Whenever the Denver Broncos get set to face the Carolina Panthers, the first thoughts that any member of Broncos Country has are of that fabulous victory in Super Bowl 50.
There is no win like one in the Super Bowl, and that memory will be one of the brightest in franchise history forever.
However, that is not the first Broncos-Panthers connection tied to a Super Bowl. Far from it.
Back during the free agency period of 1997, the Broncos signed 13 free agents, including two who had just finished contracts with the Carolina Panthers: wide receiver Willie Green and fullback Howard Griffith.
It was common then (and remains so today) for the public relations director of the team acquiring the players would call his counterpart in the other city to assess the new acquisitions. And so I did, creating one of the most memorable and prophetic phone calls of my career.
The Panthers' PR man was Charlie Dayton, who joined me in winning Awards of Excellence from the Pro Football Hall of Fame on June 30.
Charlie is honest and loyal and true, and his words were gold.
"Charlie, what kind of guys am I getting?" I asked.
He replied, "Jim, you have just taken the heart and soul right out of our locker room."
Those were strong words, and Green and Griffith backed them up over the next two years.
The Broncos went on to become back-to-back Super Bowl champions, winning Super Bowl XXXII over the Packers in San Diego and then taking Super Bowl XXXIII over the Falcons in Miami.
In between the two championships, the Broncos went nearly a calendar year without a loss.
Including the 1996 season, in which both Green and Griffith were still with Carolina, the Broncos amassed 46 total wins over three seasons. Only the New England Patriots eventually matched that total. No other teams have ever won 46 games and two Super Bowl titles in a three-year period.
Griffith was primarily a blocking back for future Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, and calling him brilliant would not be an understatement.
Head Coach Mike Shanahan occasionally used him as a receiver — "Griff" had great hands as well — and as a change-of-pace runner when Terrell was not carrying the ball. Griffith had set the college record with eight touchdowns scored in one game, so he knew his way around carrying the football.
Green was as solid as the day was long, backing up starting wide receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.
I vividly remember walking off the field with Willie after our win in Atlanta, and he matter-of-factly said, "Jim, I'm going to my home in the Carolinas and intend to retire. Please have the team send my ring to my country club."
"No problem, Willie," I said. I did not feel it necessary to mention that I was aware hewas part owner of his own country club!
Willie Green is actually the answer to a Broncos trivia question.
When John Elway approached 50,000 passing yards, there was a lot of friendly locker room speculation as to who would catch the pass that crossed that mark.
McCaffrey? Smith? Future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe? Each guy had friendly banter about being the guy, but none of them was.
It was Willie Green.
After both players retired, I remember getting a call one day from a relatively small-time television network saying they were going to be televising a season of football games on the East Coast, and they were looking for a color commentator. One hitch: Their payment was zero.
But I called Griff, and he jumped at the opportunity, ran with it (like he always did) and advanced himself in the television business. Today, he is one of the voices of the Big Ten Network.
As for Willie, I have not seen him in years, but I imagine he is still hitting drives, making putts and representing himself in the first-class manner that was the only one I knew from him.
So when the reader focuses on Super Bowl 50 and our great win over the Carolina Panthers this week, just take a moment to recall how the Carolina Panthers played a role in our first two championships by sending us Howard Griffith and Willie Green.