Thomas: Out of thin air
As a Broncos fan, the blue-and-orange skies out by Denver International Airport often struck a chord the nights when I was driving limos, but I remember one taking hold of my heartstrings and compelling me to post on Facebook: “If God’s not a Broncos fan, then … why should I care, because I’m agnostic?”
Unllike my atheist buddy Nick, who has some sort of childhood tie to Steve Foley (and then played linebacker at Eagle Valley), orange and blue wasn’t a natural color combo for me. My whole family has some sort of tie to either Clemson or Virginia Tech (two oranges, purple and maroon), and I grew up halfway between Charlotte, which only got an NFL team my junior year in college, and Washington, D.C., a city and football franchise I want nothing to do with.
(Incidentally, my favorite sportswriter who doesn’t share a name with a famous psychoanalyst is Gregg Easterbrook from Columbia, Maryland, who used to be with ESPN, then The New York Times — pretty funny, given that one of his recurring bits is an exhaustive, entertaining rundown of the Gray Lady’s errors, corrections and clarifications — and now the Weekly Standard. He writes a lot about D.C., Maryland and Virginia teams, including that one he won’t name and the one in my backyard, which ended up as the subject of his book “The King of Sports.”)
My actual, biological sister’s alma mater is blue and orange and has excelled in pretty much all sports, including holding the No. 1 ranking in FBS football at least once, but I attended more of a girls soccer school with a much simpler color scheme — white and a light blue that matches my eyes. (People on my campus tours used to ask if my alma mater mandated my wearing colored contacts.) The football coach, who just returned there after two decades and a national championship elsewhere, had turned it into a top-10 program when I left, and the Panthers were surprisingly good, too, in their first couple of years, when I moved to Colorado.
So I attended my first NFL game, Nov. 9, 1997, with Vail Trail publisher Allen Knox, and with divided loyalties. But the result was decisive: Denver 34, Carolina 0, and I was a Broncos fan. I remember freezing in the snow, watching Darrien Gordon break off those long punt-return touchdowns and then being suddenly more comfortable with orange and blue on the ride back to Vail.
The Broncos’ transformation from Super Bowl also-ran, the butt of a great joke on “The Simpsons,” began pretty precisely when I moved to Vail the first time, right after they lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1997 playoffs. That next season, when I started going to games, they won their first Super Bowl, which I watched with one of the Battle Mountain athletes I covered and her dad at the Red Lion. The next, the culmination of the season when I went to Broncos training camp in Greeley, I watched at Vail Valley Hospital with our production manager, who had broken his leg shortly beforehand.
Twenty years ago, then, I moved to Tahoe. But when I went west, things went south for the Broncos: Terrell Davis, Brian Griese’s golden retriever. My boss, who had come from Contra Costa County, California, warned me not to get so comfortable in blue and orange that I wore it in Oakland or Antioch. It was the same the other times I lived in Northern California, though the Chargers fans had a lot more to chirp about than the Raiders supporters.
The Broncos were better when I was in Summit County and Glenwood and then started getting good again when I was in Aspen: first Jake Plummer, then the Tim Tebow experiment a few years later and, finally, Peyton Manning.
My own auctumnum mirabilis covered eight days when Brock Osweiler quarterbacked the Broncos to a win in Chicago, I watched my Tar Heels beat the hometown Hokies in Frank Beamer’s final home game as Virginia Tech’s head coach, and then my buddy Richie Rich called me from Aspen early Thanksgiving morning to offer me free tickets for the Sunday-nighter against New England in Denver. We watched the Broncos win in the snow with my buddy JAIII, maybe the nicest guy I know but a Pats fan, in attendance.
(Easterbrook’s book I mentioned earlier is largely about Beamer. If he had done nothing more than change the cover to orange and maroon and added a picture of the coach, the author could have made a pile of money at that game that I attended, even though the Hokies lost, 30-27.)
With the Broncos down 14-7 at halftime, I vowed to buy a jersey if they pulled it off, and immediately knew which one: the guy with whom I share a nickname and a last name, who played at the school where my dad got his Ph.D. I fulfilled my promise, and Nick passed out on my futon with his feet somehow still in their shoes on the floor, as the Broncos somehow beat Jesse’s Pats again, 20-18. We engineered that same sleeping arrangement the night before the Super Bowl 50 against the Panthers, and I think that, as much as Von Miller, Danny Trevathan and T.J. Ward, is why the Broncos won.
But my relationship with my chosen team has not been purely linear nor based on propinquity. The next year, when I drove limos in Denver — my passengers included Foley and Virgil Green — they missed the playoffs. And then the past couple of years, while I was working for an events-management group in Mile High Stadium, eventually as a supervisor in the west elevator lobby, the Broncos fell on times as hard as Invesco, as hard as Sports Authority, perhaps even harder than losing to the Jags in those ’97 playoffs.
After that miracle run in 2015-16, a Super Bowl and two national title games for my school — one of which I went to and the other, which actually resulted in a championship — I don’t actually believe that my moving back to Vail has the power to change their mojo this year, no matter who’s sleeping on my couch and how. But there’s no reason to believe it won’t turn around eventually. If God’s not a Broncos fan …
Dan Thomas remembers laughing when the Baltimore Ravens drafted Joe Flacco because of that funk-hip-hop-jazz collective that used to play events in Vail and Beaver Creek in the late ’90s. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.