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Sacco Sez: Remembering one-hit wonder John McCormick

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The Denver Broncos kick off their 2018 preseason slate against the Minnesota Vikings next week, and as one looks for and at various angles and connections, the writer's mind takes him some wild places.

At least, mine does.

But playing the Vikings triggered my memory regarding a quarterback who played in both Minnesota and Denver and what what I would call a "one-hit wonder."

There was once a quarterback who backed up Fran Tarkenton for one season and then played the balance of his career with the Broncos.

And that is the Broncos-Vikings connection that jump-started my thoughts about the player himself.

If the phrase "one-hit wonder" sounds deprecating, let me balance it by saying he was actually my favorite Broncos quarterback of the 1960s, so I remember him quite fondly.

The player is John McCormick, a quarterback who played his college football at the University of Massachusetts and then had one year with the Vikings before drifting on to Denver.

McCormick had one game with the Broncos that was most unusual in Denver history in that on Oct. 6, 1963, he engineered a 50-34 victory over the San Diego Chargers in old Bears Stadium.

What made that game truly unique is that it was the only time Denver ever scored 50 points in a game until the recently concluded Peyton Manning era, when the accomplishment became almost routine.

Denver only beat the Chargers seven times between 1960-72, despite playing the West Coast rivals twice a year, and the Broncos were really crummy.

In fact, when the teams met the second time in 1963, San Diego scored 50 on the Broncos, a far more common feat for the Chargers than the Broncos.

The 1963 Chargers were a genuinely great team, going on to win the American Football League championship that year and were recognized by many as perhaps better than any team in the National Football League that season.

But on one lovely fall day in Colorado they were hit by a whirlwind.

It was a pretty even game until the start of the fourth quarter, when Denver scored 21 unanswered points to pull away to the 50-34 final.

McCormick had an 18-for-36 passing day for 265 yards, back in an era when teams relied on the run a great deal, and the Denver offense was paced by his three touchdown passes.

McCormick connected on scoring strikes of 12 yards to tight end Gene Prebola and on TD passes of 24 and 49 yards to future Ring of Famer Lionel Taylor.

In that one game back in 1963, the Broncos had five field goals by future Ring of Famer kicker Gene Mingo, so one could certainly make the case that Mingo's performance was the most notable, but McCormick was the quarterback and it remains the only 50-point game by the Broncos from their inception until Peyton Manning produced consecutive 50-point games in 2013, five full decades after McCormick's feat.

The Denver cause was aided a great deal by seven Charger turnovers, but nevertheless McCormick had a huge role in an accomplishment that would stand for 50 years in Broncos history.

In checking out some facts, I found it fascinating that in all of Denver Broncos history, only six quarterbacks have played five seasons for the team.

John Elway of course leads the pack with 16 seasons, followed by Gary Kubiak with nine. Craig Morton and the late Steve Ramsey each played six years in Denver, and then there is a tie between Brian Griese, whom everyone remembers — and John McCormick, who is remembered by almost no Broncos fans.

McCormick came to the hideous Broncos franchise as a free agent and played five years here, from 1963-66 and then for part of the 1968 season as well.

Lou Saban took over as head coach in 1967 and was the first individual to truly bring respectability to the Broncos. He was a very tough guy, and the fact that he would bring McCormick back to Denver after a year off says volumes about how Saban regarded the grizzled veteran quarterback, and to me that always gave a certain nobility to McCormick.

My good friend and mentor Al King had the longest tenure as public relations man for the Broncos the decade of the 1960s, and Al still recalls much of McCormick.

"He was a really good guy," Al recalled. "He was one of the nicest guys, just outstanding."

He continued, "I could not say enough about John. And he could throw the hell out of the ball. I think no other Bronco quarterback ever, except for John Elway himself, could pick up a ball and throw it as far as John McCormick. In fact, that would be something to watch. He could throw it 100 yards, and I mean 100 yards."

Just think — we are reading and writing about a guy who by the fact of when he played has just his former press agent giving recollections.

Compare that to any more recent player, of whom dozens if not hundreds of colleagues would claim an association.

King also remembered, "McCormick had enormous hands, which no doubt helped him throw it so far. In fact, one time I had our team photographer, Dick Burnell, take a picture of my hand next to John's hand, and the photo made my hand look like a little kid's by comparison. The Denver Post ran the picture at the time, I recall."

McCormick was a tough Irish kid with a Boston background who wore his hair in a crew cut and was tough as nails on the field.

He had to be. In that era of Broncos history, he and Mickey Slaughter alternated at quarterback for Denver teams that were all bad, and they had offensive line pass protection that was really in name only.

Slaughter also is little remembered as the Broncos quarterback, but he later became the quarterback coach at his alma mater, Louisiana Tech, where he tutored future Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

McCormick was constantly battered but never complained publicly.

He his wife, Gail, stayed and made their home in Denver, with John becoming a vice president for the Adolph Coors company following his playing career.

John McCormick passed away on Nov. 12, 2013, after living a quiet life away from the football spotlight after his five seasons at the most significant position for the most significant franchise in the Rocky Mountain West.

I met him and his lovely wife at an early alumni reunion function, and I remember him for all the perceived qualities of decades earlier.

He just had the one marvelous day for teams that mostly struggled, but John McCormick had a great day in the sun for the Denver Broncos in 1963.

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