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Timeline 25: Remembering the biggest Colorado sports stories of 1999

On March 6, 1995, The Fan was born. In the 25 years since, a lot has transpired on the fields, courts and ice in Colorado, giving the hosts and listeners who’ve been part of the station during that time plenty to talk about and debate.

During the course of the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that history, remembering the good times and the bad, the winners and the losers, the successes and the failures. It’s a series we’re calling “Timeline 25” and it continues today with a look back at a tumultuous year in Colorado sports – 1999:

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Back-to-Back

After their perfect 1998 season was halted in their 14th game of the year, the Broncos limped into the playoffs. Following the loss to the Giants, Denver also fell to Miami. They did beat the Seahawks in the season finale, however, to finish 14-2, the best regular-season mark in franchise history.

When the postseason rolled around in January of 1999, however, the Broncos regained their stride. First, they dispatched of the Dolphins, avenging the loss a month earlier, by a 38-3 count. Then, they rallied in the second half of the AFC Championship Game to beat the Jets, winning 23-10.

Super Bowl XXXIII was supposed to be a match-up between the two best offenses in the NFL. Everyone expected the Broncos to square off with the Vikings, in what promised to be a high-scoring affair. While Denver did their part, Minnesota came up short, getting upset by Atlanta in the NFC title game.

That did add an interesting storyline to Super Bowl week, however, as the Broncos would be facing their former head coach. Dan Reeves had led Denver to three Super Bowl appearances in the 1980s, but fell short in each game. He left the Mile High City following the 1992 season after a final falling out with John Elway. Thus, the big game was hyped as Elway vs. Reeves, with each trying to get the better of the other.

Ultimately, the quarterback would get the last laugh. The Broncos beat the Falcons by a score of 34-19 in a game not as close as that score would indicate. Denver led by as many as 25 points in the fourth quarter.

Not only did Elway get the win, but he also turned in a sterling performance. A year after riding running back Terrell Davis to a title, No. 7 was once again the lead actor. In the victory, the quarterback threw for 336 yards and a touchdown, earning Most Valuable Player honors in the process.

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Elway Hangs Up His Cleats

After leading the Broncos to two-straight titles, the greatest player in the history of the franchise announced his retirement on May 2, 1999. It was exactly 16 years to the day after Denver traded for him.

John Elway walked away from the NFL with all sorts of league and team records. He was the winningest quarterback of all-time, played in five Super Bowls and won two, and held every Broncos passing mark in the books. And he was coming off of an MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXII.

It all added up to the perfect time for Elway to hang up his cleats. The quarterback addressed the media at an emotional press conference.

“I don’t look at it as retirement,” No. 7 said that day. “I’m just graduating from pro football.”

When it came to explain why it was time, Elway cited injuries. The year before, he missed four starts and part of another game, with Bubby Brister leading Denver in his absence. That reality outweighed the allure of trying to become the first team to ever win three-consecutive Super Bowls.

“It’s time for me to move on,” Elway said. “I can’t do it physically anymore. And that’s hard to say,”

There was some hope that the quarterback would come back. He waited more than two months to make his decision, which became official a month later.

“I wanted to give myself a chance to think about it,” Elway explained. “When it was time to start the offseason program on April 5, less than two months after (the Pro Bowl), I said, ‘You know what? I can’t do it anymore.’”

With that, the Duke of Denver rode off into the sunset. At least for a while.

Later that year, Elway was inducted into the team’s Ring of Fame, with the mandatory five-year waiting period waved. He also had his No. 7 retired by the Broncos and he was enshrined in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

Elway would return to the franchise a dozen years later as the Broncos general manager, a role he still fills. Thus far, he’s led Denver to two Super Bowls and another Lombardi Trophy as the team’s top football executive.

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TD Gets Hurt

There was some hope that the Broncos could defend their back-to-back Super Bowl titles even without John Elway. After all, Denver did have the league’s reigning MVP in Terrell Davis. And backup quarterback Bubby Brister was a perfect 4-0 in relief of Elway that year before.

That dream started to get derailed at the end of preseason, however, when Mike Shanahan announced that second-year quarterback Brian Griese would get the nod over Brister. It was a shocking development, as the head coach tapped an inexperienced signal caller to lead the veteran-laden, championship-caliber team.

Out of the gate, the move looked like a mistake. The Broncos fell in their season opener at home to the Dolphins, which was followed by consecutive road losses against the Chiefs and Buccaneers.

But it was Week 4 when the wheels totally came off. In what would turn out to be their fourth-straight defeat, Denver lost a lot more than the game. After Griese threw an interception in the first quarter, Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury trying to make the tackle when his teammate, offensive tackle Matt Lepsis, rolled into the running back’s leg.

Without two future Hall of Fame players, who had won MVP honors in the previous two Super Bowls, the Broncos chances of defending their title went up in smoke. The cover of Sports Illustrated that week summed it up perfectly – “We’re Finished!”

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Avs Come Up Just Short… Again

On New Year’s Day, the Avalanche had a losing record. By January 9, they were sitting at 17-19-4. The first season under new head coach Bob Hartley looked like a disaster, as Colorado looked like they’d be unable to bounce back from losing in the Western Conference Finals to the Red Wings the year before.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Avs flipped a switch. They won 12-straight games, a streak that lasted an entire month. And it continued down the stretch, as Colorado went 27-9-6 in their final 42 games to dig out of the hole, finishing first in the Northwest Division and second in the Western Conference.

In the postseason, the hot play would continue. Colorado dispatched of San Jose in six games and then avenged the loss the previous year to Detroit by knocking off the Red Wings in six games.

The Western Conference Finals pitted the Avalanche against the Stars. After five games, it looked like Colorado would pull the upset, as they had a 3-2 lead in the series with Game 6 at McNichols Arena. But Dallas won 4-1 in Denver and then closed out the series at home with a victory in Game 7 by the same 4-1 score.

For the second-consecutive year, Colorado lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the conference finals. This time around, it was even more heartbreaking, falling in a seventh game.

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Rockies Post Big Numbers

Heading into the 1999 season, there were high hopes on 20th and Blake. The Rockies had made a managerial change, replacing Don Baylor with Jim Leyland. It was considered a coup, as team owner Jerry McMorris traveled to Pittsburgh to talk the World Series-winning skipper into joining the club.

In terms of wins and losses, the season was a disaster from the get-go. After starting 1-0 by winning the first-ever MLB opening day game played outside of the United States or Canada, as Colorado beat San Diego 8-2 in Monterrey, Mexico, the Rockies fell to 2-5 after losing their home opener eight days later. They never recovered, finishing the season 72-90. Leyland, who many accused of checking out long before the final game was played, was done after one year in Colorado.

That being said, the season wasn’t a total loss. In terms of personal achievements, the Rockies had some players post very good seasons.

On the mound, Pedro Astacio finished with a 17-11 record. His 17 wins tied a club record, which held up until Ubaldo Jimenez won 19 games in 2010.

But the best performance was turned in by Larry Walker. Two years after his MVP season, the outfielder was arguably better. In 1999, Walker led all of baseball in batting average (.379), on-base percentage (.458) and slugging percentage (.710).

He was the first player since George Brett in 1980 to lead the majors in all three of those categories, as well as the first National League player to pull off the feat since Stan Musial in 1943. His .379 batting average was also the fourth-highest by any player, regardless of league, since Ted Williams hit .406 in ’41.

The wins and losses weren’t what anyone hoped for in 1999. But in terms of entertainment value, Rockies fans certainly got their money’s worth when they went to Coors Field.