This is part 4 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.
Previous: Mr. October (1977)
I've previously written about my fascination with the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, but the first team other than one of my own that captured my interest was the 1977 Denver Broncos. Not surprisingly, it was their "Orange Crush" defense that really caught my attention, which included five Pro Bowlers—defensive end Lyle Alzado, linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson, and defensive backs Bill Thompson and Louis Wright.
For some reason, though, my favorite player was explosive punt returner Rick Upchurch, who led the league in 1976 with 4 TDs and 13.7 yards per return. His 1977 wasn't quite as spectacular, but he still led the NFL in return yards while averaging 12.8 yards a pop. Whether true or not, I always felt that Upchurch was overshadowed by Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. He certainly didn't have as great of a nickname. Incidentally, both players rank in the top ten all-time in punt return yards and touchdowns, while neither is in the top ten in number of punt returns.
The fact that I developed an interest in the Broncos in 1977 probably points more to my frustration with the Giants than to some early interest in Cinderella stories. I had become a fan while they were in the midst of an 18-year drought of not making the playoffs. They had gone 3-11 in 1976, didn't show many signs of impending improvement, and frankly, I was spoiled by the Yankees' recent success.
As had become a tradition in recent years, our family visited my Uncle Joe and Aunt Kay on New Year's Day of 1978. Uncle Joe and Aunt Kay weren't really my aunt and uncle, but they were like my dad's family, since he didn't really have much of a real family. His father had abandoned he and his mother when he was just a little boy, and his mother wasn't really up for the role of raising him on her own, so he ended up being passed around from family to family during his childhood. As a result, I had three grandmothers as a child, with the longest surviving being my dad's godmother, with whom he lived for six of his childhood years.
Uncle Joe was about 10 years older than my father, and he had taken him under his wing during his young adult years. Dad worked at Uncle Joe's service station and rented an apartment in Joe and Kay's house for some time. Needless to say, Joe was like the older brother that my father—who was an only child—never had, so the fact that my sister and I called him Uncle Joe was for much greater reason than that he didn't want to be referred to as Mister.
On New Year's Day 1978, the Broncos defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship, while the Dallas Cowboys earned the trip to their fourth Super Bowl by dominating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game. The year before, Uncle Joe and I had begun a practice of betting a quarter on the Super Bowl. Of course, he let me pick my team, and I did so based not on who I thought would win, but who I wanted to root for.
I chose correctly for Super Bowl XI, picking Oakland over Minnesota, but this year I was picking the overwhelming underdog. I had faith, however. After all, I was 10 years old.
As you probably know, Dallas defeated Denver rather handily, 27-10. But, I wasn't convinced that the superior team had won. So, when I mailed Uncle Joe the quarter I owed him, accompanying it was a note outlining all the "what-ifs" that, had they happened differently, would have resulted in a completely different outcome.
Uncle Joe sent the quarter back, with his own note explaining why he couldn't accept my "tear-stained quarter." I was upset, because I had lost the bet fair and square. I may have been making excuses for why my team had lost, but in no way was I trying to renege on the bet.
Uncle Joe died a few years ago. Sitting in the funeral home, waiting for my turn to pay my last respects, an idea popped into my head. I reached into my pocket and found not just any coin, but a 1977 quarter. That tear-stained quarter will spend eternity in the breast pocket of the suit Uncle Joe was laid to rest in.
Next: The Boston Massacre (1978)
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