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Way Back When: Remembering classic clashes between Belichick and Shanahan


Most Denver Broncos fans know that our rivalry with the New England Patriots goes back to the first game of the American Football League, when the Broncos defeated the then-Boston Patriots on the league's opening day in 1960.

And for the better part of four decades, the Broncos had their way with the Patriots in terms of wins and losses.

But as every football fan knows, the fates of the Patriots changed when Bill Belichick became their head coach, and his magnificent career has him on the fast track to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When I think of Bill, I think of the rivalry with him and Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, during which the Broncos had a 5-3 advantage in win-loss record.

In fact, during the time when Belichick was the coach and fellow future Hall of Famer Tom Brady was the quarterback in New England, Denver was the only franchise against whom Brady did not have a winning record.

With Shanahan selected this year to the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame, it only adds to the greatness of the competition — any rivalry is enlarged when both of the coaches are recognized for their greatness. Shanahan, too, is certain to be a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in my opinion he is not only deserving but will be selected.

Having been with the Broncos as head of public relations and now as historian for 43 years, I have seen a lot, and memories are triggered by almost every individual or event.

In addition to the classic games themselves between the Broncos and Patriots, I can recall that once after we beat the Pats, Bill came to our locker room and asked me where Mike's office was. I escorted him there and the two men visited, like opposing generals discussing what did and didn't work.

Another year, the Patriots came out on top. After that game, I recall also taking Mike to their locker room to pay his respects to Bill.

I always thought that was a classy, noble gesture by both men.

To do that and have it matter, you have to be of a certain quality and have a certain record.

Pelts on the wall and the Hall in the future, so to speak.

But my earliest memories take me back to my first year with the Broncos, 1978, when Bill was a young staff member who did it all — taking film of practice (this was before video), assisting defensive coordinator Joe Collier in every way, and working with the special teams also.

This was before today's era of expanded staffs and specific responsibilities.

It was also before staff members routinely had individual rooms on road trips, and there were a couple of instances when I roomed with Bill on the road. He was unfailingly nice and polite throughout his time in Denver, and he also was singularly focused.

He wanted to learn everything there was to know about being a great coach, and then expand on that as time went on.

His office at 5700 Logan Street (the Broncos headquarters at that time) is still there. It is about half the size of an office that a current NFL assistant has, and Bill shared it with future Broncos general manager John Beake, who was in his first year as a personnel man for the Broncos in 1978.

Several years later, we played the New York Giants on the road and Bill was their defensive coordinator.

I recall a few of us talking to him as he sat on an equipment chest outside the locker room before the game.

He was on his way, but none of us could have predicted his future level of success.

But then again, I can recall when as a very young Broncos assistant coach, Mike Shanahan interviewed for and was offered the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky. He declined the job, flew back to Denver on a Sunday morning, and called me to let me know.

I always felt it was beyond classy for Mike to call me, and I asked him why he would turn down what had been reported to be a spectacular offer.

"Jim, I have always wanted to be an NFL head coach, and that is the goal I want to pursue," Mike said.

At that time, then, it was not possible for me to see the "now."

But he made his future goals reality, as did Bill Belichick.

These are two future Hall of Fame head coaches, and while Mike became the centerpiece of the Denver Broncos, so too did Belichick have moments and memories in Denver during his early years.

And the rivalry on the playing field between the Broncos and Patriots has been both the foundation and the icing on the cake.

Fans, media and fellow employees who have been lucky enough to be touched by their careers have had a brush with greatness that we shall not forget.

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