The Denver Broncos were a charter member of the eight-team American Football League (AFL) in 1960 and eventually would merge into the National Football League (NFL) for the 1970 season. In the history of pro football, they have been one of the few clubs which have kept their same team name and remained in their original city.
However, they almost became the Atlanta Broncos in 1965.
Prior to 1960, several investor groups had solicited the NFL for a franchise to be based in the City of Denver but were refuted. The NFL’s stance was that the Mile High City was too small and isolated. According to the U.S. Census, the population at the time was 493,887 people.
In 1959, a third baseball major league was formed called the Continental League that announced plans to start play in 1961. This would be a boon for cities that had hosted AAA clubs for years without any hope of one day having an actual major league team because the baseball world was adamant about not expanding. The owner of the Denver Bears AAA minor league baseball team, Bob Howsam, saw this new entity as his chance to finally get his city into the majors and subsequently joined along with franchises in Minneapolis, Houston, Toronto and a new club in New York.
One of the requirements of the new league was minimum seating of over 30,000; which was a problem because Bears Stadium was built in 1948 with only 18,000 capacity. So, Howsam decided to expand and update the stadium. Within a year, Major League Baseball worked out an agreement that their league would expand into eight markets with four cities getting franchises almost immediately. They approached the owners of the Houston, Minneapolis and New York Continental League clubs about expansion teams. Houston and New York were granted new teams, and the Washington Senator moved to Minneapolis while Washington accepted an expansion bid. This destroyed three cities in one blow. And with that, the Continental League folded before it began play.
In Denver, the part-time stadium was suddenly too large for AAA baseball and now riddled with debt. Howsam was in trouble. He needed another tenant to pay off the renovations at Bears Stadium and keep money coming in the doors.
He approached the NFL about possible expansion but was told that the league had no intentions of expansion, but that the Chicago Cardinals might be for sale. But Howsam soon learned that several other men - very wealthy men - had already made numerous attempts to purchase and relocate the Cardinals but to no avail.
From that attempt to buy the Cardinals, Texas oilman Lamar Hunt contacted Howsam about a new professional football league that he was forming that would become a rival to the NFL that he called the American Football League (AFL). Hunt was the first man to be turned down from the Cardinals and had a list of others who were refuted. And with that, Howsam joined the upstart AFL in August of 1959. The new league was to begin play in 1960, so the timing was perfect for him as well as the City of Denver.
The team name “Broncos” was the result of a name-the-team contest, but the moniker was also from a popular baseball team called the “Denver Broncos” which had played in the Midwest Baseball League in the 1920s.
Howsam operated the Broncos on a shoestring budget from the get-go. He was unable to purchase new uniforms so he bought the used unies from the Copper Bowl, a defunct college All-Star bowl game that had been played in Tucson, Arizona. The uniform colors were brown and mustard yellow and featured vertically striped socks, so the Broncos’ colors were suddenly brown and mustard. Before the first game, rips and tears had to be stitched. Although Denver had over 200 athletes in training camp, the 35-man roster was chaotic and full of unknown players with limited professional seasons and few NFL castoffs.
The Broncos won the AFL’s very first game, a 13-10 road victory over the Boston Patriots in front of 21,597 fans.
The following season Howsam backed out as owner citing huge losses. In fact, all eight AFL clubs lost money that first season in spite of minimal television revenue, but a majority of the owners were wealthy and could withstand the losses. Howsam was not one of those men. A group of investors led by Gerry Phipps, Carl Kunz, and other minority partners took over the franchise.
For 1962, the club then announced new colors of fire red, blue and white. And with that, the mustard yellow and brown worn-out uniforms were only left as part of pro football history. Then-head coach Jack Faulkner had a bonfire and torched the old, despised striped socks. One set of those horrid socks remain and are on display at the team headquarters in Englewood, Colo. A new logo was done with a caricature bronco design by Bob Bowie of The Denver Post.
For most of the team’s first five years, the Broncos were bottom-feeders. Originally the franchise was without playbooks and instead drew up plays on a blackboard to which players were required to copy them down into notebooks. They traveled as second-class citizens and would often practice on high school fields.
The first four seasons provided records of 4-9-1, 3-11-0, 7-7-0 and 2-11-1. In 1964, things didn’t begin any better. After starting the year 0-4-0, Coach Faulkner was fired. The Broncos only averaged 17,019 fans per season for the first four years and then attendance reached dead last in the league en route to consecutive 2-11-1 seasons.
All across the AFL, there were problems. The Titans of New York received a $40,000 bailout from the league to continue operations. The Chargers had moved from Los Angeles to San Diego as well as the Dallas Texans relocated to Kansas City. The Oakland Raiders were always at the bottom of the attendance chart along with the Broncos, who now were only drawing just over 16,000 per game.
At this point, in 1965 the Broncos’ minority partners wanted to sell the team with Phipps the largest stockholder. The partners knew of an investor group from Atlanta that had tried to purchase the Chargers after the 1961 season and relocate the club to Georgia. Atlanta had hosted three AFL pre-season games in the past including the Broncos vs. the Houston Oilers in 1962 and drew large crowds. The City of Atlanta was ripe for professional football.
These minority owners partnered together and formed a majority voting block even though Phipps, a building contractor, was not on board with the proposed sale. Negotiations went on for several months with Atlanta before Phipps brought in his brother Alan to buy out the shares of the minority owners.
What occurred next was one of the largest fan turnarounds in professional sports.
Before the Atlanta group became known, just under 8,000 season tickets had been bought for the upcoming 1966 season. Before Phipps and his brother bought the club outright, he made a declaration to the people of Denver regarding the Broncos. He reminded them that a pro football franchise was a valuable civic asset and gave the city nationwide recognition, even with a losing record. To him, it didn’t make any sense to continue to lose funds annually in a city that didn’t care whether the team stayed or not. Atlanta still remained a viable play.
And Phipps wanted more from the fans - he wanted results. The Bronco boosters rallied and sold 23,000 season tickets (third highest in the AFL) to ensure the club would remain in Denver.
In 1967, the NFL and AFL announced a merger. Part of the agreement would be a common draft in 1967 along with cross-league pre-season games. Denver would become the first AFL club to overthrow an NFL team when the Broncos defeated the Detroit Lions 13-7 in a preseason contest. In 1969, Bears Stadium was renamed Mile High Stadium.
That same Atlanta group would apply to both the AFL and NFL for expansion franchises. In 1965, after failing to acquire the Broncos, the group was awarded an AFL expansion club with the stipulation that they could secure stadium rights. When this news hit NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, he immediately stepped in and suddenly awarded Atlanta an NFL expansion team with Rankin Smith owner if the City of Atlanta would choose his league over the infant AFL.
The coup worked and Atlanta became an NFL club in 1966. But, that is a different story.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association