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Sacco Sez: The Broncos' retired uniform numbers


One of the key features of any uniform in any team sport is the number.

It identifies the player for the fan, and in some instances the number and the player become known as one locally, and sometimes even nationally.

Often arguments ensue over which player in which sport wore his number most famously.

In the history of the Denver Broncos, every number has been worn, including zero, which was worn in 1962 by legendary fullback John Olszewski. I say "legendary" not because the reader has ever heard of him, which is unlikely, but because legendary is what he was in the decade of the 1950s, before closing his career out with the Broncos in 1962. He was known as"Johnny O" — hence his choice in uniform number.

But of all the 100 uniform number possibilities, there are three, and likely four, that no fan will ever see a Bronco wear again.

Three of these numbers are retired officially, and one is practically out of circulation.

The retired three are John Elway's No. 7, Floyd Little's No. 44, and No. 18, which was worn initially by Frank Tripucka and most recently by Peyton Manning.

The "unofficial" retired number is Champ Bailey's No. 24, which we will get to a bit later.

When did these numbers get retired, and how? staff members took a close look at each uniform number in franchise history to select the best player to wear each one.

Note: The only player to wear No. 0, John Olszewski, is not pictured; there are no photos of him in the Denver Broncos Photo Archive or on AP Images.

The most recent is Elway's, of course, which was retired accompanied by great public hoopla and announcement in 1999, the year immediately following his retirement.

It was of course a no-brainer to retire No. 7, and because only quarterbacks and kickers may wear single-digit numbers, that grouping of digits will always afford plenty of opportunities. The only two other Broncos to wear No. 7 before John were Ring of Famer Craig Morton and fellow quarterback Mickey Slaughter, who played here from 1963-66.

No. 44 is a great number, as repeat digit numerals tend to be, and two Broncos wore 44 before Floyd got here in 1967. They were reserve running back Bruce Starling in 1963 and cornerback Miller Farr, who wore it in 1965 before going on to All-American Football League status elsewhere.

But Little matched the greatness of previous backs to wear No. 44 at Syracuse, where he too went to college. Jim Brown and Ernie Davis both wore the number previously, and there are statues to all three backs on the Syracuse campus.

The greatness of Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little has been well documented, and his number was retired during a game against the Cleveland Browns on "Floyd Little Day" as his brilliant nine-year career was concluding.

Again, there was never a question or a doubt.

As we move back in time things become a bit more vague.

Frank Tripucka was brought to Denver by head coach Frank Filchock to coach the quarterbacks, but "The Tripper" was so much better than his charges that he not only took over the job, initially as a favor to Filchock, but played into the 1963 season. Tripucka became the first player in football history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season, and his teaming up with brilliant receiver Lionel Taylor was sometimes all there was to watch in the Broncos' offense.

Truly, that duo carried the Broncos' offense, along with all-purpose back and kicker Gene Mingo. All three are in the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame.

So it came to pass that when Tripucka decided that his arm had had enough and he retired midway through the 1963 season, the Broncos held a brief midfield ceremony featuring Cal Kunz, who at that time headed up the Broncos' ownership group, and Kunz announced that no one would wear number "18" again, though there is no public or private record of his comments.

I can only say that it was witnessed by many, including this author, and the moment did happen.

But just as vague as that moment was the future of No. 18, as that was the number famously worn by the legendary and immortal Peyton Manning.

When the Broncos signed Manning as a free agent, he could have worn No. 16, his number at Tennessee, or No. 14, his number at Newman High School in New Orleans. But Tripucka had been briefed by the Broncos' public relations staff and was waiting for Manning's call. Both individuals were at the height of sincerity and gracious conversation in discussing the wearing of No. 18, and it came out of retirement for four years of Manning greatness and a world championship in Super Bowl 50.

Many years earlier Tripucka had quarterbacked the Broncos to their first non-losing season and was the first Broncos passer to wear the color orange, but he was just setting the table for Manning's future accomplishments.

As for No. 24, it is not retired, and I have no idea as to whether it ever will be. Save for a brief return in 2018 when veteran Adam "Pacman" Jones was granted the number after talking with Bailey, it has never been given out since Champ retired. And in my opinion and that of equipment manager Chris Valenti, it is treated by the Broncos with the respect of a retired number. Not officially retired, but likely never to be worn.

The number 24 is actually the only number in Broncos history to be worn by two players who are in the Hall of Fame: Champ Bailey and Willie Brown.

Regardless of what the Denver Broncos do in the future, our list of retired numbers remains modest compared to many other teams in all sports.

But there is no question about the contributions of the men who wore the above numbers in the history of the Broncos and the championship legacy of our great franchise.

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