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Old 05-17-2012, 07:15 PM   #1
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Default Ring of Fame: An Inside Look at the Process

Broncos Ring of Fame: Only the Best of the Best

By Tom Mackie

With the announcement of Broncos receiver Rod Smith as the 23rd Bronco in the team’s Ring of Fame, it’s time to take a closer look at this Hall of Fame for Broncos.

In 1970, the Kansas City Chiefs established a team hall of fame to honor those who made outstanding contributions to the franchise's success. Since then, the Chiefs have inducted a player or coach every year except one – that’s over 40 Chiefs. The San Diego Chargers began honoring their best in 1976, again with at least one inductee per year. Today there are more than 35 Chargers in its hall of fame.

When Broncos owner Pat Bowlen purchased the team in 1984, one of his first initiatives was to establish a similar hall of fame to honor the greatest Broncos. He dubbed it The Ring of Fame.

"I wanted to do something to honor players and administrators who played significant roles in the history of the franchise," says Bowlen. "We needed to recognize individuals who have made major contributions to this organization – that’s our obligation."

The idea of honoring the Broncos best is where the similarity to other team hall of fames ends.

“Mr. Bowlen wanted to make the Ring of Fame very special,” says John Beake, a former general manager of the Broncos and one of four ROF committee members. “Not to just honor great Denver Broncos, but to honor the best of the best – the greatest Broncos of all.”

The team launched the ROF in ’84 by enshrining four legendary Broncos – Floyd Little, Lionel Taylor, Rich Jackson and Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin. The next five years they added nine more legendary Broncos to round out the ‘80s with 13 ROFers. However, the past 21 years there have been only nine Broncos added to the ROF for a total of 23.

“In the beginning we took the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and looked back at the early years and started by putting players in who were part of the foundation of the franchise,” says Beake, an integral part of the organization for 23 years.
According to Beake, the ROF committee played a game of catch-up early on, to make sure legendary Broncos from those years were recognized. That’s why 13 Broncos were elected to the ROF the first five years, and just nine more since 1990.

The 4-Man ROF Committee

Along with Bowlen and Beake, the other two who vote on the ROF include broadcaster Larry Zimmer and Broncos longtime assistant coach Joe Collier.
The original committee included Bowlen, announcer Bob Martin, Denver Post writer Dick Connor, and fan Charlie Goldberg, president of the Broncos Quarterback Club and the first to organize Orange Sunday. Since their passing, the voters have changed over the years. But the current group of voters has been together for at least eight years, Beake being the newest member.

Each year, during spring or early summer, Bowlen makes a call to Broncos PR guru Jim Saccomano and instructs him to provide the committee with the list of newly eligible Broncos – players who played at least 4 seasons with the Broncos and retired 5 years ago. They also receive a list of all eligible Broncos. Players who go on to play for other teams must be retired to be eligible because, as Saccomano points out, “There’s always a chance a former Bronco on another team could come back and play for us.”

Last year’s group of newly eligible Broncos included Mike Anderson, Dwayne Carswell, Monsanto Pope and Lenny Walls. If this were the Chiefs or the Chargers hall of fames, then perhaps Anderson and Carswell would have had a chance. But considering the list of greats who are still waiting to be elected to the ROF, these four players have no shot.

“Once we get the list we do a conference call initially,” says Collier. “If there’s someone worthy (of discussion) then we meet.”

Collier says that not just the newly eligible players are discussed. Older players are too. “Let’s say a tight end comes up, like Shannon Sharpe did a few years ago,” says Collier. “Then all the other great Broncos tight ends are brought up too. Their names are always on the list.“

Says Bowlen: "There is no exhaustion of eligibility when it comes to the Ring of Fame. Former players … will continue to be considered."
Still, it’s debatable how much older players are discussed. If the group only meets when there's someone "worthy," then in the hearts and minds of most fans, they should meet every year.

When the voters do decide to meet, Saccomano and his PR staff gather profiles, stats and information on the top candidates for the meeting.

Unlike other NFL hall of fames, the Broncos ROF has the distinction of being represented by only one non-player – Gerald Phipps, the Broncos owner from 1961 – 1981. Phipps, a hands-on owner, was instrumental in keeping the Broncos in Denver.

Who’s missing?

One glaring omission from the ROF is coaches. Nowhere will you see the names Dan Reeves or Red Miller, two coaches that would be slam dunks to make other team hall of fames.

Yet Bowlen asserts that coaches are considered. "Coaches and administrators are absolutely eligible and given a high level of consideration," he says. "We’ve had a number of very highly regarded coaches with the Broncos, and they have obviously played a tremendous role in any success that we’ve had."

Although Bowlen stresses coaches are eligible, at least publicly, this may not be the case behind closed doors.

“I think Pat’s philosophy on that is coaches should not be involved in the Ring of Fame,” says Collier. “What they do for coaches, there’s a list of worthy coaches at the Broncos facility, and in the stadium near the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame section.”

Saccomano insists, however that “coaches are not automatically ineligible for the Ring of Fame.”

True. Someday Mike Shanahan could be elected. But it’s a mistake not to consider Reeves. He guided the Broncos to 3 Super Bowls in 4 seasons before taking the Falcons to the big game in 1998. Look at it this way – Bills coach Marv Levy is in the HOF for taking 4 teams to the Super Bowl, same number as Reeves.

But regardless of what the ROF committee says, they have missed on at least 4 Broncos from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. There are others that deserve consideration, like Lyle Alzado, but take a closer look at these 4 and it’s difficult to fathom why they are not in the ROF:

Rick Upchurch, return specialist and receiver, 1975-83.

Here’s the thing about Upchurch: Only 1 Bronco was ever named to 2 NFL All-Decade Teams and it's not Elway. It’s Rick Upchurch. He was named 1st Team All-Decade of the 1970s as the top kick returner; and named 2nd Team All-Decade of the 1980s. Upchurch also was selected to 4 Pro Bowls and 1st Team All-Pro 3 times. He led the NFL in punt returns 4 times. In 1976, he returned an NFL record 4 punts for TDs. A feat unmatched for 31 seasons until Devin Hester tied it in 2007. Upchurch retired as the NFL’s all-time leader with 8 punt returns for TDs. His 12.1 career average still ranks 9th all-time and it was the best return average over a 40-year period, 1966-2006. He also was the Broncos deep scoring threat with 267 receptions for 4,369 yards (16.4-yard average) and 24 TDs. Plus, he added 349 yards rushing and 3 scores. All together he accounted for 10,081 total yards. Recently, NFL Network named Upchurch as the 6th all-time return ace in NFL History. In 1998, the NFL named the Top 300 Players of All Time. Upchurch, Elway and Gary Zimmerman were the only Broncos on the list. Speaking of Zim, some would argue he is another Bronco who made 2 All-Decade Teams. Yes, Zimmerman made the 1980s 2nd Team All-Decade Team; and the 1990s 1st Team All-Decade. But he was a Viking from 1986-92, not a Bronco. There are three phases to football: offense, defense and special teams. Of the 22 ROFers, only 1 (Jim Turner) represents special teams excellence. Upchurch’s impact as the only 2-time All-Decade Bronco deserves immediate ROF induction. Any arguments to the contrary are simply not plausible.

2. Gene Mingo, kicker, punter, running back, kick returner, 1960-64.

As pro football's first black kicker, Mingo was one of the game’s true trailblazers. He led the AFL in scoring in 1960 and '62 as a multi-talented star. He set a record by scoring 6 different ways: Field goal, extra point, and rushing, passing, receiving and punt return TDs. Mingo also led the AFL with most field goals attempts, most field goals made, and highest field-goal percentage twice. As a RB, he still holds the Broncos record for longest run in team history – 82 yards. All-together Mingo scored 408 points for the Broncos in 4-1/2 seasons – good enough to become the Broncos all-time leading scorer for 15 seasons. AFL founder Lamar Hunt said, “Mingo saved the AFL.” Saccomano once said, “He’s a very, very significant part of Denver Broncos history.” Then why no ROF recognition? In 2009, Mingo was asked to be honorary captain for the Broncos throwback game against the Patriots, marking the first AFL game played between the two teams in 1960. Mingo proudly wore a brown throwback #21 jersey. But the truth is the Broncos didn’t offer to pay for his jersey, so he shelled out his own money and had the jersey customized for the game. Needless to say, the Broncos owe him much more than a free jersey.

3. Riley Odom, tight end, 1972-83.

In 2006, Hall of Fame Seniors Committee voter Rick Gosselin of the Dallas News developed a list of the 32 most deserving seniors candidates. While Gosselin ranked Floyd Little a distant 23rd, the former Detroit beat writer listed Lions tight end Charlie Sanders #1. The next year, Sanders was nominated by the seniors committee and elected to the HOF. Guess which tight end from Sander’s era has better stats? Odoms! In 10 seasons, Sanders caught 336 for 4817 yards (14.3 average) and 31 TDs. In 12 seasons, Odoms notched 396 for 5755 (14.5) and 41 TDs. Odoms stats even compare to HOF tight end Dave Casper, who was named 1st Team All-Decade of the 1970s. Casper caught 378 for 5216 (13.8) and 52 TDs. Odoms also was dangerous at the end-around, rushing for 211 yards and 2 TDs. Sanders and Casper combined for 21 yards rushing and zero scores. Odoms was named to 4 Pro Bowls and 1st Team All-Pro 2 times. He has the numbers to be considered for the HOF, but is still waiting for the ROF.

4. Simon Fletcher, linebacker and defensive end, 1985-95.

Fletcher is hands down the most overlooked and underappreciated Bronco of all time. In 11 seasons, Fletcher became the Broncos greatest pass rusher in franchise history. The Broncos all-time leader with 97.5 sacks retired 15th in NFL history in sacks and is currently 28th. Fletcher was consistently productive. From 1988-93, Fletcher recorded 5-straight 10-plus-sack seasons: 12, 11, 13.5, 16, 13.5. During a 6-year period, Fletcher notched an eye-popping 75 sacks. Yet, he was never named to a Pro Bowl. That’s because, aside from QBs, no one outside of Denver ever heard of him. He was lost in the shuffle, playing in the same era as Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett. The latter HOFer had just 2.5 more sacks than Fletcher. The muscular 6-5, 240-pounder was an integral part of a Broncos defense that played in 3 Super Bowls. He led the team in sacks 7 straight years, the most of any Bronco and the same number of years that Floyd Little led the team in rushing. In fact, Fletcher has 18.5 more sacks than the team’s 2nd all-time sack leader Karl Mecklenburg. Just because the rest of the NFL forgot about Fletcher, the Broncos shouldn’t.

Who's next?

Although the Broncos organization will never admit it, there seems to be little hope for Broncos who played in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s to make the ROF.

Despite what Bowlen has stated, Beake doesn't sound very confident about whether Upchurch, Mingo and other older Broncos have a chance.

"That's hard to say," says Beake. "When we have our meetings you look at the guys who have been on the list for quite some time. Like the Hall of Fame, maybe someday we could have a 'seniors list' for guys who have been overlooked. But these guys are always discussed."

Mecklenburg and Smith, who starred in the ‘80s were the last of the older players to get in 10 years ago in 2001. Since then, the Broncos have elected 5 players from the back-to-back Super Bowl teams. The most recent, of course, is Smith. Of the remaining players from the Mike Shanahan-led Super Bowl teams, only two players are locks to get in: center Tom Nalen and kicker Jason Elam.

Nalen is eligible in 2013 and Elam will be eligible in 2016. Because Smith officially retired in 2008, he was not supposed to be eligible until 2014. But when the Pro Football Hall of Fame made him eligible for Canton last year, based on the fact that he last played in 2006, the Broncos decided to do the same.

If the ROF was a typical team hall of fame then maybe Ed McCaffrey, John Mobley, and Mark Schlereth could have a shot.

Still, even though the ROF committee consists of just 4 voters, the HOF should consider changing their process to mirror them. The 44 HOF voters are all in the media. Without ever strapping on a helmet, they alone decide whether a player is good enough to be immortalized in Canton. The ROF voters are a much broader, knowledgeable group. They include an owner, a coach, a GM (who also coached), and a media person. Unlike the HOF voters, all four ROF voters keenly know their subject matter.

Although Zimmer was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, Bowlen, Beake and Collier exemplify the ROF philosophy.

“I think it should be hard to get into the Ring of Fame,” says Collier. “It makes it all the more special for the people in it. It depends on how many Pro Bowls, how many years he played for the Broncos. If a guy has a couple of great years with the Broncos I don’t think he should be in the Broncos Ring of Fame.
“I don’t like to see too many names up there, adds Collier. “It’s like the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You say, 'Why isn’t he in the HOF.' Well, it’s a select group of men and it should be very difficult to get in there. Same with the ROF. When it comes to voting on the ROF, everyone agrees. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, but it’s always been. You talk about someone like Shannon Sharpe and we look at each other and that’s it. Slam dunk.”

“We have always believed that getting into the ROF should be a very honorable achievement,” says Beake. “I think we’ve stuck to that.”

Agreed. But without Upchurch, Mingo and a few other incredibly deserving candidates, the ROF still rings a little hollow.

#


Members of the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame

A glimpse at the 23 legendary ROF members shows the high standard of excellence the committee has shown in selecting its inductees. The breakdown per position: 5 defensive backs, 4 quarterbacks, 3 linebackers, 3 receivers, 2 running backs, 2 defensive linemen, 1 offensive lineman, 1 kicker, 1 tight end, and 1 owner.

1984

1. Floyd Little – when you’re nickname is The Franchise, how do you not become the first Bronco inducted in the ROF! In 2010, the legendary Little finally zigzagged his way all the way to Canton.

2. Lionel Taylor – putting the first player in pro football history with 100 receptions in a season in the ROF was a slam dunk. Taylor also led the AFL in receptions 5 times in 6 seasons.

3. Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin – this ball hawk safety led the AFL with 11 interceptions in 1960 and was elected to 6 AFL All-Stars from ’60 – ’66.

4. Rich Jackson – part legend, part folk hero, there was no more devastating defensive linemen in the league in the from 1966-72 than Tombstone.

1985
5. Gerald Phipps – the only non-player in the ROF, this owner was a franchise savior and was instrumental in leading the Broncos to their first Super Bowl.

1986

6. Frank Tripucka – the rest of the AFL may have laughed at the vertical socks during the first season, but this slinging QB elicited just as many jaws dropping with his aerial magic.

7. Charley Johnson – in the years between Tripucka and Johnson’s 1972 arrival, 20 other Bronco QBs made mostly unsuccessful starts behind center. Johnson led the Broncos to their first winning season and, at last, stability at QB.

8. Paul Smith – off the field he displayed quiet confidence, on the field this defensive tackle played 11 seasons in Denver and was one of the NFL’s most fundamentally sound players.

1987

9. Billy Thompson – this playmaking safety was the most versatile defensive back of his era. He starred at corner, safety, returned punts and kickoffs and held an NFL record with 4 fumble returns for TDs.

1988

10. Haven Moses – After Lionel Taylor left in ’67, the Broncos receiving corps lacked a true scoring threat – until this phenomenal receiver came from Buffalo in a ’72 trade.

11. Craig Morton – Before Morton showed up in 1977, the team had never been to the playoffs. When he retired in 1982, Morton led them to 5 playoff games, 2 division titles and a Super Bowl.

12. Jim Turner – He accounted for 10 of the Jets 16 points in Super Bowl III. Then Turner came to the Broncos in 1971 and played nine clutch seasons – retiring as the 3rd leading scorer in NFL history.

1989

13. Randy Gradishar – 7 time Pro Bowler who should have already been enshrined in Canton. One of the greatest linebackers of his generation.

1992

14. Tom Jackson – At 5-11, 200-pounds, Jackson was an earlier Louisville-version of Elvis Dumervill. Jackson played with a non-stop motor and non-stop motor mouth. He backed up everything with his superb play.

1993

15. Louis Wright – The Broncos 1st round pick in 1975, this shutdown corner was named to the All-Decade team of the 70s. Someday he should sport the gold jacket in Canton.

1999

16. John Elway – The Drive, The Drive II, The Helicopter Launch, most wins by a QB, most 4th-quarter comebacks, Super Bowl MVP, NFL MVP, 1st ballot Hall of Famer. The only ROFer, in which the Broncos waived the 5-year waiting period.

2001

17. Karl Mecklenburg – Drafted in the 12th round of the ’83 draft as a lineman, Mecklenburg switched to LB and became a 6-time Pro Bowler and a relentless playmaker and sacker.

18. Dennis Smith – Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called the 6-time Pro Bowl safety the “hardest hitter I ever saw” and he coached Steve Atwater too.

2003

19. Gary Zimmerman – The Broncos never had an elite left tackle until they signed the future HOFer from the Vikings. His stellar play helped Elway finally win the Big One.

2005

20. Steve Atwater – The 8-time Pro Bowl safety’s two biggest licks – Christian Okoye on MNF and Brett Favre in SB XXXII – were in front of national audiences. Canton may be calling someday too.

2007

21. Terrell Davis – This 6th rounder became the most feared downhill runner of the ‘90s. NFL MVP. Super Bowl MVP. 2000 yards in a season. The Broncos rode Davis to back-to-back championships. HOF next?

2009

22. Shannon Sharpe – Another late-round gem (7th round), Sharpe looked like a tweener receiver-tight end. But when he retired he was the all-time TE leader in receptions, yards and TDs. Now, 2011 HOF Class!

2012

23. Rod Smith – When you retire as the Broncos all-time leading receiver in catches, yards and TDs; and you’re the all-time leader in all-purpose yards with more total yards than even Floyd Little; and you’ve got a Super Bowl ring for each pocket, then it’s a no-brainer.
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Old 05-17-2012, 07:19 PM   #2
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Old 05-17-2012, 07:46 PM   #3
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This is the excellent pre-Tebow Tom I know and love (to read).

Well done Tom!

More of this please!
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Old 05-17-2012, 08:13 PM   #4
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Jarvis Moss or I become a Chiefs fan.
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Old 05-17-2012, 08:34 PM   #5
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Jarvis Moss or I become a Chiefs fan.
please go...http://chiefsplanet.com
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Old 05-17-2012, 08:38 PM   #6
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Riley Odoms could play in today's NFL at the TE position. He was a beast.
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Old 05-17-2012, 08:45 PM   #7
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Excellent post. I have long felt Rick Upchurch is the most glaring omission from the Ring of Fame. I am surprised he doesn't get more support with Joel Collier and Larry Zimmer on the four man committee. I always thought that since Upchurch played before Bowlen's time that was a strike against him. Collier and Zimmer saw Upchurch's greatness.

You make good cases for Odoms, Mingo, and Fletcher, too (and Bowlen was around for Simon Fletcher)

Whenever the Broncos complain that they should have more players in the Hall of Fame (Randy Gradishar for one) I always think it rings hollow because they are not taking care of one of their own in getting Rick Upchurch in the Ring of Fame. The Bronco franchise is just as guilty as the Hall of Fame voters in overlooking a former Bronco great.
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Old 05-17-2012, 08:53 PM   #8
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Quote:
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Excellent post. I have long felt Rick Upchurch is the most glaring omission from the Ring of Fame. I am surprised he doesn't get more support with Joel Collier and Larry Zimmer on the four man committee. I always thought that since Upchurch played before Bowlen's time that was a strike against him. Collier and Zimmer saw Upchurch's greatness.

You make good cases for Odoms, Mingo, and Fletcher, too (and Bowlen was around for Simon Fletcher)

Whenever the Broncos complain that they should have more players in the Hall of Fame (Randy Gradishar for one) I always think it rings hollow because they are not taking care of one of their own in getting Rick Upchurch in the Ring of Fame. The Bronco franchise is just as guilty as the Hall of Fame voters in overlooking a former Bronco great.
Yep.

My friend who is a duh bear fan thinks Odoms should be in the HOF. He tells me stories of all these great Odoms moments he remembers better than me.

I would love to see more old Broncos in the RF including Upchurch and Odoms and Fletcher.
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Old 05-17-2012, 09:10 PM   #9
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Yep.

My friend who is a duh bear fan thinks Odoms should be in the HOF. He tells me stories of all these great Odoms moments he remembers better than me.

I would love to see more old Broncos in the RF including Upchurch and Odoms and Fletcher.
I agree more should be on it, but I like the way they are doing it. By jyst having an annual selection like the chiefs or chargers it waters down the worth. If u make it onto Denver's ROF then u know u r getting of a great honor
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Old 05-17-2012, 09:49 PM   #10
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Quote:
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2. Gene Mingo, kicker, punter, running back, kick returner, 1960-64.

In 2009, Mingo was asked to be honorary captain for the Broncos throwback game against the Patriots, marking the first AFL game played between the two teams in 1960. Mingo proudly wore a brown throwback #21 jersey. But the truth is the Broncos didn’t offer to pay for his jersey, so he shelled out his own money and had the jersey customized for the game. Needless to say, the Broncos owe him much more than a free jersey.
Great read. Pretty low blow right there. The team should be ashamed. Did they make Gene buy a ticket to the game too?
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Old 05-17-2012, 10:23 PM   #11
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"Fletcher is hands down the most overlooked and underappreciated Bronco of all time."

This times a million.
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Old 05-17-2012, 11:22 PM   #12
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5'11, 200 pound ILB...

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Old 05-18-2012, 12:15 PM   #13
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Yep.

My friend who is a duh bear fan thinks Odoms should be in the HOF. He tells me stories of all these great Odoms moments he remembers better than me.

I would love to see more old Broncos in the RF including Upchurch and Odoms and Fletcher.
Odoms was a beast. He made one of the greatest catches in Bronco history against the Raiders one game. He was going over the middle, extended one hand to catch the ball, and then got leveled by the Raiders safety (maybe it was Tatum, don't remember) without dropping the ball. I've seen great one handed catches before, but never where the receiver was hit as hard after the catch and still held on as this one.
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Old 05-18-2012, 12:26 PM   #14
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Sweet. John Engelberger will be eligible next year.
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Old 05-18-2012, 02:22 PM   #15
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Sweet. John Engelberger will be eligible next year.
Did he play 4 years here? No wonder Shanahan got fired
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Old 05-18-2012, 02:37 PM   #16
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Sweet. John Engelberger will be eligible next year.
Why would he care to share his legend with others when he has his own room?

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Old 05-18-2012, 02:39 PM   #17
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And here's a shot of what's inside the room:

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Old 05-18-2012, 06:40 PM   #18
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Mingo was a trailblazer. An African-American kicker when no one in the NFL would give him a shot. Led the AFL in scoring twice and played every offensive skill position except qb.

Then there's Odoms with Hof numbers that can't get into rof.

But the biggest snub is Upchurch. The only Bronco to be named to 2 all-decade teams!!!

And it appears Bowlen will never vote these older guys in.
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Old 05-18-2012, 09:35 PM   #19
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Does my heart good to see Mr. Mingo getting some love.
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Old 05-19-2012, 10:01 PM   #20
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Mingo was special. He still goes to Broncos games, signs autographs, poses for pictures.

I hope Bowlen does the right thing and ring in Mingo, Upchurch, Odoms, Fletcher and a few other forgotten greats.
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