ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –Sean Laczkowski, Michael Hampson and Jerrod Crook parked their sleeping bags and blankets on East Broncos Parkway long before the last Broncos employees left UCHealth Training Center on Wednesday night.
By 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the three friends had staked out the front spot in line for the opening of Broncos training camp for the fourth consecutive year.
The event has become a tradition now for Laczkowski, Hampson and Crook, who went to high school together and have stayed friends as they attend different colleges in Colorado.
Their parents haven't always been happy with their decision to camp out, especially when construction on the Broncos' training center led the boys to sleep on Colfax Avenue ahead of a practice at Sports Authority Field. But that wouldn't stop the trio.
"They understand that's a tradition now, and we're going to go no matter what," Laczkowski said.
The strewn backpacks and blankets; the empty water bottles and fast food bags; the football and the Broncos gear – they've all become part of the experience. There's always a twist, of course. On Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, they passed the time playing PokemonGO and charades, and they fended off a rogue spider and dodged sprinklers.
They said they wouldn't trade these campouts, which have become more than just an opportunity to watch the Broncos, for anything. It's a chance to meet up with other fans and strengthen a sense of connection with the organization.
Kevin Sellers was just one of the fans who was overjoyed by the moment. He bounced around and posed for pictures from the third spot in line as he celebrated a long trip to Denver. Sellers biked 2,700 miles from Alaska toward Key West and drove the rest of the nearly 2,000 miles to finish the first leg of the trip. On his drive back to Juneau, he chose to make his first stop in Denver since 2008.
Some of Broncos Country's most passionate fans were lined up for the opening of training camp Thursday morning. (photos by Aric DiLalla except for those noted by Eric Bakke)
The last stop before the UCHealth Training Center came in Amarillo, Texas, and he drove through a tornado and seven-inch flash flood in La Junta, Colorado. The weather didn't matter to Sellers. After spending years among Seahawks fans in Alaska, he was just glad to make it "home."
"It all culminates with this," Sellers said. "This is like my Super Bowl LI, because I only get down here like once every 10 years. What a way to start a year at champ camp.
"It's the highlight of my year before it even starts."
Lori Queen of Delta, Colorado feels the same way. She's a self-proclaimed Broncos "nut" who ended up with the fifth spot in line alongside her husband, Tom, and grandson Tatum.
For the second year in a row, they plan to attend the first and last day of training camp. They'll stay in a local hotel when they make the trip from the Western Slope, and Tom will tag along with his wife, who knows she's "crazy" when it comes to football.
And to look up and down the line of thousands of Broncos fans, it's clear these stories are not unusual. Even for an unusually early hour, there were few bleary eyes down the sidewalk of East Broncos Parkway.
Instead, there were cheers and shouts and outfits that varied in many ways except for the color: orange.
For the people like 28-year-old Edward Pitts, who came straight to the line from a double shift at the Hyatt Regency in the Denver Tech Center, training camp is an opportunity to get close to the action. Last year, he slept in his car in the park.
He wouldn't have missed a chance to celebrate the beginning of football season.
He wouldn't have missed a chance to not just watch the team, but to feel like a part of the community.
A quick look up and down the street – and later, the berm – would reveal a pretty simple truth: Plenty of other Broncos fans felt the exact same way.
The Broncos' 2016 training camp is underway with the start of Thursday's practice at UCHealth Training Center. (photos by Eric Bakke)