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Sacco Sez: Roster-building a much-changed process since pro football's early days

Talks of and reaction to COVID-19 (also known as the novel coronavirus) is sweeping the world of sports, including the National Football League.

But regardless of what transpires with the start of the NFL league year, offseason programs or none, workplace adjustments or not, sooner or later we will once again be in the process of constructing new rosters for the 2020 season.

This is a constant within the game, and it never changes regardless of how a team finishes.

So my next couple of columns, including this one, will have some hopefully informational and likely anecdotal tales about rosters in pro football — with a Broncos tinge, of course.

The Denver Broncos began play in 1960 as part of the American Football League, which competed with the National Football League from 1960-69. The AFL was one of the two greatest league challenges the NFL has ever had, but the first is far less known.

That was the All-America Football Conference. I realize that the word "Conference" makes it seem like some sort of college league, but it was a pro league in every way.

The AAFC played from 1946-49, and when the league ceased business, several franchises — the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts — were absorbed into the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns franchise was so successful that Dan Reeves (the owner of the Cleveland Rams, not the Broncos' Ring of Fame head coach), wary of competition with the Browns for local support in Cleveland, moved the Rams to Los Angeles, a seminal moment in American sports history.

In fact, the Rams became the first, and still the only, franchise to change cities immediately after having won the world championship in its previous city.

In their last year in Cleveland, the leading rusher on that championship Rams team was the fabled Fred Gehrke, who later created the helmet logo in Los Angeles and became general manager of the Broncos after a long career in player personal for Denver.

In 1949, the final year of the AAFC, the league played its season with a one-division, seven-team format. On Dec. 9 of that year, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell announced a merger agreement in which the three aforementioned AAFC franchises would join the NFL in 1950.

So both the AAFC and AFL ended their lifespans with mergers with the established NFL.

But back to rosters.

Teams then and now get players from the college draft, as free agents from other pro teams, as free agents who have never had a chance (street free agents), some of them highly scouted and some by word of mouth.

The 1960 Broncos held their first draft with general manager Dean Griffing making his selections out of the pages of a leading football magazine, "Street & Smith's College Football."

I personally spent many an hour perusing that publication, never realizing I was doing the same type of scouting as the Broncos!

There are two players in football history who played in the AAFC, the NFL and the AFL. One played against the Broncos with the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, and one ended his notorious career in our legendary mustard and brown uniforms in 1960.

Those two gentlemen were two the greatest characters in pro football history, and their stories are too long and crazy to recite here (although I have already written about them at varying lengths).

The first was Ben Agajanian, known throughout the football world as "Bootin' Ben," the game's very first specialist.

He began his post-AAFC career with the New York Giants and was the game's first true placekicker, and a vagabond placekicker at that.

He had a notable career, despite having lost part of his kicking foot in an industrial accident during a summer job in his college days (yes, players once had summer jobs to make a little money), and he kicked against Denver for both the Chargers and Raiders.

As I said, this was the old day of roster building, and when he and the Raiders could not agree on a contract, Ben said he would kick for nothing, and literally did for four weeks until the AFL stepped in and insisted that the Raiders sign their kicker to a contract.

Bootin' Ben — he truly was one of a kind.

Until his passing in Cathedral City, California, just a couple of years ago, he was simultaneously the oldest living Ram, Charger and Raider.

Another "one of a kind," certainly never to be seen again, was Hardy Brown, who closed out his notorious (yes, I know I have used the adjective twice, but Hardy deserved it!) career with the Broncos in 1960.

Hardy was known as the "dirtiest player in pro football," and he not only acknowledged it — he reveled in it. He was quite the hitter and quite a rover from his linebacker position, often more interested in delivering memorable and painful hits than in team play, frankly.

Brown kept a list of players he literally knocked out, and it was in the dozens.

Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry, who played against Brown himself while with the New York Giants, was quoted as saying, "There is no place in the game for any player like Hardy Brown. Brown should be banned from pro football."

Harsh and probably accurate words from one of the game's great gentlemen.

Brown tended to move around a lot.

He played for six AAFC and NFL teams before landing with the Broncos in 1960. He actually made the Pro Bowl in 1952 for San Francisco (he played with the 49ers from 1951-55, his longest stint in one city). There's too much to write here, but briefly, he grew up in a Fort Worth orphanage, the Masonic Home for Boys, and it was there that he developed his vicious tackling technique of leading with his shoulder.

Brown broke many a jaw in his three pro leagues and more than once the game was stopped so officials could check to see if he had a foreign substance (like a piece of steel) in his shoulder pads.

But there was no foreign object, just Hardy Brown.

Certainly, he would never be allowed to play using that tackling technique in today's game, but in 1960 he was part of the Denver Broncos roster.

Two quick Hardy Brown anecdotes.

Asked once about his football-playing days as the orphanage, Brown commented, "By no means was I the toughest football player at the Masonic Home."

And I once asked Fred Gehrke, then the Broncos general manager, whose own nickname was "Leather" during his playing days — Fred was known as a very tough guy — about playing against Hardy Brown.

Fred paused and replied, "Hardy Brown ... he wasn't so tough."

Showing that it is all in one's point of view.

That is just a short look at a couple of the game's great characters with Bronco ties, as we move forward with the certainty that our 2020 roster will not be built with that level of eccentricity.

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