When the Denver Broncos face the Kansas City Chiefs — as the two teams have done annually since they began playing in 1960 — it is a renewal of one of the great rivalries in pro football.
This rivalry has gone in somewhat different directions since the NFL merger with the American Football League, with joint play beginning in 1970. The Chiefs (formerly the Dallas Texans from 1960-62) won three league titles and Super Bowl IX and posted an AFL-high 87 wins from 1960-69. For most of that time, the Broncos languished. But from 1977 to the present, the Broncos have gone to the Super Bowl eight times while the Chiefs have made none.
The Broncos and Chiefs are also the only two NFL rivals that employ a live horse and rider at their home games — Thunder in Denver and Warpaint in Kansas City. While the Broncos at one time used a very cute miniature horse, the idea of Thunder was born with Owner Pat Bowlen and General Manager John Beake, who coincidentally had been on the Kansas City coaching staff in the 1970's.
The game is about the players, coaches and fans, but part of the pageantry that has developed in the game certainly has to do with the various mascots. Hands down (or, hooves down?), Colorado wins the battle for large mascot supremacy combining pro and college football, with our Thunder matching up with Ralphie the Buffalo at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In fact, Thunder and Ralphie can boast of the most combined wins of any pro team and university with large animal mascots in the same state, a combined 17 victories heading into Sunday.
It is worthy to note that Thunder and Warpaint are joined by nine live horse mascots on the university level.
My favorite is "Traveler" (with rider Tommy Trojan) at USC, but the others include "Seminole" (ridden by Chief Osceola) at Florida State; "Cowboy Joe" at Wyoming; "Keystone" at New Mexico State; "Bullet" at Oklahoma State; "Boomer" and "Sooner" who pull the wagon at Oklahoma; "Fearless Champion" at Texas Tech, where the rider dresses in all black; "Peruna VIII" at Southern Methodist; and "Racer One" at Murray State. We get to 10 if we generously count the sideline Army mule as a horse.
Many of the mascots get workouts after the home team scores a touchdown, and I remember one game in which the Broncos were beating the Raiders badly at halftime. Matt Millen was exhorting his Raider teammates when he added, "If we don't play any better than this in the second half, we're going to kill Thunder!"
We certainly want no harm ever to befall our favorite mascot, but everyone in Broncos Country hopes Thunder again gets a lengthy workout Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.