The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders will always conjure up iconic memories for me — memories of two great franchises and numerous great characters.
There is one character who stands above all others in this rivalry, because he played at the peak of his career for both franchises.
That would be the one and only Lyle Alzado.
Drafted out of little Yankton College by the Broncos in the fourth round of the 1971 draft, Lyle immediately endeared himself to the Broncos with his intense and intimidating style of play.
By the way, Lyle was the only player ever drafted out of Yankton College — which now no longer exists. In what has been described to me, it is a fitting scenario, considering Lyle's style of play: The buildings of Yankton now comprise the state prison.
It is an entirely different story as to how we even scouted Lyle, but he turned out to be well worth it. He had eight sacks as a rookie in 1971 and amassed 64.5 during his career with the Broncos.
But beyond the sacks, Lyle played with a rage from deep within him. And I mean a true rage.
There were several pass rush plays during a game when his teammates had to hold him back from driving himself forward to try to do damage to the quarterback — or anyone else — after the whistle had sounded.
Prior to and in the early years of his career, the Oakland Raiders had completely dominated the Broncos, producing a 20-2-2 advantage over Denver from 1963 through 1974, but Alzado and others like him infused the Broncos with a rage to win.
Denver had its first winning season in 1973 and has not looked back. The Raiders and Broncos today are tied among the nine National Football League teams that have each won the Super Bowl three times —and believe me, back before that first winning season that statistic would have seemed to every Broncos fan as achievable as reaching the moon.
Lyle played for the Broncos from 1971-78 and made the Pro Bowl in both 1977 and 1978, earning All Pro honors for both seasons as well. He was also named the UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1977, when he helped lead that fabled Orange Crush defense to its berth in Super Bowl XII.
But Lyle was a character above all others.
When the movie "Rocky" came out, that underdog boxing story helped rekindle Alzado's love for the sweet science. The star lineman had been an amateur boxer and made it to the semifinals of the 1969 Midwest Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament.
And as crazy as it may seem today, Alzado later boxed the legendary Muhammad Ali in an eight-round match at Mile High Stadium 1979.
My first year with the Broncos was 1978, and Lyle and I had been good friends for several years before that. Lyle at times confided in me that he was considering retiring from pro football to become a pro boxer.
Due to Lyle's conflicts on this matter — as well as the desire for a new contract, a fact not to be minimized in this situation — he left the team and ultimately was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1979.
He was not happy there and expressed to both me and Denver general manager Fred Gehrke a strong desire to return to Denver. That never happened, but after three years he was traded to the Oakland Raiders.
And if anyone ever was designed as the perfect Raider, it was Lyle Alzado.
He played for the then-Los Angeles Raiders from 1982-85, made the All-AFC Team in 1982 and was named Pro Football Weekly's NFL Comeback Player of the Year that season as well.
Lyle was a star among stars in LA (he even opened a nightclub there — I still recall going there to meet him during my advances to Los Angeles), and he helped pave the way to the Raiders' third Super Bowl win, a championship over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.
Coincidentally, Super Bowl XVIII was the first of my 28 Super Bowls that I worked, and I vividly recall meeting with Lyle the Wednesday before the game.
"We are going to kill them," he said to me regarding their upcoming game with the Redskins and league MVP Joe Theismann. "Theismann has no chance against our pass rush."
He then did his Wednesday press and added, loudly and in full sight and sound of the massed media, "I am just making this stuff up. And look at them. They are writing down every word! I am just coming up with 'answers' as I go along," he laughed.
Lyle proved prophetic about the outcome, though, as the Raiders pillaged their way to a 38-9 win in the first Super Bowl game ever played in Tampa.
I remember another encounter while Lyle was with the Raiders, one that typified him and Raiders owner and future Hall of Famer Al Davis. I was leaving the Raiders' facility just after their practice had begun on a Wednesday, and on my way to the parking lot I heard a familiar voice call to me.
"Jim! Hey, Jim! Jim, turn around," Lyle bellowed.
I saw him full of sweat walking out of their lifting facility and said, "Lyle! Great to see you," and then after some small talk I added, "But shouldn't you be at practice? It started 15 minutes ago!"
"Nah," Lyle said. "My deal with Al is that I practice on defense day (which then was commonly Thursday in the NFL) and play like heck on Sunday. Beyond that, I can do anything I want to get ready. I like to lift."
One of a kind, truly.
He finished his career with 112.5 quarterback sacks and an uncounted number of intimidations as he scowled and snorted from his defensive end position.
And beyond that, I have never met any player who had a bigger heart of gold than Lyle Alzado in the community.
Lyle was the 1977 Byron "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award winner as a Bronco, honoring his work in the community in the spirit of the former University of Colorado star, NFL player and Supreme Court justice.
I could tell story after story of his generosity, for much of which he pledged me to secrecy in the spirit of giving without publicity.
An absolute heart of gold.
Lyle Alzado will always be known as a Super Bowl player for both the Broncos (Super Bowl XII) and the Raiders (world champions in Super Bowl XVIII), and this year Lyle was named to the Denver Broncos all-time Top 100 Team.