The Broncos have enough of a storied history to provide a plethora of games worth celebrating for their excellence and their importance to the team’s history.
This was not one of those games.
The contest of Sept. 20, 1987, is an oddity. An outlier. And in some ways, it remains the most unusual game in Broncos history, a contest played in muck between one team going to the Super Bowl and another in the midst of its most mediocre era.
The Broncos, in their fourth season under owner Pat Bowlen, were going places. The Green Bay Packers, headed toward their fifth consecutive season at .500 or worse, were simply stuck in the mud.
For one day, the Packers dragged the Broncos into the mud with them — literally as well as figuratively.
In a decrepit old stadium, under the shadow of a players’ strike and with jerseys so caked with dirt that most jersey numbers couldn’t be identified by the end of regulation, the Broncos and Packers slogged their way to a 17-17 tie.
Thirty-two years later, it remains the only regular-season game in Wisconsin that the Broncos did not lose.
“MY MEMORY IS BROWN”
This isn’t some creative way of saying that Jim Saccomano’s recollection of this game is in sepia tones. For the longtime Broncos public-relations guru, the memories of the day are as clear as they were when he entered his kitchen after the postgame flight home and removed his drenched slacks and his mud-caked boots.
“You get on the plane afterward [and] there’s just mud everywhere,” Saccomano said.
Milwaukee County Stadium was in its final years as an NFL home when the Broncos’ team buses pulled up to it 32 years ago. The Packers had played at least two games a year there since 1953, and had played part of their home schedule in Milwaukee since the Great Depression. Without the games in Milwaukee, the franchise wouldn’t have been viable.
But it was a poor stadium for football. Like many NFL homes of that day, it was also a baseball venue, hosting the Milwaukee Braves for 14 seasons and the Brewers from 1970 until 2000. Because placing one team bench on the first-base side of the stadium would have meant not being able to sell seats in the first few rows on that side, both benches were on the east sideline, with each team occupying one side of the 50-yard line.
The Brewers’ season was still in full swing when the Broncos played there in 1987, so the dirt infield remained. And it didn’t take long on the rainy day for the dirt to turn to mud.
“It’s the days when you’ve got a barrel-chested groundskeeper with a hose just kind of watering the field,” Saccomano said. “Far less than the sophisticated techniques that you have in field draining and design and everything today.
“And when it rained, that was it. End of story. And you’re playing on it, and half the field is mud. Oh, it was awful.”
Players would fall to the ground and would slide two or three yards. They rose coated in mud, to the point where the jersey numbers weren’t identifiable on some players.
“That’s no football field. It’s a baseball diamond,” Broncos kicker Rich Karlis told media after the game. “That grass hadn’t been cut in a week.”
After the 1994 season, the Packers abandoned County Stadium for good. By then, Lambeau Field had luxury suites and was in the process of adding the various revenue-producing accouterments that modern big-league sports franchises require. These days, Lambeau Field’s seating bowl rests under the shadow of a phalanx of luxury boxes and thousands of club seats, all of which are filled for every game.
Nowadays, the only thing small about the Green Bay Packers is their market size. Every other aspect of their franchise places them among the league’s tentpole clubs.
But the Milwaukee years linger. To this day, the Packers still have two sets of season-ticket packages — named “Green” and “Gold” for their team colors. The “Gold” group is comprised of three games — one preseason contest, and the second and fifth regular-season home games. It is the successor to the Milwaukee season-ticket package. Even a quarter-century after the last game at County Stadium, most of the fans holding “Gold” tickets are from Milwaukee and other parts of southeast and south-central Wisconsin.
The Broncos’ 2019 trip to Green Bay, by the way, is a “Gold” game. Coincidentally, the gold Packers pants and helmets were about the only items discernible on the players’ uniforms as they kept falling into the County Stadium slop in 1987.
PLAYING TO THE WEATHER
The game lived down to the conditions — mainly because of them.
Denver came out trying to run its usual game plan. Three first-quarter giveaways squashed that. The Broncos endured a muffed Ricky Nattiel punt return, a Clarence Kay fumble and an interception off John Elway in the game’s first 10 minutes. But the Packers could only convert the good fortune into a single touchdown.
Midway through the second quarter, Packers linebacker John Anderson intercepted Elway. The Packers drove 45 yards in eight plays — six of which were runs — to extend their lead to 14-0.
“I just couldn’t grip the ball,” Elway told The [Colorado Springs] Gazette-Telegraph after the game.
At one point, Elway said he tried to talk head coach Dan Reeves out of calling passes.
“When I tried to throw it, I just couldn’t hold onto the ball,” Elway said that day. “I even tried to goose it to [running back Gene Lang], and that didn’t work.”
That attempt to Lang was intercepted by Green Bay’s Brian Noble in overtime. By that point, the Broncos had slogged their way back into the game, outscoring the Packers 17-3 after falling into the early deficit.
Despite the giveaways, Denver moved the ball effectively — particularly on the ground. Lang, Sammy Winder, Gerald Willhite and Steve Sewell allowed the Broncos to run for 197 yards on 45 carries. They finished the day with 478 yards and 29 first downs.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ strategy was as conservative as it was pragmatic. Their quarterback, Don Majkowski, was in his first career start after making the team as a 10th-round longshot. The previous year, he guided the Virginia Cavaliers to a 3-8 finish. Now he was at the helm of one of the NFL’s most storied teams.
Two years later, Majkowski would prove so capable of leading a dynamic attack that his penchant for deep connections and last-gasp comebacks earned him a nickname that Packers fans remember to this day: “The Majik Man.”
But on a muddy Milwaukee Sunday, his head coach, Forrest Gregg, didn’t want to take any chances. They ran on 41 of their 64 plays. Most of their passes were short. In 75 minutes of play, the Pack mustered a piddling 234 yards, the fewest ever for a team that played a full 15-minute overtime that ended in a tie.
Gregg entered the game in peril, his seat sizzling. His three previous Packers teams had barfed their way out of the blocks, opening 1-7, 3-6 and 1-9 before finding their form. His record in the final six weeks of those seasons was 12-6, but it never did the Pack any good; the revivals were too little, too late.
It looked like 1987 was headed in the same direction. After a 20-0 home thrashing at the hands of the Los Angeles Raiders the previous week, Gregg desperately needed any result that wasn’t a loss.
After the game, he admitted as much.
“I really think the key thing here for us is that we didn’t lose,” Gregg told media after the game.
Some Broncos felt the same. Not only did the game mark the only time they didn’t lose in Wisconsin, but it marked the last time that they didn’t suffer a defeat when turning over the football at least six times.
“Hey, we didn’t lose,” Kay told The Gazette-Telegraph after the game. “We can walk away from here with a good taste in our mouths.”
But the overwhelming sentiment was that the Broncos let a victory slip from their grasp. Never before in franchise history had the Broncos amassed at least 27 first downs without scoring at least 20 points. That wouldn’t happen again until 2002, and then once more against Chicago last week.
And finally, the Broncos had the game on Karlis’ bare right foot with 13 seconds remaining in overtime. It was the result of a wild two-play sequence in the final 1:22 of overtime in which Elway threw an interception, then Green Bay running back Kenneth Davis fumbled. After a 14-yard Elway run, the Broncos were at the Green Bay 23-yard line, and Karlis had his shot.
The problem was, he couldn’t find his footing. After six turnovers and dozens of pratfalls because of the weather and the surface, Karlis’ plant foot slipped. The kick sailed wide left.
“You can’t even say, ‘Oh, dog gone it, he could have made that.’ He couldn’t kick it! And he couldn’t run up to it!” Saccomano said. “You couldn’t even run to kick the ball. It was awful.”
The field was as bad as Karlis had ever seen.
“The grass was really a nightmare,” Karlis told media in the locker room after the game. “I slipped with my plant foot and fell down. What can I do?”
“I knew Rich was going to have a tough time on that field,” Elway told The Denver Post that day. “Running on that field was like trying to run on eggshells, it was so slick.”
Two plays after Karlis landed in the mud, the three-hour, 48-minute affair mercifully ended.
Lingering over the teams like the layers of clouds that day was a looming work stoppage. Negotiations between the owners and NFL Players Association had stalled, primarily over free agency.
Sunday, the Broncos played. Monday, they met and learned that the NFLPA’s second strike in five years was on. By Tuesday Broncos players picketed outside of team headquarters while the coaches and personnel executives inside the building at 57th Avenue and North Logan Street scrambled to gather their roster of replacement players in time for their first practice that Thursday.
After one week to get everything in order, the Broncos “B” team began play two weeks after the tie and won two of three games as a smattering of players crossed the picket line. Those replacement Broncos lost their first game, but won the next two. They didn’t pack Mile High Stadium as the regulars did, but over 60,000 turned out for the fill-ins’ second game, a Monday Night Football clash with the Raiders. It wasn’t a coincidence that the strike officially ended within 96 hours, with one final replacement game before the regulars came back to work.
Denver’s regular players returned for the sixth game, holding a 3-1-1 record for which they were only partially responsible. It took them a while to shake off the rust and regain their footing, which was only marginally better than it was at County Stadium.
As the season progressed, the odd little tie grew larger for the Broncos. The “and 1” on the Broncos’ ledger ended up being the difference between them and the Cleveland Browns in the AFC standings; the Broncos finished 10-4-1, while the Browns were 10-5.
Thus, the AFC Championship Game — a rematch of the previous year’s contest, punctuated by “The Drive” led by Elway — took take place at Mile High Stadium, and not at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.
And who knows if Jeremiah Castille would have jarred the football loose from Earnest Byner at the goal line if he had not had the raucous masses of Broncos fans in the South Stands providing a noisy soundtrack. Who knows if the Broncos would have held a lead they nearly frittered away?
But all that never came to pass. The Broncos took their tie, went on strike, came back and were thankful for not losing despite six giveaways. Cleveland is still looking for its first Super Bowl appearance. The Packers fired Gregg after the 1987 season and sacked his successor, Lindy Infante, four years later. In 1992, Majkowski got Wally Pipped by Brett Favre.
And the Broncos went back to their losing ways in Wisconsin, falling in trips during the 1993, 1996, 2003 and 2011 seasons. Two of those were played after the Broncos had locked in their playoff seeding, and they rested a horde of starters as a result. Most were Packers routs.
The Broncos have played 32 full seasons’ worth of regular-season football since that soggy day at County Stadium. They still haven’t had another afternoon like it — and they likely never will.