DENVER — Ken Osborne was adamant and defiant. “Tom Brady is scared. He’s shaking in his boots. Peyton Manning wins this game for us. You watch.”
Osborne, of course, is a Denver Broncos fan.
A lot of people will watch the New England Patriots and Brady play the Broncos and Manning for the AFC championship on Sunday afternoon. The sellout crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium will be raucous. Broncos fans believe this is their year to win the Super Bowl.
Sunday’s winner goes on to the Super Bowl in New Jersey in two weeks, and that should be the primary story line. But somehow, whether you’re talking to people in downtown Denver or in the heart of Boston or Portland, the talk shifts quickly to the two great quarterbacks who will face each other for the 15th time.
“Peyton has to win three Super Bowls just to survive in his own family,” said Osborne. “His brother, Eli (a quarterback for the New York Giants), has his two and he beat the Patriots, didn’t he? Peyton has his one. He needs two more. He gets the second this time. It’s karma.”
Osborne and a friend, Paul Bidner, came to Denver this weekend from Sioux City, Iowa. They don’t have tickets to Sunday’s game and won’t pay scalper’s prices.
“We’ll tailgate with all the rest of the Broncos fans,” said Bidner. “Then we’ll watch the game from Hooters.”
They’ll celebrate the victory there, they say.
It was late Saturday morning in a downtown district of Denver. Few people were walking out of the several major hotels or strolling down the 16th Street Mall. The 108th National Western Stock Show and Rodeo is in the middle of a two-week run and, frankly, there were more banners welcoming ranchers than football fans. More cowboy Stetsons seen than Broncos caps.
Although it was difficult to miss the splashes of orange here and there. Orange and blue are the Broncos’ colors. Thirty-five years ago, Denver’s defense was known as the Orange Crush.
Make no mistake, I was told, the Broncos own this city, much as the Steelers own Pittsburgh. Unlike the Steelers, the Broncos’ reach sprawls the entire state and the High Plains region. John Elway, the quarterback who led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning two, is now the executive vice president of the team and very visible. He is revered here. His presence unifies the widespread fan base.
In fact, the Broncos are big on unity. To overcome last January’s double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, a “United in Orange, Time to Ride” campaign started soon after the emotional defeat. Friday at lunchtime, that theme was sounded again in a big rally for fans.
David George had “United in Orange” T-shirts for sale in the small Sportsfans store where he worked on the 16th Street Mall. They were selling, but not as much as the “Omaha, Omaha, Hurry, Hurry” T-shirts. “Omaha, Omaha” is what Manning sometimes shouts at the line of scrimmage before the snap. Manning won’t say why.
“We got them last week,” said George. “We’ve sold an awful lot.”
Last season’s hot seller was: “When a Colt grows up, it becomes a Bronco,” referring to Manning coming to the Broncos after he was released from the Indianapolis Colts following neck surgery.
Chris Butler, wearing a Stetson, stood in front of the “Omaha, Omaha” shirts, considering the purchase. He has a ranch some 80 miles north of Omaha, Neb., and was in Denver for the Western Stock Show. He’s also a Broncos fan, though he won’t be upset if the Patriots win.
“This is an iconic game. How many more years do Brady and Manning have left? It’s like when (Joe) Montana and (Dan) Marino played in 1993. It was the end of an era. I think we’re looking at another end of the era,” he said.
Three women from the Boston area entered the store, two very visible in their Patriots colors. They had arrived earlier in the morning; their husbands were flying in later. They were quietly confident.
I asked if they were hassled much by Broncos fans. Not at all, they said. Denver is part of America’s heartland. There’s passion but there’s also tolerance here.
“We love this team,” said Gerri Kelly, while Anna Spangenberg and Lori Monsini stood close.
Other Patriots fans walked through the door. George kidded with them. “Sorry, we’re all out of Brady shirts.”
Actually, he wasn’t kidding. Anything with Brady’s name sells well, even in Denver, and the stack of Brady shirts George once had is gone. Rob Gronkowski, the injured New England tight end, also sold out. On the other hand, George couldn’t get any LeGarrette Blount shirts. Shirt makers haven’t caught up with the suddenly hot Patriots running back.
“What have I been hearing from Broncos fans? There’s no team that scares them more than the Patriots,” said George, who apparently had not met the confident Ken Osborne. He also doesn’t forget New England’s 34-31 overtime win over Denver on Nov. 24. “Broncos fans are nervous. They remember losing that 24-point lead and the game during the season. But this game is at home.”
George doesn’t intend to watch the Patriots-Broncos game on television. He’s from Canton, Ohio, and a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. “It’s too painful. The Browns aren’t in (the playoffs) again. Watching will just make me remember.”
I returned to my hotel. A woman dressed in a full fur coat and orange silk scarf got on the elevator with her husband. I joined them. Was the scarf part of her wardrobe? She laughed.
They’re from Arizona and in Denver for the Western Stock Show and are Arizona Cardinals fans. “I just bought this scarf. I figured I’d get in the spirit of things. When in Rome …”
Ken Osborne came to mind. “Everyone,” he said before we parted, “wants to be a Bronco.”
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: