Last week, as we celebrate Black History Month, I wrote about how Gene Mingo started his historic football career as pro football’s first Black placekicker. This week, we are going to take a look at Mingo's life after football, after the cheering stopped.
For most players, the highlight of their accomplishment comes on the playing field. Then they retire to explore myriad interests and career paths.
But few can say they actually accomplished more for society after their playing days were over.
Gene Mingo can.
Gene worked for many post-football years, and he tried many times to be retired, but it was not easy. He has the kind of experience that is only garnered by being there, and his drug-counseling skills were in high demand for decades.
Mingo remained active for many years — decades, in fact — as an alcohol and drug counselor in the Denver area, specializing in intervention work.
"They call me and I talk to the family members, get them together to work out a plan, to confront this person in what is called an intervention," Mingo told me years ago. "These are the things that inspire me today and keep me going. Doing intervention work is not pleasant, it's very draining not only on me, but the family that is performing it. That's what I do."
He noted that a lot of people struggle to seek help and share when they have a problem. Mingo, even as a stranger, was someone who hoped to help to turn their lives around.
Mingo also has long been active in the Denver Broncos Alumni Association.
"I have traveled a long route," Mingo told me. "I understand what players go through and know how sometimes there are people out there who are trying to influence players in a great number of ways, not all of them positive. I've got the experience to help them understand what happens after football, and I would always be open to talking about these situations, if it were ever necessary."
Once upon a time, some 30 years after his retirement, Mingo was among a small alumni group watching practice. After practice, an assistant coach was chatting with me, and he asked who was in the group.
"Alumni council," I replied. "You probably do not know them. They played years ago."
He was curious though, and asked me for their names.
When I said Gene's name, he said, "I know Gene Mingo. He saved the life of a relative."
The coach (and the story is personal, which is why I am not using his name) went on to say that his relative had drug problems and was going down a bad path until Gene stepped in.
Just think: This major event of assisting an individual — and in the words of the coach, "saved the life" — was done by Mingo three decades after he stopped playing.
I have heard many stories firsthand of Mingo being at a stoplight as a biker pulled up next to him and said, "Gene! Remember me? You saved my life when I was in a bad way with drugs."
Mingo realizes that there are a number of support systems in place for everyone, including the modern player, but just as he was called upon to return punts at halftime of that first game, he remained — and remains today — ready to step into any situation for his old team.
He is believed to be the only player in pro football history to score on plays of more than 50 yards by rushing, receiving, passing, punt return and field goal. In fact, he threw not one but two halfback passes of more than 50 yards in a 1961 game at Buffalo, and of course his 76-yard punt return at Boston was the first punt-return touchdown in Broncos and AFL history. That is going to be a tough record to match, most likely impossible given that there are few players whose skills are so diversified today.
A remarkable career, but his years as an alcohol and drug counselor from 1970 until now (are you ever really retired from helping people?) make him even more unique.
Gene was inducted into the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 2014 for his great career on the field and as a pioneer for the Broncos and in the AFL.
"I have had a lot of good things happen in my life, and I'll always be a Bronco," Mingo told me. "This is one of the greatest moments of my life. I was deeply honored to join the Ring of Fame. It was a very fulfilling moment for me and my entire family."