Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Highlands Ranch
A 'Greek' Legend
Being that it is the "part of the off season that totally stinks," I thought I would share this article about the longest tenured Bronco.
This article was in the alumni magazine for the University of Northern Colorado….my alma mater. Enjoy!
A 'Greek' Legend
Steve Antonopulos isn’t certain who gave him the nickname “Greek” 35 years ago when the UNC alumnus joined the Denver Broncos.
To this day, the unmistakable face of the Broncos’ athletic training staff is greeted by the moniker by virtually all who know him.
“I’ve had many players through the years call the phone here and want to talk with me, and I’ll answer ‘Athletic Training Room, this is Steve,’ and they’ll say ‘Can I talk to Greek?’” he says from behind his desk in his office that overlooks the training room at the Broncos’ headquarters at Dove Valley in Englewood. “Most of them don’t know my real name.”
Those same players, along with everyone else for that matter, can also call him the longest-tenured member of the Denver Broncos. Only one other head athletic trainer in the NFL has served longer (Baltimore’s Bill Tessendorf has spent 37 years with the franchise). Greek has been with the team through all six of its Super Bowl appearances, including his second year with the team in 1977 and the back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998.
Since his arrival in 1976, Greek has worked under six head coaches (John Ralston, Red Miller, Dan Reeves, Wade Phillips, Mike Shanahan and current head coach Josh McDaniels), three owners (the past 26 years with Pat Bowlen) and some two dozen different starting quarterbacks (John Elway for 16 “action-packed years”). Such coaching turnover usually results in completely new staffs brought in by the head coach. Each one has elected to retain Greek.
“That speaks very highly of his talent,” says Tom Petroff, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame who led the Bears when Greek was a student-trainer for the baseball team. “I felt at the time that he was going to be a pioneer in the field. And he’s contributed very well to the national scene.”
Greek is living out what he calls his dream job. Each day is different from the one before—except maybe for one thing that’s become routine.
A self-professed morning person, he’s usually the first to turn on the lights in the office around 4 a.m.—yes, you read that right—and spends the first hours of the day planning and taking care of himself to prepare for the day.
“I do things that I need to do whether it be to read, meditate, actually do work or work out. It’s just my time,” he says.
Longtime Broncos spokesman Jim Saccomano, who ranks second behind Greek in service with the Broncos, considers him a friend and says he inspires the athletic training staff through the example he sets.
“He doesn’t do his job by watching the clock,” Saccomano says. “He’s a pleasure to know and work with, and I’m genuinely honored my time is marked parallel to his.”
Over the span of three decades, Greek has taped so many ankles he can’t accurately estimate what the total number is, nor is he sure how many players he’s come in contact with through his role. He’s one of the first on the field when a player gets injured, and there by his side during treatment to get him back on the field.
“The greatest thing is when a guy comes back from an injury and contributes to the team,” Greek says. “It’s about being a little piece that helps the team be what it is.”
His commitment and expertise have not gone unnoticed by the Broncos.
“There’s no doubt that Greek is an extremely valuable member of this organization,” Coach McDaniels says. “He’s one of the most experienced trainers in the NFL, if not in all of sports, and we are very fortunate to have him with the Broncos. He and his staff do a great job keeping our players healthy, both from a preventative and rehabilitative aspect, and his knowledge within the field of sports medicine is second to none.”
In 1967, Greek arrived at UNC (Colorado State College at the time) from Hugo, a “spot in the road in eastern Colorado,” where he thrived as a multi-sport athlete in high school and graduated in a class of 16. The football teams he played on won back-to-back state championships his junior and senior years, although he admits he didn’t think he was good enough to play in college.
Ralph Johnson (BA-66, MA-67), a friend from Hugo who was a student-trainer at UNC, knew Greek was interested in sports medicine and encouraged him to consider athletic training.
Greek’s brother, Glenn (BA-61, MA-67), attended and graduated from UNC just before Greek arrived. Johnson introduced Greek to the training staff, UNC Hall of Famers Tony Rossi (MA-49) and the late Dan Libera, who’s also a member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Hall of Fame. The family connection and the staff sold him on UNC—as did the school’s size that eased the transition from a small town.
Under Libera’s tutelage, Greek became a student-trainer in an apprenticeship, as Greek refers to it, before athletic training became a formal part of the curriculum. Libera, who started the student-training program, entrusted him with being the sole athletic trainer for basketball and baseball. Greek also traveled with the football team.
“Tony Rossi gave me the opportunity and Dan Libera pushed me to the next level, motivating me to learn more, to investigate more, to be better at what I’m doing,” Greek says.
“I owe my career to the University of Northern Colorado and the mentoring I received here from Dan Libera,” Greek says, adding how devastating it was to lose him to ALS in 1997 at the age of 49. “He was a special leader and more importantly a special friend, and I miss him a lot.”
Greek fondly remembers the era’s teams and coaches, who like Libera and Rossi are in UNC’s Athletics Hall of Fame. He recalls the football team coached by Bob Blasi (MA-57) ranking third in the nation (“He’s a great man, a great coach and was far ahead of his time,” Greek says), basketball teams under George Sage (BA-55, MA-57) and Thurm Wright (BA-51) being perennial powers, and the wrestling team under Jack LaBonde (BA-51, MA-53) being thrust in the national spotlight with matches in Gunter Hall that drew so many the only free space in the former gym was the mat itself. Former baseball coach Petroff is “one of my favorite all-time people, and I still communicate with him occasionally,” Greek says.
Petroff helped Greek land his first job in athletic training at Fort Hays State, where Greek’s friend Johnson had also worked and vouched for him.
“The fact is Steve has a great personality and gets along very well with people,” Petroff says. “Secondly, he has a great mind, wanting to succeed and gain the knowledge to apply to his profession. I have great respect for him.”
Three years after his arrival at Fort Hays State, Greek would be in the NFL.
Greek grew up a Broncos fan and dreamed of working for the team, so when an athletic tape salesman came through Fort Hays and idly mentioned to Greek an opening existed with the Broncos, he needed little nudging to apply.
He cold-called Broncos head athletic trainer Allen Hurst and said he’d be in Denver with the Fort Hays basketball team on a road trip to Colorado that included a game at UNC. Could they meet, Greek asked, something Greek admits he’d never agree to today now that he’s on the other side of the desk. To his surprise, Hurst scheduled breakfast with him. Greek called to confirm a few days before, and Hurst said he also had “this guy from Kansas coming up” to visit him at the same time.
Any misgivings quickly vanished, however, over what became a five-hour breakfast at the restaurant overlooking Denver at the top of a hotel next to Mile High Stadium. Hurst and Greek had to race back to catch a bus so Greek wouldn’t miss the basketball game at UNC.
“I thought he was going to hire me on the spot,” Greek says. “I went back to Fort Hays feeling good about things.”
Three weeks later, Greek returned to Denver and was interviewed by then-head coach Ralston. He’d prepared for the interview by familiarizing himself with the team, including all of the players’ injuries. The former Stanford coach pulled out Greek’s résumé and read through each line, pausing to allow Greek to fill in the silence.
“By the end of the résumé, what seemed like hours, I’m saying to myself ‘I have no shot at this job,’” Greek says.
Greek admitted as much to Hurst at dinner that evening. Hurst reassured him that Ralston was like that with everyone.
Sure enough, Greek was hired a week later.
“I was in heaven at that point,” he says.
Greek, who addressed graduates at the recent spring commencement in May, reminded them not to be afraid to take risks in pursuing their dreams.
“I remember when I took the job with the Denver Broncos, I had to take a $3,000 pay cut,” Greek told them. “Thirty-five years later, I think the risk was worth it.”
He’d be lying, though, if he didn’t admit to initially second-guessing himself. Greek’s first day on the job March 17, 1976, he strode into the Broncos’ locker room and was welcomed by two players huddled around a keg of beer. The two were toasting St. Patrick’s Day, a wee bit early at 9 a.m.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my goodness what am I getting into,’” he says.
Needless to say, a lot has changed in the past three decades.
The Quonset hut in north Denver where that scene in 1976 played out has long been forgotten and replaced by a swanky facility in Englewood.
Players no longer show up to training camp out of shape (or swilling beer in the locker room, for that matter). Broncos legend Tom Jackson and other players of the era arrived at training camp to get in shape, Greek says, and “they made no bones about it.”
That doesn’t happen as strength and conditioning coaches have now entered the scene and the NFL has become a year-round affair.
That’s affected how Greek and his staff operate, too. Now, the only thing that really changes during the season for him is that he doesn’t get weekends off. Before the recent NFL draft, Greek and his staff worked with coaches to assign medical grades for players and previously assessed prospects at the NFL Combine, a job fair of sorts for invitees. That’s followed by minicamps and organized team activities before training camp ushers in the official preseason in July. The 16-game season starts in September, and playoffs now extend into February.
Speaking of extensions, Greek’s plan after joining the Broncos was to stay only a few years.
“I had big aspirations,” he says.
And the offers came. Two stand out early in his career. The New York Jets asked him to interview for their head athletic training position in just his second year with the Broncos.
“It was a substantial raise,” says Greek, who was making $14,000 a year at the time. But Greek turned down the invitation, saying to the Jets general manager: “I’m from Hugo, Colorado, there’s no way I’m going to New York City.”
The second offer a couple years later was from the San Francisco 49ers. It was the middle of June (Greek didn’t want to leave Hurst “high and dry”) and the cost of living was “out of this world.” He’s quick to point out that the 49ers later went on to win five Super Bowls under legendary head coach Bill Walsh.
What Greek came to realize, though, was that with the Broncos he’d found the perfect fit. Hurst allowed him to branch out and attend coaches meetings and participate in the rehabilitation of players—uncommon for a relatively new assistant athletic trainer fresh from a small college, he says. His title quickly changed to director of rehabilitation.
Greek wouldn’t have to wait long before becoming the Broncos’ head athletic trainer in 1980, when Hurst left to go into the restaurant business.
“I’ve been working my dream job,” he says. “I can honestly say there’s not been a day in 34-years plus coming to work that I’ve dreaded.”
Greek maintains strong ties to UNC, in part by actively seeking qualified UNC students and graduates to fill internships with the team. Two of his current staff members are UNC grads.
“There are lots of people in athletic training, and he knows just about every single one of them,” says Nate Hepner (BS-07), who like Greek worked at Fort Hays State before joining the Broncos’ athletic training staff last June. “To be in the profession as long as he has and see as much as he has, it’s a blessing to be able to work for him.”
Current Broncos assistant trainer Trae Tashiro (BA-01) and UNC head athletic trainer Rawley Klingsmith (BA-00), who interned for the Broncos under Greek from 2002-03, are also part of that fraternity. When reflecting on his time with Greek, Klingsmith’s first thought is how Greek embodies the following quote that’s framed and hangs in the Broncos’ training room: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
“Greek places a high value on each person, regardless of title, power or position,” Klingsmith says. “He is the best at what he does, and in my opinion the best athletic trainer in the profession, because he continually seeks to get better.
“Who I am and where I am in my career, I owe a great deal of that to Greek.”
Greek appreciates those compliments—Broncos legend John Elway thanked him by name during his Hall of Fame induction speech in Canton, Ohio, as did former coach Mike Shanahan in his final press conference with the team.
“It’s all about doing the right thing,” he says. “I feel like if they say things like that that maybe I did something right.”
As long as he’s healthy, still passionate and wanted by the Broncos, he plans on answering when someone asks for Greek, the Broncos head athletic trainer, for many more years to come.
“If I left tomorrow, there’d be 1,000 people in line for my job. They would be just as well off with someone new as they are with me, but I’m going to defend this desk until the last second,” he says, knocking on the surface.