New Denver Broncos Ring of Famer Rick Upchurch inspired a crowd of long time fans at the dinner meeting of the Denver Broncos Quarterback Club on Wednesday night.
In introducing Rick I told of my first memory of his outstanding career. On September 21, 1975 I was a 19 year old sitting in the South Stands at the old Mile Hi Stadium watching Rick's first game in the NFL. And oh what a game he had! Three receptions for 153 yards, including a 90 yard touchdown pass from Charlie Johnson. A 13 yard TD run off of a reverse, 88 yards in kickoff returns, 30 yards in punt returns, for 284 total yards. A Bronco rookie record that still stands to this day.
This was only a hint of the great career Rick would have. A four time Pro Bowler, a five time Associated Press All Pro, named to the 1970's All Decade Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and more - Rick's induction into the Broncos Ring of Fame earlier this season was long overdue.
Rick told us of his growing up years in Ohio. Chicago Bears great Gayle Sayers was his hero, and he would imitate Gayle's moves while playing with his dog in the backyard of his family's Toledo, Ohio home. In high school he played baseball and ran track. Baseball was in Rick's roots - his grandfather played in the Negro Leagues. "Baseball is a sissy sport," his track coach told him at the time. This coach encouraged Rick to try out for the football team.
"You are never going to be anything," Rick's aunt would tell him. Rather than becoming discouraged, Rick used his aunt's words to prove her wrong, to motivate him towards bigger goals. "Any negative can be a positive," Rick says he tells kids today. "Every bad play means we can get better."
After a stellar college career at the University of Minnesota, Rick was drafted by the Broncos in the fourth round of the 1975 draft. Rick relates, "John Ralston didn't want me." The Broncos head coach was encouraged to draft Rick from assistant coach Doc Urich, the team's Big 10 scout. "Doc said if I wasn't rookie of the year, he'd buy the coaching staff a steak dinner," Rick said Urich told him years later. "John Ralston told Doc 'if Upchurch isn't rookie of the year - you're fired!'" Rick was to prove Urich right with his amazing first game and impressive rookie season.
A deeply spiritual man, throughout his stories Rick would tell what his faith meant to him. "God has a plan for us," Rick says. "He will point you in the right direction when you pray. God carries me on my journey - He's had me in His hands all the time."
Rick recalled the miracle 1977 team that defeated the mighty Oakland Raiders to earn a spot in Super Bowl XII. Earlier that year the Broncos had upset the Raiders in Oakland. "It's all over fat man!" linebacker Tom Jackson yelled at Raiders coach John Madden. "Keep it down, Tom! We have to play these guys again!" Rick recalls telling Jackson. Sure enough, the Raiders easily defeated the Broncos in Denver two weeks after this upset, but the Broncos were to have the last laugh with their AFC Championship win. "We thought we'd beat Dallas in the Super Bowl," Rick remembers. "I thought we were evenly matched, but we had the edge in special teams." While the Broncos did lose to the Cowboys that day, Rick had an 86 yard kickoff return that led to the Broncos only touchdown, and got Denver back in the game in the second half. That return was the Super Bowl record for longest non-scoring kickoff return for many years.
Rick has fond memories of the Broncos fans, and now that he is back in Denver (having recently moved here with his wife Donna) he wants to reconnect with his many supporters. "It was you fans that helped this man grow," he told the QB Club crowd. "When times look like they are bad, you cheer the team on."
Today Rick is battling leukemia. Though in remission the past two years, Rick still undergoes chemo therapy every day. "My white blood cell count was 130,000 when I was first diagnosed," Rick said. "Being inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame came at just the right time," his wife Donna said.
I've been attending Denver Bronco Qb Club meetings for over 10 years, and this was one of the best. Rick Upchurch was gracious in signing many autographs and telling stories of his playing days. Donna had told me this was not one of Rick's best days health wise, but he did not want to let the fans down and he kept his Bronco QB club commitment. You would have never known Rick was having health issues as he was positive, smiling, and engaging the whole evening with every fan he met.