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The Long Reach of Pro Football

The 2013 National Football League preseason kicks off officially with the annual Hall of Fame Game played in Canton, Ohio.

The game itself signals the start of another great season, but the weeklong festivities at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton are a celebration of the game and a joy for the fan, with full coverage provided by the NFL Network and ESPN.

Very little additional publicity is needed by the Hall—fans know it and what it represents.

But the greatness of so many players extends way beyond the Hall of Fame, and I want to take this blog to write about something created by the Professional Football Researchers Association, a group of writers and statisticians who love the game and do continuous study into its history.

Beginning in 2003, the PFRA created the Hall of Very Good, to honor players and coaches who had outstanding careers but are not members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and are not likely to be. However, as Andy Piascik of the PFRA points out, it is worth noting that nine members of the Hall of Very Good have subsequently been elected to the Hall of Fame in Canton.

And this is not a shot at the Hall or its voters. The game has had a lot of great players, the process of induction is long and arduous, and ultimately, everyone just does not get in.

But all 32 teams have great players, and while there is no actual building in which the Hall of Very Good is honored, these players still have a high degree of recognition that might have otherwise escaped them.

While the Denver Broncos have four players in the Hall of Fame, John Elway, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe and Gary Zimmerman, along with two others who played lesser parts of their careers here in Denver—Willie Brown and Tony Dorsett, the Broncos are represented in the Hall of Very Good as well.

And I figured a Broncos fan who cares enough to read our blogs would at least have some interest in being aware of this.

They are:

Cookie Gilchrist, elected in the Class of 2013.  One of the greatest all-around players in pro football history, Gilchrist was a star in the Canadian Football League before returning to the USA as an All-AFL fullback for the Buffalo Bills teams that won two AFL championships.
He also starred as a linebacker and kicker, a true 60-minute player, in Canada, but played just full back in the AFL. He had two stints with the Denver Broncos, an All-AFL season in 1965 and a brief tour in 1967, when he was wrapping up his career. In 1965 for Denver, Cookie rambled for 954 yards and six touchdowns, with 18 receptions for 154 more, giving him 1,108 yards of total offense.

Lou Saban, elected in the Class of 2011. Saban was the Broncos head coach from 1967-71 and truly made the first big efforts toward making Denver a competitive franchise in the AFL and NFL. A nomadic coach, he won two AFL titles with the Buffalo Bills, and as a player, was a linebacker who captained the Cleveland Browns for three of his four seasons in Cleveland. This was back in the old pro league known as the All American Football Conference, and the Browns won the league title each year.

Randy Gradishar, elected in the Class of 2008. Randy was the leader of Denver's Orange Crush defense that paved the way to Super Bowl XII. Gradishar had 2,000 documented tackles in his 10 seasons here (1974-83), was a seven-time time Pro Bowl player and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978. He never missed a game in 10 seasons.

Floyd Little, elected in the Class of 2005. Known as "The Franchise" for how valuable he was to the Broncos, Little played for Denver from 1967-75 and led the AFC in rushing in 1970 and 1971. His career marks included 6,323 rushing yards, and of course Floyd Little was subsequently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the Hall of Very Good recognized him first.

Tobin Rote, also elected in the Class of 2005. Almost all Bronco fans will say, "Who?", right about now. In fact, Rote played for the Broncos very briefly in 1966, his final year in pro football. But he was an outstanding quarterback for 12 years with Green Bay, Detroit and San Diego before that final year. He was on two great championship teams, the 1957 Detroit Lions and the 1963 San Diego Chargers. He passed for 18,880 career yards and 148 TDs back in the day when the running game was king.

Mac Speedie, elected in the Class of 2003. Mac Speedie was an assistant coach and then a head coach for the Broncos in the early 1960's, and he was inducted based on his playing career as a receiver for the magnificent Cleveland teams from 1946-52. Speedie led the AAFC in receptions for three years (1947-49) and led the NFL in 1952. Again, back in the day when the run was king, Speedie caught 349 passes for 5,602 yards and 33 TDs—remarkable figures in just seven seasons at that time.

That is a quick rundown of the Broncos connections in the "Hall of Very Good," and each of them helped pave the way for the game we love today.

So as we kick off the first week of games in the 2013 National Football League season, let us salute the current, most recent and most famous of players, all deserving of respect and praise. But also, there are all time greats who played the game before now, often with skill sets equal and sometimes superior to many of the players on current rosters.

All together, they are the men who make the game.