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Sacco Sez: How the Broncos' first free-agent signing led them to Gary Zimmerman


National Football League free agency is once again coming up very soon, the first major player acquisition period for all teams before the annual draft.

The unrestricted free agency period began in 1993 and has continued every year since, creating an opportunity to improve (or not) a roster very rapidly.

Along with the draft and trades — the latter of which happen infrequently in the NFL compared to other sports, but which can have enormous impact (see: John Elway to Denver from the Baltimore Colts) — these three player-acquisition routes represent the majority of how rosters are built.

Back in 1993 the Broncos had five free agency signings, and two in particular had a major impact on Denver winning its first Super Bowl, but not in the manner intended.

The Broncos signed running backs Rod Bernstine from San Diego and Robert Delpino from the Los Angeles Rams, guard Brian Habib from Minnesota, tackle Don Maggs from Houston and linebacker Dave Wyman from Seattle.

Players come and players go, but only one team wins the Super Bowl each year.

Of those five free agent signings, Habib was an outstanding guard and was part of the team that won Super Bowl XXXII to cap off the 1997 season.

But the first unrestricted free agent signing in Denver Broncos history was Don Maggs, who had been the left tackle in the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot offense protecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon.

The Broncos were very excited to acquire Maggs and made him their first signee ever, but it did not work out, and therein is how he helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl.

Maggs injured himself in the offseason and never panned out, playing sporadically in just half a season for the Broncos.

But to their enormous and everlasting credit, the Broncos' braintrust was determined to get a top flight left tackle to protect John Elway's blindside, and they determined very early in that 1993 offseason that Maggs was not going to be the answer.

Instead of sitting around, hoping for the best and a medical miracle, they continued to scour the rosters of the other 31 teams, and one player stuck out like a sore thumb.

That player was left tackle Gary Zimmerman of the Minnesota Vikings, who was seemingly determined to sit out rather than play in his contractual situation for the Vikings. The Minnesota folks were just as stubborn, creating a complete impasse.

Zimmerman had already been named to the NFL's All-Decade team for the 1980s, a feat he would once again accomplish, this time for the Broncos, in the 1990s.

He was and is one of the greatest left tackles to ever play pro football, as is indicated by his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And so it happened that after several August days of negotiations in 1993 between the Vikings and the Broncos, Denver obtained Zimmerman by trading their first-round and sixth-round selections in 1994, and a second-round pick in 1995.

I remember telling several media people who were talking about that day's cuts as the big news of the day to hang on, because that news was about to be trumped.

When head coach Wade Phillips met the press, he answered the question as to how good Zimmerman was by saying, "Next to John Elway, he will always be the best player on the field."

I remember the first time I had to get Zimmerman for the media after the trade, and the ever-taciturn Zimmerman gritted out the words, "Let's get this media stuff over with."

He did, and that was that. Zimmerman had little to say after that, save for the NFL-mandated press conferences at the Super Bowl in San Diego.

But he was magnificent on the playing field, an absolutely pivotal factor on offense along with fellow future Hall of Famers Elway, tight end Shannon Sharpe, and running back Terrell Davis.

Four Hall of Famers, all on offense. That was a great team, and Zimmerman was a huge part of it.

But way back when free agency began, we signed Don Maggs as our first free agent. Maggs got hurt and did not work out, and the team went after Zimmerman.

The best player, as that's what champions do.

The end result came five years later, but championship teams are not built in a day.

There were many other great contributors to that Super Bowl XXXII championship team, but I will always remember the piece that was added due to an injury in the Denver Broncos' first free agency experience.

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