide in the league and beyond.
"There's not a level that does not benefit from Steve Antonopulos, whether that's high school, college, university, professional, Olympic — all athletic trainers," Keller says. "And then, too, I've got to know many doctors, many, many strong, good orthopedic surgeons, and they give Greek credit for teaching them how to work with athletes, for teaching them how to handle adversity and handle injury. There's a lot of people in the medical profession that are better because of Steve Antonopulos and everything he did with the Broncos."
All put together, Antonopulos has left his mark on more than just the NFL franchise he served for 45 years. At his position, he may be the best to ever do it.
"To me, he's the GOAT," says Brad Brown, who was an Antonopulos protege beginning in 1973 and later served as a Broncos assistant trainer before becoming head athletic trainer for the Oilers and Titans. "… As we all know, the NFL stands for 'Not For Long,' and to be able to stay in the position and do what he's done for all these years is just a testimony to what he's been able to do and who he is, the way he approached his job. …
"Allen Hurst, who hired Steve as an assistant athletic trainer out of Fort Hays, who nobody knew, was probably the best hire the Denver Broncos ever made in the last 47 years or whatever it was. I think the most of him."
It's safe to say that sentiment is widespread in the offices of UCHealth Training Center, where Antonopulos was one of the most-respected and most-cherished figures. When he was announced to be late owner Pat Bowlen's presenter for his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it came as little surprise.
"I think Greek defines what it is to be a Bronco," says longtime Broncos Equipment Manager Chris Valenti. "I think that's what everybody looks at: just hard-working, nose down, do the right things, always do what's best for the team. It's traits you wish you could instill in everybody when they get hired here as part of the HR onboarding process. Be like Greek. Be a Bronco."
Even though the fridge light may no longer be on at UCHealth Training Center, Steve Antonopulos' legacy will be bright enough to make people think it never went out.
Flip back through Broncos history with photos from Steve "Greek" Antonopulos' career as a key part of the team's training and medical staff.