The Denver Broncos head into the 2022 season as one of the television darlings.
With “Monday Night Football,” “Sunday Night Football” and prime-time games galore, it feels to me like those days of 1996-98 when it seemed like the Broncos lived on prime-time television.
Of course, the Broncos open their season on “Monday Night Football” against the Seahawks in Seattle in a fitting beginning for one of the star television teams in pro football.
Until the Broncos’ streak was snapped last year, Denver had the longest yearly streaks of playing at least one Monday-night game.
This current role is one the Broncos deserve, but not one that was always so. The team, like the city, has grown into being a major player in the national stage, but it was not always such.
Back in 1969, the NFL announced a three-year agreement with ABC to televise “Monday Night Football.” The new series made the NFL the first league with a regular series of national telecasts in prime time.
This announcement was part of the staggering growth of pro football as the nation’s major spectator sport, coming as it did in conjunction with the merger of the NFL and rival American Football League.
That announcement came on May 26, just a couple of weeks after the huge announcement that Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh had agreed to join the newly created American Football Conference.
So “Monday Night Football” was born, but football franchises were accustomed to playing on Sunday afternoons, with a full week to get ready for the next game, so there was initial reluctance to participate in night games.
The MNF series began in 1970, and it was natural that the New York Jets with star quarterback Joe Namath would kick off the series.
Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who had served as President of the NFL and achieved great prominence as chairman of the prestigious television committee, had been one of the major boosters of MNF, so his Browns were chosen to face the Jets in the inaugural game of the series.
Meanwhile, the Broncos were languishing in the lucky-to-be-included-in the-merger category.
Denver had just expanded former Bears Stadium from a capacity of just over 35,000 to 50,000, and it would ultimately rise to 75,000, but the Broncos were regarded nationally like the city itself. In the Rocky Mountain Time zone, where even to this day less than 7 percent of the American population resides, Denver and the region were something of an afterthought. Then, as now, the East Coast was dominant.
“Monday Night Football” was something that Denver fans could watch, but participation was unlikely.
The inimitable Keith Jackson was the play-by-play man for the first year of the series, but Frank Gifford assumed that role for a long run in 1971, and color man Don Meredith was with MNF from 1971-73 and again from 1977-84.
But the key personality was Howard Cosell, who relished in being pompous and abrasive as the third man (the only man, some might say) in the ABC booth. I can personally attest to the unique personality which Cosell carried with him on the national stage, and it seemed that he was always on the national stage.
Cosell was a New Yorker, like many of the support staff, and it certainly could be said that MNF and everything about it was focused on the East Coast and in other major population centers. He did not think much of Denver, and perhaps that made sense at that time.
So that sort of left the Broncos on the outside looking in, and the fact that Denver was not to have its first winning season until 1973 did not help the Mile High City either.
One of the most popular features of MNF was the halftime highlights segment, hosted by Cosell, in which the Sunday games were highlighted in a couple of minutes.
I well recall that every time the Broncos had an exciting game local fans would be buzzing that “They just have to include us this time,” or words to that effect.
But it was not to be. Week after week of the series, Denver’s game was ignored in the halftime highlights.
In fact, there was a bar in Glendale called Sweetwater, and they took to having a promotion in which after the highlights were shown on MNF, naturally excluding the Broncos, a patron would be selected to throw a brick through a television set. Sweetwater went through a lot of television sets in those early years.
Denver did not have its first MNF game until 1973, with that 23-23 tie against the Oakland Raiders standing as one of the most socially significant games in the city’s history. It was significant in many ways, including the fact that it was the most watched event ever televised from Denver to that date.
The entire city was proud, and there was a civic luncheon on that Monday with Cosell as the guest speaker. He proceeded to lecture everyone in attendance on Denver’s issues, telling the luncheon guests how fortunate they were to have the “Monday Night Football” crew in attendance.
Usually a guest speaker does not talk down to his audience, but what can we say? Cosell seemed to revel in being hated.
But time passed on, and the Broncos became one of the NFL’s great teams.
“Monday Night Football” and the rest of the television world quickly came to see the beauty of mountain vistas, the sunshine and sunsets that illuminated Mile High Stadium, and the Broncos became a franchise that had winning seasons and a tremendous fan base.
The color orange seemed to mesh perfectly with sunshine and snow, and a few years later with the immediate greatness of John Elway, Denver became a fixture on national television.
Only the win-loss record could do any damage, and unfortunately that happened over the last few years.
But this is a new era, as everyone knows, with quarterback Russell Wilson assuming the mantle of stardom that Elway and later Peyton Manning carried so brilliantly, and now the Broncos open once again on “Monday Night Football.”
The original dusty old cowtown has shaken much of that dust from its designer boots and risen to stardom once again in the NFL firmament.
Denver in 2022 will be a long way from being excluded when any kind of halftime highlights are shown.