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Way Back When: How the Broncos and 49ers grew up together


Sometimes when two teams get together for a game, connections can be kind of hard to find.

Other times, there seem like too many to count.

Such is the case for the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers, even going all the way back to how they began.

Denver fans are familiar with the Broncos beginnings as members of the American Football League, the only American pro sports league that was successful enough that each team made it into the National Football League.

But the 49ers had similar beginnings as members of the All-America Football Conference, a pro league that competed with the NFL from 1946-49. Eventually, the AAFC folded, but when it did, three franchises were taken into the NFL: the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers.

The Broncos and 49ers had similar early records. That is, they were both crummy.

People now think of the Joe Montana-led 49ers, winning those championships in the 1980s — but that was after three decades of futility.

The most notable fact about the 49ers in the 1950s and 1960s was that they had the "Million Dollar Backfield." This was before salaries of today were in that range, and that was the nickname given to their combination of quarterback, fullback and two halfbacks. All four members of that backfield are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe "The Jet" Perry, and halfbacks John Henry Johnson and Hugh "The King" McElhenney.

Once upon a time, when fellow and future Hall of Famer Steve Sabol directed NFL Films, their cafeteria had a corner framed by life-sized photos of McElhenney and singer Elvis Presley. It was called — you guessed it — The King's Corner.

The 49ers became ultra-successful in the 1980s, and in 1983, the Broncos acquired John Elway, signaling the start of a similar trajectory and a rivalry that followed going into the 1990s.

The Broncos and 49ers played each other in preseason regularly, starting at the University of Denver's Hilltop Stadium in 1968. For whatever reason, the relationships between the two teams always seemed amicable, made all the more so when Pat Bowlen bought the Broncos.

The 49ers were owned by Eddie DeBartolo, and he and Mr. B developed a mutual respect that was featured in their teams.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Broncos often played in the NFL's international American Bowl series, and in fact, the two teams met in Tokyo for one of those games. It is a game remembered most today by the great tackle made by future Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis on a kickoff return, a play generally cited as the single play that launched his career.

The two owners developed an especially friendly bond, at one point making a friendly wager on the annual exhibition game, with the loser contributing money to a charity designated by the winner. 

Of course, the teams met in Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans, and I still remember separate dinner parties of team executives that converged on Pascal's Manale (a noted Italian restaurant in New Orleans) one night the week of the game. A great time was had by all, but perhaps no one had more fun, with their hair totally let down, than the two owners.

The 49ers won the game handily, and it was no surprise as in fact they were a great team.

And the single individual, and individual family, with the greatest connection, is Mike Shanahan and the Shanahan family, represented well by his son Kyle, who is of course now San Francisco's head coach.

A close second is Gary Kubiak.

I could write a book about the Shanahans and their Denver connections, but this is not that.

Mike was the offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 1994, which ended with their Super Bowl XXIX win, and the next year he was the Broncos' head coach.

In fact, many do not know that Pat took a contract with him, shoved into his pocket, and slipped over 49ers' team hotel, dressed very incognito for an NFL owner, complete with baseball cap pulled down to his eyes, to offer Mike the job in Denver.

Mike did not take the job on the spot, but the next day I and others took a private plane back to Denver for negotiations that would make Mike Shanahan the Broncos' head coach.

Kubiak came back to Denver with Mike, and the next thing you knew, we had won back-to-back world championships.

In fact, I can remember sitting in Mr. B's office and telling him that I was going to title our highlight film "Back 2 Back," and he said "I've been looking for a catching phrase for the ring. I'm going to use that. It will make the ring stand out."

Of course, San Francisco had earlier gone back-to-back as Super Bowl champions, as well.

Eventually Kubiak also became head coach of the Broncos, and that is its own special history. He is the only person in Broncos history to have gone to the Super Bowl as player, assistant coach and head coach, with three victories.

And now, putting even more cherries on the San Francisco-Denver cake, Kyle Shanahan returns to Denver as 49ers head coach with his own lofty goals and expectations.

As a child, Kyle was once quoted in The Denver Post saying that he not only wanted to be an NFL head coach, but he hoped to be as successful as his father.

Mike awaits his eventual spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so that is a lofty goal indeed.

And regardless of what the future holds, this week the Broncos and 49ers will add another layer of history to a great 55-year association that began at DU's stadium in 1968.

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