As the lights at Mile High Stadium were flicked off for the evening on Sunday, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan walked through the stadium's deserted underbelly relishing his team's 28-17 win over the San Diego Chargers. His face tanned from the afternoon sun and his right hand clutching a rolled-up stat sheet, Shanahan stopped to say hello to a security guard and posed for pictures with a retired couple from Florida before joining his wife, Peggy, the person who just might have played the key role in the Broncos' unlikely 5-1 start.
In late August, on the day after Denver's final preseason game, Peggy and Mike threw a party for the team at their home in the swanky Denver suburb of Cherry Hills. That party apparently bound together this band of NFL misfits who, six weeks later, stand atop the AFC West, a half game ahead of the Chiefs, who were scheduled to play Steelers on Monday night. There were door prizes, a mountain of food and drink, a karaoke machine, pool tournaments, air-hockey matches and card games. All of which may seem trivial to everyone but the Broncos, a team whose roster includes 21 players who have been cut by other franchises. Shanahan, cast out himself by Al Davis in 1989 after just 20 games as the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, had already organized an off-season golf outing and a fishing derby to promote team unity. But Peggy's party seemed to finally do the trick. Attendance was near perfect, and most of the players stayed until the wee hours of the night talking about the upcoming season. In the billion-dollar industry that is pro football, you still can't buy the key component to winning. Team chemistry is something you must build.
"Ask us, and to a man we will tell you, that night was the moment we became a team," says Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe. "The man lives in a mansion with white carpeting, hardwood floors and antiques all over the place, and he brings 75 of us in and says, 'Have fun and stay as long as you want.' That night we became a family."
The benefits of that camaraderie were evident on Sunday. In a showdown of 4-1 division rivals, before a sellout crowd of 75,058, Denver battled back from a 17-0 first-half deficit to win the game. "It's been a long time since this place rocked like it did today," said Shanahan, whose Broncos are off to their best start in seven years. "And in a business like this, when people care about each other, it means all that much more."
The good times at the preseason party—not to mention the color TV he won playing cards—helped soothe Sharpe, a two-time Pro Bowler who was still bitter about being dangled as trade bait for Arizona defensive tackle Eric Swann in the off-season. But Sharpe came up a big winner again on Sunday, catching a team-record 13 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns against the Chargers, who stubbornly refused to double-team him. "If you can't beat people one-on-one in this league, then you're gonna be selling cars pretty quick," said Sharpe. "I'm not very good at selling cars, and John [Elway] isn't hiring at his dealership right now."
The proprietor of John Elway Nissan completed 32 of 41 passes for 323 yards and four scores, in the process steering past Dan Fouts into fourth place on the NFL's alltime passing list, with 43,092 yards. Since taking over in 1995, however, Shanahan has been building the Broncos into a team that doesn't have to rely on number 7 all the time. Denver has the league's second-ranked rushing attack (157.2 yards a game through Sunday) and the NFL's fourth-best defense (allowing only 251.7 yards a game). But with the Broncos' league-leading rusher, tailback Terrell Davis, suffering from blurred vision due to migraines and San Diego stacking the line with as many as nine defenders, Elway and Sharpe were forced back into full-time duty.
They looked especially good against the Chargers' defense, which is ranked dead last in the NFL. On Sharpe's first touchdown catch, a 20-yard play with 1:19 left in the first half that cut the gap to 17-7, San Diego cornerback Willie Clark bit so hard on the tight end's inside fake that Sharpe could have turned around and moon-walked into the end zone. Sharpe bounced off three tacklers for another 20-yard score to open the second-half scoring. And there wasn't a defender within eight yards when he caught his third TD pass in the back of the end zone to put the Broncos on top, 21-17, five minutes later. "It was just one of those great days when it feels like you're invisible to the defense," said Sharpe, who, after his final score, ran over to the south stands to strut in front of a banner that depicted him as the Incredible Hulk.
In fact, the entire team's second-half transformation was Hulk-like. In the Denver locker room at halftime, defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, who was cut by the Browns after the '94 season, reminded his teammates that Chargers linebacker Junior Seau had called them a bunch of "average players" the week before the game. (Seau was not totally out of line; the Broncos' first four wins came against teams with a combined 3-19 record.) Perry's locker-room rants, during which he has been known to challenge the manhood of everyone in the organization, including owner Pat Bowlen, are quickly becoming legend in Denver. And on Sunday he ignited the team's second-half charge.
"For too long there was no pride here, especially on defense," says Perry. "Everyone always sat back and thought number 7 would bring us through. Well, nobody wins a title with one person. And John's got some age on him now, so we all have to help."
Perry did his share this summer by dropping 15 pounds—an unheard-of feat in a family synonymous with monstrous midriffs. "A Perry on a diet, can you imagine that?" says the Fridge's little brother. "How did I do it? I stopped eating so damn much, that's how." Down to 275 after giving up fried foods and beer, Perry covers more ground now, and he dominated the line of scrimmage against San Diego. Paced by Perry, defensive tackle Jumpy Geathers and outside linebacker Bill Romanowski, the Broncos held the Chargers to 12 yards rushing while shutting them out for the final 30 minutes. In the process they sent Charger quarterback Stan Humphries home in a neck brace.