It is hardly surprising that Denver is now home to professional baseball, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and even rugby teams. But the city and state’s major sports obsession is without question the Denver Broncos, its professional football team and three-time champions of the National Football League (NFL).
Today, the Broncos are celebrated for their back-to-back Super Bowl wins under legendary quarterback John Elway in 1997 and 1998. Elway later served as the team’s general manager from 2011 to 2020. In that span Elway made the twenty-first-century Broncos into a reliable contender through the addition of free agents such as All-Pro linebacker Demarcus Ware and future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, as well as a raft of high-caliber draftees such as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and linebacker Von Miller. Under head coaches John Fox (2011–14) and Gary Kubiak (2015–16), the Broncos played in Super Bowl XLVIII after the 2013 season and won Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season. Vic Fangio, hired in 2019 to replace Vance Joseph, currently serves as head coach.
Ugly Socks at the Start
The Denver Broncos began playing in 1960, wearing vertically striped socks in mustard yellow and barnyard brown. Their performances looked almost as ugly as the socks. These newcomers to the upstart American Football League started out with four wins, nine losses, and a tie. Despite enthusiastic fan support, the “Donkeys” (as many critics called them) seemed to get worse every year. During the 1960s they regularly lost five games for every win. The Broncos had first played in Bears Stadium, which they shared with the city’s minor league baseball team. Huge football crowds and often sold-out games led to the transformation of Bears Stadium—which could initially seat 17,000—into the 76,000-seat Mile High Stadium, a hybrid football-baseball venue.
After ceremonially cremating the ugly socks in 1962, fans hoped for prettier performances, but in 1963 the Broncos sank to a record of two wins, eleven losses, and one tie. The team had little to brag about until 1967, when they signed Floyd Little, an All-American running back from Syracuse University. Little was in fact little—just five feet ten inches tall and 195 pounds—but he was the first Bronco giant. He played for the team until 1975, leading professional football in rushing for six of those years. With the future Hall of Famer Little in their offensive backfield, the Broncos—who became part of the NFL in 1970, when the American Football League merged with it—finally had their first winning season in 1973 with a record of 7-5-2. The team also played its first Monday Night Football game that year, tying the rival Oakland Raiders, 23–23. It was a thrilling game. Television commentator Howard Cosell told a nationwide audience that Denver had long “been thirsting for national recognition and they got it tonight.”
Cosell also gushed, with some exaggeration, that every Bronco fan was wearing an orange article of clothing, as orange and blue had replaced the brown and yellow. Reveling in their fresh colors and winning record, Broncos fans began buying bumper stickers that asked, “If God isn’t a Broncos fan, why are sunsets orange and blue?”
Perhaps divine intervention and the prayers of devout fans brought a miracle to the Mile High City in 1977, when veteran NFL quarterback Craig Morton joined the team. Before Morton, the Broncos lacked a consistent quarterback. That same lucky year Broncos owner Gerald Phipps hired a new coach, Red Miller. Miller was known for getting down on the line of scrimmage with players in practice to demonstrate blocking techniques. Even when a collision with monster tackle Claudie Minor resulted in a bloody gash on his left eye, Miller stayed on the field. Thanks to Morton, Miller, and an aggressive defense affectionately known as the “Orange Crush,” the team made its first Super Bowl appearance that year. The magical season came to a disappointing end, however, when the Broncos lost the 1978 Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys, 27–10.
Despite the loss, Broncomania became embedded in Colorado. Sportswriter Woodrow “Woody” Paige, Jr., put it well: “The city, the state, the whole region, if you will, breathed Broncos. A religion existed. In Colorado everyone was a Broncomaniac, win or lose.”
Priests rescheduled masses around the Sunday ritual held in the high, holy place of Mile High Stadium. Denver’s BMH Synagogue ordered orange yarmulkes. If the Broncos were in the January NFL playoffs, attendance at the National Western Stock Show suffered. Denver’s City and County Building switched its outdoor lighting from Christmas red and green to orange and blue.
Pat Bowen Era
Ownership of the Broncos franchise started out as a money pit that slowly evolved into a gold mine. Robert Howsam, son-in-law of former US senator and Colorado governor Ed Johnson, became the first owner of the Broncos. Always short of cash, Howsam scrounged up equipment wherever he could find a bargain. He found the brown and yellow uniforms and striped socks on sale at the defunct Copper Bowl College All-Star Game in Tucson, Arizona. In 1961 financial failures forced Howsam, who also owned the Denver Bears baseball franchise, to sell the Broncos to a consortium of investors.
Initially, the consortium’s gamble seemed unwise, as the team was losing most of its games and $2 million per year by 1965. One of the owners proposed moving the team to Atlanta. Denver businessmen Gerald and Allan Phipps, however, refused to sell their 48 percent interest. These sons of Lawrence C. Phipps, former US senator from Colorado and one of the wealthiest and most powerful tycoons in the state, bought out the other investors in 1965 to gain sole control and keep the team in Colorado. Gerald Phipps said at the time, “We are trying to attract industry to the community; nothing would hurt us more than headlines around the country saying Denver had lost its football team.”
Gerald Phipps hung on to the Broncos until 1981, when he sold out for a reported $40 million to Edgar J. Kaiser, Jr., grandson of the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser fired coach Red Miller and strove to make money. In 1983 Kaiser and his new head coach, Dan Reeves, secured the team’s future when they acquired a rookie quarterback from Stanford named John Elway, who refused to report to the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts until a trade sent him to the Broncos. The following year Kaiser transferred ownership of the team to Patrick Bowlen—reportedly for $70 million, making the Denver Broncos the most valuable franchise in the NFL.
Moving Mile High
Bowlen hoped to make money—yet the city of Denver took all the revenue from Mile High Stadium parking, concessions, and advertising in return for covering operations and maintenance. Phipps had sold another cash cow to private owners—about $3 million in annual rent for the sixty luxury sky boxes. If voters could be persuaded to build a new stadium, Bowlen could restructure these arrangements so he controlled the stadium income streams. Bowlen, according to historian James Whiteside in Colorado: A Sports History, argued that he needed more income so he could recruit top players and field a championship team. He hinted that economic reality might force him to sell to an owner who might not have a strong commitment to Denver.
It apparently mattered little to voters that engineers found the existing Mile High Stadium structurally sound. Fearful that their favorite athletes might relocate or sink into mediocrity, in 1999 metro-area voters agreed to extend the .1 percent sales tax that had funded Coors Field so the Broncos could buy a new home. Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole observed that taxpayers “rarely have enough money to attend the games themselves. We often hear about limiting welfare for the poor. How about limiting welfare for the rich too?”
As Denver city councilman Dennis Gallagher put it, it was “ironic to devote $188 million in tax revenue to millionaires of society while we lift a sneering lip to the welfare mother in the food line.” To build a new stadium next to the old, the Broncos corralled not only sales tax financing but also millions more when Invesco, a mutual fund company, paid $120 million for the naming rights. Public protest over branding the iconic stadium with a corporate sponsor led to a compromise: the new home of the Broncos officially became Invesco Field at Mile High. After Invesco gave up the rights, Sports Authority—Colorado’s largest sporting goods chain—bought the naming rights.
In 2001, with the new stadium in place, the old one—scene of thousands of baseball games, hundreds of football and lacrosse games, assorted rock concerts, and other events—was razed. Sports Authority Field at Mile High also hosts lacrosse, which began enthralling tens of thousands of Coloradans in 2006 with the advent of the Denver Outlaws, a Major League Lacrosse team.
Super Bowl Sorrows and Successes
Orange-and-blue-dyed fans and consistently sold-out seasons attest to Colorado’s love of the Broncos, win or lose. While the team does have a history of stellar performance during the regular season, postseason success, especially in the Super Bowl, has been hard to come by. In the 1987 showdown against the New York Giants - the Broncos’ first Super Bowl appearance with John Elway as quarterback - the team buckled, losing 39–20. The following year, in Super Bowl XXII, the Washington Redskins crushed Denver, 42–10. More Super Bowl humiliation came in 1990 with a 55–10 knockout delivered by the San Francisco 49ers.
But four previous losses on football’s biggest stage were forgiven in 1998, when the Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers, 31–24, thanks to outstanding performances by Elway and running back Terrell Davis. Rewarded for their dogged loyalty, fans staged a giant victory parade. Hundreds of thousands lined Denver’s Seventeenth Street to cheer the hometown heroes, who waved back from atop fire engines crawling through a blizzard of confetti. But the celebration turned ugly that evening when some partying fans rioted in lower downtown. Smashed glass, rolled-over cars, scores of injuries, and a police response that depleted its supply of tear gas did not dim Broncomania.
In 1999 the Broncos again reached the Super Bowl and defeated Reeves’ Atlanta Falcons, 34–10. Mindful of the 1998 mayhem, the city did not hold a parade after the team’s second straight Super Bowl win. Thereafter, the Broncos went back to turning out stellar regular-season performances without much postseason success. The team played worse during its first ten years in the new Mile High Stadium—now called Sports Authority Field at Mile High—than it did in the old arena.
Arrival of a Legend
Hopes for another Super Bowl were renewed in 2012 with the arrival of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. His brilliant play calling and pinpoint passing stirred hopes that Denver would soon bring home another championship. In pursuit of his second career Super Bowl victory, Manning was at first a revelation for the Broncos, leading the team to the American Football Conference Championship game—one game shy of the Super Bowl—after the 2012 season. He followed up with a record-breaking 2013 season, after which he took the highest-ranked offense of all time to Super Bowl XLVIII. However, Broncos fans then watched in horror—but perhaps without surprise, given the team’s past Super Bowl performances—as Denver was eviscerated by the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8. Despite the Super Bowl loss, Manning’s arrival had galvanized Broncomania, with “United In Orange” becoming the official motto of the team and its fan base.
Over the next two seasons, Manning was hampered by injuries, and in 2015 he was replaced by backup Brock Osweiler midway through the season. The team remained successful due to the stellar play of Osweiler, its above-average offensive talent, and especially its defense, which Elway spent multiple off-seasons improving. Suffering from plantar fasciitis in his foot, Manning returned in the second half of the regular-season finale to secure a win that gave Denver the top seed in the playoffs. Manning’s subsequent performances were underwhelming, but the defense—led by quarterback-pummeling linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware—carried the Broncos through the playoffs, all the way to a 24-10 win in Super Bowl 50 against the upstart Carolina Panthers. Manning retired after the victory, and the Broncos struggled to find a reliable starting quarterback over the next several seasons.
In July 2016 it was announced that Sports Authority Field at Mile High will be renamed, due to Sports Authority’s declaration of bankruptcy earlier that year. On September 4, 2019, the Broncos officially sold the naming rights to Mile High to Empower Retirement, and the stadium will be named Empower Field at Mile High through 2039.
In January 2021, after the Broncos missed the playoffs for their fifth straight season, Elway stepped down as general manager of the team. He was replaced by George Paton, previously the assistant general manager of the Minnesota Vikings.
Sports have always been a way of life in Colorado. Through them we build powerful bonds to and within our communities and find strength in ourselves. Of all the professional sports franchises the Centennial State has to offer, nothing has united fans—and driven them crazy—more than the Denver Broncos.
Parts of this article were adapted from Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State 4th ed. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005).