Willoughby: Sometimes you forget the early stages | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Sometimes you forget the early stages

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Aspen Airways plane decked out in Broncos colors in celebration of making it to the Super Bowl in 1978.
Aspen Historical Society|Ringle Collection

The Denver Broncos are ever-present in our contemporary Colorado lives. Even in offseason, newspaper sports pages are filled with Bronco trivia. Sometimes it is easy to forget that it took almost two decades for them to achieve significant status.

I have almost no memory of the Broncos in the first half of the 1960s, even though the team began play in 1960. Aspen only had one television channel, KREX, in Grand Junction. It was mostly a CBS affiliate. Television, at that time, had regions, and, for sports, Grand Junction seemed to be aligned with Chicago. We got the Chicago Bears home games, and I remember many Packers games, too. Tight-end Mike Ditka and running back Gale Sayers entertained us in Aspen. KREX did not broadcast AFL-Broncos games.

The Broncos were charter members of the American Football League along with the other western conference teams, the Chargers, Chiefs, and Raiders. Those first few years, beginning in 1960, were tough financially, attracting fans, and securing a place to play.

My grandfather took my cousin and me to a Raiders game in Oakland, probably in 1962. The Raiders played at an old stadium, Frank Youell Field, just bleachers, that seated 22,000, but they were not filling them. They were allowed to add another 9,000 seats a few years later and toyed with moving to another city to secure a better stadium.

The University of Denver field, known as Hilltop or Bears Stadium, was the Broncos first home. In their inaugural year, season tickets for the seven home games cost $31.50 ($260 in today’s dollars) for sideline seats and $24.50 in the endzone. The stadium seated 35,000.

The Broncos were popular from the beginning, filling all seats. By 1967, they were pushing for seating expansion. The first attempts were unsuccessful, with the goal of 50,000. Neighbors did not want more traffic. Voters were against the city of Denver taking on bond debt. It took a couple of attempts, but the city, with a $25-million bond issue, took over the stadium, expanded it, and changed the name to Mile High Stadium.

It may seem like an unlikely story, but the facts are the Broncos, beginning in 1960, went 13 seasons in a row with a losing record each year, including the first three years after the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970. Imagine if, in the first 13 years of the Aspen Skiing Co., that Aspen Mountain had 13 years in a row of low-bad snow conditions (this before snowmaking equipment.) Competing with all the other fledgling ski mountains, Aspen would not have risen to the top.

That is what makes the Broncos story so interesting. Even with all those losing seasons, fans flocked to the games. There are many reasons, but, with the exception of the Kansas City Chiefs, there was not another AFL or NFL team within 1,000 miles. Fans from all over Colorado flocked to the games, including from Aspen, with many (as evidence from the accompanying photo) flying to the games on Aspen Airways. Even out-of-state football fans came. It is a short distance from larger Wyoming cities. Oklahoma, where college football fills a 100,000-seat stadium, fans so wanted to see the pros that they would trek to Denver. It also helped that Oklahoma was a dry state, and a stop at the Denver discount liquor stores was part of the weekend sojourn.

The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl in 1978, losing to the Dallas Cowboys. John Elway joined the team in 1983, and, finally, in 1998, the Broncos won the Super Bowl.

It often takes many years to move something from its beginnings to a success story. Thinking about that Broncos history, it is fun to note a parallel to the Aspen Rugby Football Club (original name) formed in 1968. Its first Ruggerfest, that same year, featured 11 teams — including ones from Colorado University, Colorado State University, Denver University Colorado College, Brigham Young University, and the Colorado School of Mines.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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