With the Broncos set to play a game at the Los Angeles Chargers this week, recent events remind me of another significant game against the Chargers.
It was Dec. 13, 1970, and Lou Saban was the Broncos' head coach.
The Broncos were bad when Saban took over in 1967, and by 1970 they were still a team in search of a quarterback. Saban had come to Denver from the University of Maryland, and the poor state of the Broncos roster was such that Saban signed three of his former Maryland players as free agents in Denver. That included colorful butterball fullback Bo Hickey, who did not last long; linebacker Chip Myrtle, who proved to be a tough, fine starter for Denver; and Billy Van Heusen, who was a fine wide receiver and punter who is on the Broncos Top 100 players team.
Also at Maryland with Saban was quarterback Alan Pastrana, who had thrown for 17 touchdown passes for the Terrapins in 1966. Saban liked him and drafted Pastrana in the 11th round in 1969.
His first season was spent as a backup, but Pastrana was destined to play a great role in one of the most distinctive games in Broncos history, at San Diego in 1970.
They went into that game in Denver with both teams struggling. The Broncos had used both Steve Tensi and Pete Liske at quarterback in 1970, with injuries and without great success.
Saban had given Pastrana his first start at Kansas City the week before, and the young quarterback's debut could not have gone worse, with five interceptions and six sacks in a 16-0 Chiefs win.
Nevertheless, Saban liked Pastrana and decided to start him again against San Diego the following week.
It didn't start well. The Broncos stalled on their first two drives as Pastrana was unable to complete any of his three passes. Liske stepped in beginning on the third drive and had moderately more success, but the team continued to struggle. After throwing his second interception of the day as the third quarter came to a close, Saban turned back to Pastrana with Denver trailing by 14 points.
Almost inexplicably, Pastrana led a Denver rally that tied the score at 17-17 in the fourth quarter.
After the Denver defense held San Diego in the closing minutes, Pastrana appeared poised to lead another rally to get the win.
The Broncos were at the Chargers' 42-yard line with 11 seconds left when Pastrana scrambled to the 35, where he was hit by San Diego linebacker Bob Babich.
With seconds remaining and the clock running, Babich had knocked Pastrana out.
The Broncos had two time-outs to stop the clock — but the only member of the Broncos who could call it and set up a potential game-winning field goal was unconscious on the field.
"The ruling was perfectly proper because the official rules state that only one man can call time-outs for each team on the field and he must be designated beforehand, as the Broncos had done with Pastrana," The Denver Post's Jim Graham wrote after the game.
But when normal rules would have provided a time-out for injury, Pastrana's status apparently was unclear to the official.
"League rules do provide a time-out, but it's at the discretion of the official if a player is unable to leave the field under his own power, and there is no set time provision," The Post's Dick Connor wrote.
The game ended in a 17-17 tie.
Afterward, center Larry Kaminski was asked about the end of the game and his conversation with the referee on the field.
"I ran up to him with six seconds left," Kaminski told the Post. "I yelled at him and yelled at him and told him, 'He can't call time-out. He's unconscious.' But he just told me I wasn't designated and after that, you can't print what I said."
What happened in San Diego seemed like it could only happen to the Broncos.
These days, things are quite different, both in time-out procedures and in the implementation of concussion protocols, which are very serious to protect and assist players like Teddy Bridgewater to recover with the focus on their health and well-being.
After his pro football career, Pastrana became a teacher and coach before ultimately retiring. He died recently in April at the age of 76 from complications of COVID-19, and as family and friends remembered him, they focused less on his athletic pursuits so much as the person he was.
"While Uncle Alan was an amazing athlete, but he left an even greater impression on me as Coach P," his nephew Travis said. "He always found time for anyone, no matter their age and skill level, who wanted to better themselves physically or mentally."