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Way Back When: How Craig Morton received medical help from a receiver for the 1977 AFC Championship

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This week, the Denver Broncos close out the 2020 NFL season vs. one of their old rivals, the Las Vegas Raiders, at Empower Field at Mile High.

So many memories come to mind of the Broncos playing the Raiders at home and away, in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, back to Oakland and now in Las Vegas.

But there can be no dispute as to the greatest home game the Broncos have ever had vs. Oakland, that being the win over the Raiders here in the 1977 AFC Championship Game.

The game was a classic in so many ways that I could write a book about it, though my schedule and laziness both prohibit that.

Going into the 1977 season, the Broncos had been 2-24-2 against the Raiders over the past 14 years, and the two rivals split the 1977 regular season games.

Going into the AFC title game, Broncos quarterback Craig Morton had spent the entire week in the hospital due to a hip injury suffered in the AFC Divisional Game win over Pittsburgh.

Morton would become a 1988 inductee into our Ring of Fame and earned AFC Most Valuable Player honors from Sporting News for leading the Broncos to their first Super Bowl that year by beating the Raiders, but the week of the AFC title game itself was grim.

"The doctors kept trying to drain my leg, but they were not having much success," Morton recalls. "My hip pointer just kept hemorrhaging, and my leg got about two inches filled with blood all over. It was just completely filled with blood and nothing could happen.

"Not only did I have to go in, but I was there a week."

It should be noted that one of the game's sidebars is that it changed the way injuries must be reported in the NFL. The Broncos kept Morton's hospital stay secret from the press all week, a policy no longer allowed, with the new policy created as a direct result of the Morton injury.

"I went in, and then I never practiced for the Raiders," Morton says. "I just stayed in the hospital. [Head coach] Red [Miller] had practices closed. Nobody knew I was not there."

Enter Broncos starting wide receiver Jack Dolbin.

Jack was a chiropractor and a certified doctor in his field, and as Morton explains, "Physicians frowned on him getting involved in my treatment, but hey, I needed to play. Jack would come to the hospital and perform a galvanic stimulation on me, which was the new machine, something he knew about because of being a chiropractor.

"He tried to get the blood circulating, and nothing was really working. Jack was doing treatments on me the previous weeks also, and they really helped a lot. I'd go over to his house and not tell any of the doctors anything because they thought it was quackery.

"But we did it regardless, and it helped. Then when my leg got so full of blood, the only thing they tried to do was put needles in there and tried to extract the blood, but it wasn't working. This is all week long in the hospital. But Jack's consideration and work on me was as valuable as what I received from the doctors.

"Plus, Jack was a wonderful man, my teammate, and everything he did was from his heart with his chiropractic training.

"Red came in and gave me the game plan on Wednesday, and we talked a little bit about it. We knew the Raiders well enough, and I knew them well enough that I felt I had enough information. But I really did not think I was going to play." 

But play he did.

Red Miller told his offensive line, "If Morton gets knocked down, we are done," emphasizing the need the protect his veteran quarterback.

Morton got knocked down twice but landed both times on his "good" leg, and he was able to play the entire game.

He completed 10-of-20 passes for 224 yards with two touchdowns. His leadership that day and throughout the year made him so worthy of being the AFC's most valuable player.

The Raiders were vanquished, the fairy tale was over, and the Broncos truly were going to the Super Bowl.

The Broncos had never been a winner and had been totally dominated by the Raiders in previous years. Morton did something in the most extreme of physical circumstances that ties him forever to what this franchise has become.

"Although we didn't win the Super Bowl, that game was something that will never be duplicated, ever," Morton says.

I would argue that only the three Super Bowl wins themselves and "The Drive," John Elway and the Broncos' amazing feat in Cleveland in 1986, are bigger than this game was in the history of the Broncos and possibly in the sporting history of this city.

The Broncos lost Super Bowl XII, but Denver's leading receiver that day was Dr. Jack Dolbin, albeit with just two receptions to pace the team. 

Dolbin passed away in 2019 but created a forever legacy with the Denver Broncos.

He kicked around pro football a lot, and I once noted about him that "it's not easy being Cinderella."  

Because that is just what he was when he made the Broncos. His previous experiences included three leagues, including the 1970 season with the legendary Pottstown Firebirds of the semi-pro Atlantic Coast Football League.

The Firebirds won their league championship that year, making Dolbin perhaps the only man ever to boast championship rings from the NFL and semi-pro football.

He once told me, "Jim, I am as proud of my Pottstown Firebirds ring as I am of my AFC Championship ring."

Dolbin, who could catch the ball as well as any receiver I have ever seen — before or since — was inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 and played for the Broncos for five years, from 1975-79, before turning full time to his chiropractor's practice in Pennsylvania.

He started 33 games for Denver and was both reliable and popular.

But one of his most notable accomplishments was helping Craig Morton get out of the hospital on Jan. 1, 1978, so that the great quarterback could join Dolbin and teammates to defeat the Oakland Raiders 20-17 and take the Broncos to Super Bowl XII.

It was a game, and a moment in time, that will never be repeated in the annals of Broncos history.

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