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. 6-10.
10. Rich Jackson | DE | 1967-72
Great careers are often cut short by injury. Such was the case for Rich “Tombstone” Jackson, a player once deemed by legendary NFL writer Paul Zimmerman to be worthy of the Sports Illustrated scribe’s repeated nomination for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dr. Z gushed about Jackson, repeatedly referring to him as one of the best pass-rushing defensive ends he ever saw.
While short, it was a career that almost never came to be. After a college career that saw him excel in both football and track, Jackson bounced around a bit. He played a season in Oakland, but the Raiders tried to make him a linebacker. Then, at the age of 26 and running out of chances, he arrived in Denver and was moved to defensive end. From there, he blossomed.
Though sacks weren’t an official NFL stat until 1982, the unofficial record books show that Jackson dominated for a three-year period from 1968-70 unlike few in pro football history. Playing just a 14-game season, he recorded 10, 11 and 10 sacks during those seasons, respectively. He earned a Pro Bowl invite at the end of each season, as well as first-team All-Pro honors. In 1970, that meant Jackson was first-team All-NFL, a huge accomplishment for him and the franchise in the first season after the merger.
But it wasn’t just his numbers and production that made Jackson special; it was also the fact that he was the Broncos enforcer. As a franchise that had been pushed around since its inception in 1960, the team needed someone willing to fight back; they found it in “Tombstone.”
Known for his signature “head slap,” the defensive end would torment opposing offensive linemen. And if anyone gave his teammates a hard time, he’d move down the d-line for a play, send a message and set things straight. Lyle Alzado loved to regale people with the story of Jackson breaking the helmet of Packers offensive lineman Bill Hayhoe when the Green Bay tackle was getting a little lippy.
A knee injury midway through the ’71 season ended Jackson’s run of dominance. But his healthy seasons in Denver were something special. In a long line of Broncos who have been overlooked for induction in Canton, Jackson is perhaps atop the list.
“The master of the head slap, ‘Tombstone’ was the AFL version of Deacon Jones.” – Sandy Clough
9. Randy Gradishar | LB | 1974-83
When football think about great inside linebackers from the NFL’s rough-and-tumble glory days, images of Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Jack Lambert probably pop into their minds. Those men toiled in the middle for classic franchises and were immortalized by NFL Films. But among those who played and covered the game in the 1970s and ’80s, Gradishar was the player who patrolled the middle of a defense as well as any in the game.
For a decade, the Broncos first-round pick in 1974 was a tackling machine, recording 2,049 during his illustrious 10-year career. That’s an average of more than 200 per season, a staggering number. But that was only part of Gradishar’s game.
He was also the field general for Joe Collier’s “Orange Crush” defense, running the show from the middle of the defensive coordinator’s innovative 3-4 alignment. He had tremendous instincts, evidenced by his ability to meet runners in the hole on goal line situations. He had tremendous range, able to play sideline to sideline in an era when that terminology wasn’t en vogue. And he was great in coverage, proven by his 20 career interceptions.
Gradishar came to the Broncos after a tremendous career at Ohio State, where he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior. He stepped right in and contributed from day one, eventually helping Denver’s defense become among the best in the league. During his second season, Gradishar earned a Pro Bowl invite, something he’d receive seven times in 10 years.
By 1977, the linebacker was an elite player. That season, when the Broncos reached the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, Gradishar was voted first-team All-Pro and selected as the AFC Defensive Player of the Year. In ’78, he was even better, earning the NFL’s award as the top defender.
What was perhaps most impressive about Gradishar, however, was how his game never tapered off. He was a Pro Bowl player during his final three seasons and in a crucial game at the end of his last year, the linebacker was as good as ever; in Week 12, Gradishar recorded 15 tackles, picked off a pass, recovered a fumble and recorded a sack in a crucial win over the Seahawks.
For a decade, Gradishar was arguably the best inside linebacker in the NFL. He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t talk a lot. And he didn’t take cheap shots that were glorified by the media of the day. But he was productive to the nth degree, putting up numbers that are comparable to any to ever play his position.
“‘When you begin the list of deserving Broncos who should be in the Hall of Fame, the list starts with Randy Gradishar. Nobody epitomized the grit and determination of the first wave of all-time Broncos like Gradishar. He also represents the bizarre East Coast bias against Mountain Time zone players.” – D-Mac
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
8. Floyd Little | RB | 1967-75
Denver wasn’t always Broncos Country. In fact, in the late 1960s, the Mile High City was pretty much ignoring their professional football team. And for good reason.
From its inception in 1960 through the end of the ’66 season, the franchise posted a putrid 26-69-3 record. Not only were they dreadful on the field, but they seemed to be equally inept off of it. Throughout the first seven years of their existence, the Broncos repeatedly failed to lure their draft choices to Denver, failing to sign any of their first-round picks.
That all changed in 1967 when Floyd Little arrived.
For the first time, a great college player chose to come to Denver. Little was a star running back at Syracuse, following in the footsteps of legends like Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. So when he signed with the Broncos, it was major news.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. The team’s failures on the field were hurting at the box office, creating rumors of a relocation to Birmingham. Thanks to Little, however, the franchise was saved.
In 1968, he earned the first of his five Pro Bowl invites, giving the team a star to rally behind. Fans flocked to games, providing the impetus for the expansion of Bears Stadium to what would become Mile High Stadium. The newfound enthusiasm for the team, which was based in large part on what Little brought to the field, helped keep the Broncos in Denver, earning the running back the nickname “The Franchise” from that day forward.
On the field, Little continued to shine. He was a first-team All-Pro in 1960, the NFL’s leading rusher in 1971 and scored a league-high 12 rushing touchdowns in ’73. Along the way, he was shattering franchise records, becoming the first Bronco to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and moving his way up the league’s annals. When he retired, Little had run for the seventh-most yards in pro football history.
For his accomplishments, Little was selected to the team’s Ring of Fame. And in 2009, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Floyd Little saved the franchise in 1967.” – Sandy Clough
7. Terrell Davis | RB | 1995-2001
In the biggest win in the history of the Broncos, it wasn’t John Elway, Peyton Manning or any other star who carried the franchise to victory. It was Terrell Davis.
After losing four previous appearances, the pressure was immense when Denver took on Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII. Heading into the game, the Broncos were double-digit underdogs against the defending champs, with many in the Mile High City dreading another embarrassing performance on the biggest stage in sports.
But head coach Mike Shanahan had the perfect game plan for beating the Brett Favre-led Packers; he fed the ball to his workhorse running back. By the end of the night, Davis had amassed 157 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries to lead the Broncos to a 31-24 upset and earn the franchise their first Lombardi Trophy.
It was the high point of a four-year run that was among the best in NFL history. As a rookie, Davis rushed for 1,117 yards in 14 games. The next season, he was first-team All-Pro and helped the Broncos to a 13-3 record with 1,538 yards. In 1997, his 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns powered Denver to the Super Bowl. And in their back-to-back championship season in ’98, Davis rushed for a league-leading 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging a staggering 125.5 yards per game.
As staggering as those numbers are, they pale in comparison to what the running back did during the seven postseason games that brought two titles to the Mile High City. During the ’97 and ’98 playoffs, Davis rushed 1,049 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 149.9 yards per contest. To call his performances dominating would be a gross understatement.
Four games into the 199 season, it all came to a screeching halt. Davis injured his knee while to trying to make a tackle after an interception and he was never the same player. Through 2001, he tried to play in 13 games, having some degree of success, but it wasn’t the same. The burst that made him such a special runner was gone.
From 1995-98, however, Davis was the best player in football, putting up numbers that the league has rarely seen. And in the playoffs, when his team needed him most, he was among the greatest rushers in NFL history. For that, he’s a member of Denver’s Ring of Fame and an inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Terrell Davis got a lot of yards behind average blocking, making average blockers radio hosts.” – Tom Nalen
6. Gary Zimmerman | T | 1993-97
Prior to arriving in Denver, Zimmerman had played seven illustrious seasons in Minnesota, earning four Pro Bowl invites and being selected first-team All-NFL during his time with the Vikings. This came on the heels of two star-crossed seasons with the Los Angeles Express in the fledgling USFL.
So at 32 years old, the offensive tackle was by no means in his prime when he became a Bronco. But he was a player the franchise needed, which is why they were willing to give up wide receiver Vance Johnson, a first- and sixth-round pick in 1994, and a second-round pick in ’95 to acquire his services.
Why was he so important? Because the Broncos had never protected John Elway with top-flight offensive lineman during the quarterback’s first decade with the team; No. 7 ran for his life behind gritty, but cobbled-together fronts, something that couldn’t continue if he was going to continue to play at a high level in his 30s.
Zimmerman had an immediate impact in Denver, earning Pro Bowl honors in ’94, the first offensive lineman to be selected during the Elway era. He repeated the feat the next two seasons, adding first-team All-Pro honors after the team’s 13-3 campaign in ’96.
At the age of 36, however, that appeared to be the end of the road for Zimmerman. His left shoulder was so bad that he could barely raise his arm above his head. As a result, the left tackle retired.
But in a move that showed just how much Zimmerman meant to the team, both on and off the field, Elway famously found the offensive lineman at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., to coax him back for one more season. A once porous front had been upgraded with the likes of Mark Schlereth, Tom Nalen, Brian Habib and Tony Jones; they just needed their leader back for one more campaign.
Zimmerman’s decision to return turned out to be a wise one, as the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl XXXII during his final NFL campaign. Essentially playing with one arm, he managed to play left tackle at a high enough level to allow Elway to throw for 3,635 yards and 27 touchdowns, while Terrell Davis rushed for 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns.
For the first time in team history, the Broncos enjoyed elite offensive line play; that all started with the acquisition of Zimmerman. For that accomplishment, he was elected to the franchise’s Ring of Fame. He’s also enshrined in Canton, proof that he’s one of the best left tackles in NFL history.
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE