On September 9, 1960, the Broncos played in the upstart American Football League’s first-ever game, beating the Patriots 13-10 in Boston. On September 9, 2019, Denver will kick off the 60th season in franchise history when they travel to Oakland to take another of the AFL’s original teams, the Raiders.
Sixty seasons. Starting in 1960. It’s all too symmetrical and perfect not to celebrate.
From that first season through today, thousands of players have donned the orange and blue (and even the brown and yellow). Plenty came and went, having forgettable careers in the Mile High City. But a select few stood out. And a handful of Broncos became legends, in this town and beyond.
Who falls into that category? In the coming weeks, 1043TheFan.com will count down the 60 greatest players in Broncos history.
It continues today, with Nos. 26-30.
30. Rick Upchurch | WR | 1975-83
When it comes to returning punts, few players in the history of the NFL have ever been better than Upchurch. During his nine seasons, he amassed 3,008 yards and eight touchdowns in that role, making him the premier returner of his day.
Proof of that fact came when the Pro Football Hall of Fame selected two of their All-Decade teams. Upchurch earned first-team honors for the 1970s, as well as a second-team nod for the ’80s; that’s an impressive double dip.
It didn’t take long for the wide receiver to make an impact in Denver. As a rookie, he did a little bit of everything, amassing 1,859 all-purpose yards on runs, catches and returns. That effort earned him a spot on the NFL’s All-Rookie team in 1975.
But he was just getting started. As a follow up in ’76, Upchurch established himself as the best punt returner in the league when he set an NFL record by returning four punts for touchdowns. It was no surprise when he earned his first Pro Bowl invite at season’s end.
Upchurch was far from just a returner, however. He was one of the most-dynamic players in Broncos history, providing Denver with a big-play threat catching passes, running the ball and returning kicks. During his career, he also caught 267 passes for 4,369 yards and 24 touchdowns, while rushing 49 times for 349 yards and three more scores. As just a wide receiver, Upchurch’s name appears in the top-15 of most statistical categories in Broncos history.
But his ability to transform a game on special teams were what made him special. Upchurch had eight career touchdowns on punt returns, by far the most in team history. Only five other Broncos have multiple, with Darrien Gordon second on the all-time list with three. And when he retired, Upchurch had amassed more yards on punt returns (3,008) than any player in NFL history and was tied with Jack Christiansen for the most-ever punt returns for touchdowns (8).
He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time first-team All-Pro. And Upchurch is a member of the team’s Ring of Fame.
“One of the great return men of all-time.” – Sandy Clough
29. Riley Odoms | TE | 1972-83
In the 1970s, most tight ends were little more than glorified offensive tackles. While eligible to catch passes, most were on the field to serve as an extra blocker, opening holes for the ground game and protecting the quarterback in passing situations.
Odoms was one of the few exceptions, however. He was a prolific receiver, providing the Broncos with a match-up nightmare before most coaches were even considering such a tactic on offense. Before Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow, Odoms was arguably the best pass-catching tight end in the NFL.
He certainly was one of Denver’s best offensive players. In just his second season, Odoms caught 43 passes for 629 yards, leading the team in both categories. He also hauled in seven touchdowns, one behind Haven Moses in that category. As a result, Odoms was selected to the first of four Pro Bowls.
The next two seasons, when he also earned All-Pro honors, the tight end remained the Broncos best aerial target. He led the team in receiving yards in 1974 and ’75, establishing himself as one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
In 1978, Odoms caught 54 passes for 829 yards, crazy numbers for a tight end. He also hauled in six touchdowns, once again leading the Broncos in all three categories. For his efforts, he earned his final trip to the Pro Bowl.
When he retired, Odoms was the Broncos all-time leader in receptions (396), receiving yards (5,755) and touchdown catches (41). To this day, he remains seventh in franchise history across all three categories.
“‘The Judge’ was picked fifth overall in the 1972 NFL Draft and he lived up to the selection.” – Sandy Clough
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
28. Elvis Dumervil | DE/LB | 2006-12
Unfortunately, most people remember Dumervil’s tenure in Denver for the way it ended, with his restructured contract not getting faxed back to the team in time to become official; as a result, the Broncos were forced to release the pass rusher to avoid a big salary-cap hit, allowing him to become a free agent and sign with the Ravens prior to the 2013 season. That quirky situation overshadows six incredibly productive seasons with the Broncos.
During that time, Dumervil blossomed from an undersized fourth-round pick out of Louisville into one of the game’s premier sack artists. And it didn’t take long for the transformation to occur.
As a rookie, Dumervil recorded 8.5 sacks, despite only playing in 13 games and getting a single start. The next year, he was more of an every-down player; as a starter from Week 1, he posted 12.5 sacks, forced four fumbles, recovered three fumbles and had an interception. Dumervil was developing into a great all-around defensive player.
While those numbers were terrific, they pale in comparison to what he accomplished two years later. In 2009, Dumervil led the NFL in sacks with 17.0, forced four more fumbles and had 14 tackles for a loss. As a result, he earned his first Pro Bowl invite, was selected first-team All-Pro and finished third in the league’s Defensive Player of the Year voting.
The monster season led to a new six-year, $61.5-million contract during the offseason. But a little over a month later, Dumervil’s 2010 season ended before it got started when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle during training camp.
He bounced back, however, teaming up with rookie Von Miller in 2011 to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. That year, they combined for 21 sacks, with Dumervil chalking up 9.5 The next season, they were even better, with Miller posting 18.5 sacks and Dumervil recording 11.0.
That’s what made the contract snafu that followed in the offseason so disheartening. The Broncos defense was just beginning to hit its stride with bookend pass rushers that every team in the league envied.
In just 91 games wearing the orange and blue, Dumervil amassed 63.5 sacks, the fifth-most in franchise history. He went on to reach 105.5 for his career, which would have put him atop the Broncos all-time list had those numbers all been posted in a Denver uniform.
27. Paul Smith | DT/DE | 1968-78
When Smith arrived in Denver, the Broncos were still a laughingstock. They’d never had a winning season, spending most of their time in the cellar of the fledgling American Football League. By the time he left the Mile High City, however, the franchise had made its first-ever trip to the Super Bowl and become one of the best defensive teams in the post-merger NFL.
A lot of the credit for that transformation goes to Smith, a hard-working player who led his teammates by example. Not one to say a lot, the defensive lineman inspired those around him through his relentless play. Slowly but surely, those around him started to follow suit.
During the first three seasons of his career, Smith played alongside Rich “Tombstone” Jackson in the trenches, giving Denver one of the most-intimidating defensive lines in all of football. During those years, however, it was Jackson who earned most of the accolades, while Smith toiled in relative anonymity.
In 1972, however, that all started to change. Jackson departed for Cleveland midway through the season, creating new opportunities for Smith to shine. And new defensive coordinator Joe Collier got the most out of his talented defensive lineman. That season, Smith earned the first of back-to-back Pro Bowl invites. And the next year, he racked up 11.0 sacks to help the Broncos post the first winning season in franchise history, largely on the strength of their Smith-led defense.
That group evolved into what would become the Orange Crush, one of the best defenses in NFL history. While others would once again garner more attention, it was Smith who laid the groundwork for their success.
One of the most unheralded players in Broncos history, Smith recorded 55.5 sacks during his 11 seasons in Denver. But because the stat didn’t become official until 1982, four years after he left the Mile High City, his name doesn’t appear alongside some of the team’s great pass rushers.
Those who watched him play knew that he was special, however. It’s why he was inducted into the team’s Ring of Fame in 1986.
“Perhaps the most-underrated defensive lineman in Broncos history.” – Sandy Clough
26. Al Wilson | LB | 1999-2006
Selected in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft, Wilson joined a team that was coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Despite joining a roster loaded with talent, the linebacker made an immediate impact, starting 12 games as a rookie.
Wilson was a sideline-to-sideline player, with the speed to cover the entire field. In addition, he was a throwback of sorts, never afraid to fill the hole and stuff the running game. He was a tough, hard-nosed player who became the leader of the Broncos defense throughout his time in Denver.
From 2001-06, he was one of the best linebackers in the NFL, earning five Pro Bowl invites during that six-season stretch. And in 2005, when the Broncos finished 13-3, won their division and advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game, Wilson was selected first-team All-Pro.
But a year later, after yet another Pro Bowl Season, his career was over. Late in the 2006 campaign, Wilson suffered a neck injury against the Seahawks. While he’d return to play that season, the damage was done; Denver looked to move on, Wilson couldn’t pass a physical with the Giants during the offseason and his stellar career came to an unceremonious end.
All told, the linebacker played 125 games in a Broncos uniform during his eight-year career, missing only three contests during that time. He was the heart and soul of the defense for nearly a decade, playing his position at middle linebacker as well as anyone in franchise history.
“I had the pleasure of never having the pleasure of trying to block him in games. He made the locker room a tolerable working environment.” – Tom Nalen
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE