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Way Back When: Remembering late legend Curley Culp and his Broncos connections

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This week's game in Kansas City is a massive one for both teams, with the Chiefs wanting to once again exercise their dominance in the division and the Broncos poised to take a major step forward, back to true playoff contention.

There are so many stories and connections between the Broncos and the Chiefs, but I thought I would focus on one of the lesser-known ones. It involves a truly great player who sadly passed away recently and a very intense and stubborn head coach/general manager.

It was back in 1968, the second year of Lou Saban's time in Denver as head coach and general manager. He had been hired on a 10-year contract to take the Broncos from below the depths of obscurity to relevance in the American Football League.

But beyond being a tremendous coach and leader, Saban was fiery and stubborn, in good ways and sometimes in not-so-good ways.

In the 1968 draft, Saban and the Broncos waited until the second round to make their first selection, which was Arizona State defensive lineman Curley Culp.

"He's a contact football player," Saban said after the draft, according to a 1968 Denver Post article. "He's an athlete who can play more than one position and a man we feel can step right in and play for us."

Culp had played college football at Arizona State, where he was also an NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion. He had grown up on his father's hog farm and worked at an ice factory, and used the strength he built to good use in sports.

Former Broncos head coach Mac Speedie, who became a scout for the team, said Culp's strength made him an incredible prospect.

"This is a man," Speedie told The Denver Post's Jim Graham. "No one in football is going to push him around. No one is going to zero on him and say this is a soft touch. They're going to have to look somewhere else because they aren't going to be able to go over, or under or through Curley Culp."

Culp would go on to become an AFL All-Star in 1969, a five-time Pro Bowler, a leader of the Super Bowl IV world champions and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But not for Denver.

Saban marveled at the strength, agility and poise of his new acquisition, and while we do not know what visions danced in Lou's head, they were not of sugar plums and other charming seasonal thoughts.

Saban looked at his tremendous new defensive star and pictured … an offensive guard.

There had been talk throughout the offseason of Culp's positional versatility, and though Culp had played defense in college, Saban said he hoped to try him at guard to bolster the team's offensive-line depth after Culp returned from a summer college all-star game.

After having Culp work with the defense for about a week, Saban announced on Aug. 12 they were moving Culp — who, as the Post's Dick Connor noted, "has never played offense" — to right guard.

So a battle of wills ensued between Culp and Saban.

As passionately loud as Lou could be, Culp had the rational wits of a champion wrestler and felt that his skills would be best utilized in the middle of the defensive line.

"I told them at the time it wasn't my feel," Culp said in 2013. "I didn't play it in college and didn't feel comfortable with it. I'd rather deliver than receive. Offensive lineman basically received and defensive linemen delivered. I wanted to deliver."

In the end, and before training camp ended, the coach won.

Saban was perhaps consumed by tunnel vision to turn Culp into a player he wasn't at a position of greater need instead of keeping him where he was best — as Graham of the Post wrote later, "This was a classic case of trying to fit the job to the man and was a miserable failure."

Saban sent Culp to the Kansas City Chiefs, and to future Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram, in exchange for a fourth-round draft choice in 1969.

"We knew Culp was a fine defensive tackle," Saban told the Post in 1970," but we tried to convert him into an offensive lineman."

One might call the trade of Culp, a future Hall of Famer, the worst trade in Broncos history, but that is a tough call in that one of Saban's first moves in 1967 was to trade another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Willie Brown, to the Oakland Raiders.

Both Brown and Culp won Super Bowls with their new teams, and both made the Hall of Fame.

These are not the types of trades for which a general manager wants to be remembered.

One could write a book on the fiery passion of Lou Saban, but suffice it to say this is not the time.

Today, we mourn the passing of Curley Culp, one of the game's true gentlemen and gentle giants, who passed away days ago on Nov. 27 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Often we mourn the passing of a former Bronco, but somehow we do less so when a person has the greatest moments of his pro career elsewhere.

So here's to Curley Culp.

Stram knew back in 1968 that Culp would be the key addition to his Chiefs ball club that already featured future Hall of Famers Buck Buchanan in the defensive line, Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell at linebacker (that's right, Kansas City had two future Hall of Fame linebackers), Johnny Robinson at safety and Emmitt Thomas at cornerback.

Just to keep things balanced, the Chiefs also had future Hall of Famers at quarterback (Len Dawson), at placekicker (Jan Stenerud), at coach (Stram himself) and owner and AFL founder Lamar Hunt).

So the addition of Culp gave Kansas City six future Hall of Famers on defense, and they surprised many in the football world — but not those who truly knew — by spanking the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Former Broncos general manager John Beake, then the running backs coach for the Chiefs, fondly remembers the trade.

"We were elated to get Curley Culp. We knew we were getting a first-class player," Beake says. "He was such a dominant figure that he allowed us to shift other players around in the defensive line, create the 'triple stack' defense, and so forth.

"I was very sad to hear of his passing. Curley had so much class. He was a true gentleman, became an outstanding businessman after his football career and always stayed in touch.

"We stayed in touch and remained friends always."

The paths in life, as in football, are not always direct. Some people stay in one place forever, and others move on.

But when one has true grace and greatness, those qualities travel along with them, including from Denver to Kansas City, as in the case of Curley Culp.

Rest in peace, Curley.

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