These are people who have been around for the team's entire bumper-car ride. Victor remembers when practices were on a dirt field outside the stadium, when he and his friends could walk up to the players during a break and start talking with them. Soper Sr., an electrician, remembers when the team practiced across the street from his union's headquarters at 56th and Union. You could just look through the fence, except on the weeks of big games against the Oakland Raiders or somebody, when canvas was hung to foil inquisitive eyes. Greg Oletski remembers his first live game, Broncos against the Baltimore Colts in the early '70s. His mother took him to the Colorado School of Mines the day before the game to watch the Colts practice. He collected autographs from Johnny Unitas, Bubba Smith, a bunch of people. He then went to Mile High the next day and joined the crowd rooting to have Unitas's head knocked off.
The long stretch of lean years for the Broncos gave way to years of frustration—so close, all the way to Super Bowl in 1990, then disappointment—which ended with back-to-back championships, in 1997 and '98. Floyd Little gave way to Randy Gradishar, who gave way to John Elway, who gave way to Romo and Terrell Davis and Easy Ed. They were characters in a drama more than people in real life, knights sent out to save the reputation of the city. "I don't know any of the players," Greg Oletski says. "They all live south of the city now, in the rich neighborhoods. I never go down that way. I yell to Romanowski on the field, 'Hey, Romo,' and sometimes he waves back. But I don't know him. I don't know any of them.
"Wait, I do know one, kind of," Oletski says. "We had a family reunion this summer. This cousin showed up; she was beautiful. I hadn't seen her for about 21 years. I asked my aunt how closely related this girl was to me, you know, to see if I had a chance. My aunt said, 'Forget about it. She's going out with Brian Griese.' "
The passion is more for the team than for the individual players. When Kathryn's late husband, who most of the time preferred fishing or playing cribbage to sitting through a football game, refinished their basement, he looked at her and said, "O.K., I'll give you one wall." She turned the wall into a Broncos shrine, covered with team pictures and autographs and posters and pennants. For years Soper Sr. has flown a Broncos flag in front of his house during the season. John Jr. has carried on the tradition at his own house, even when he lived in Houston for three years. Ray Oletski, facility manager at the Arvada Covenant Church, teaches Sunday school there. On game days he teaches in his Broncos gear. "The kids know it's a game day," he says. "We get into their minds early."
There is some history out here too. Did anyone tell you? The South Stands are one of the main reasons the Broncos even exist. The stands were built in the late '50s for baseball. Branch Rickey was going to start another major league, the Continental Baseball League, and Denver wanted to be a part of it. The rub was that each franchise had to have a park that seated more than 25,000 fans. The stands were added to fulfill that requirement. But the CBL never got off the ground, and the city still had the stands and was still paying for them when this goofy new football league, the AFL, was looking for teams. That was a way to pay for the stands.
The cool thing about being here—you probably noticed—is that all of us are practically sitting on top of the Broncos' locker room. Coach Mike Shanahan's words are pretty much going through the ceiling and into the soles of our feet, good vibes, and you can see the players, close-up, coming on and off the field. The visiting team's locker room used to be at the other end of the South Stands, underneath Section BB, and that used to be a bit of a problem. People would throw whatever was available, especially snow, at the visiting players.
That's changed, probably for the good. The visiting teams come out of the north end now, underneath that green canopy, but this still is known as the place where the true spirit lives. Joe Ellis, the vice president of business operations for the Broncos, says that every week he notices the difference between the South Stands and the rest of the stadium. Parking is terrible at Mile High, so by kickoff the stadium is still only 75% full. Except in the South Stands, where everyone is in his or her seat. The end of the game? Same thing. During a blowout half the stadium will be empty, but the South Stands will be full.
You get a different view here, the end zone view, but as Soper Sr. says, "You can watch the game from this angle best, see the holes open in the line." You might miss some things when the ball is at the far end of the field, but you know what? Every quarter, they switch everything around. You have to pay attention—no replays for us because the big board is behind the South Stands, but that's all right. See it once, replay it in your mind. Catch the highlights at home.
You're here with people who care. That's what matters. You want to shout? You shout. Ray Oletski says the greatest relief he has in life is standing up here and bellowing like the big bear he is. Nobody says a thing. The frustrations just come out. You want to be tough? Be tough. Victor says he never has had a fight, but his late brother, the one who sparred with Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler, had more than a few. His brother loved the Broncos. "Somebody'd say something bad about the Broncos?" Victor says. "Jo-Jo would coldcock him."
Here's how much these people care. On Nov. 27, 1994, coming back from the rest room, Kathryn was knocked down from behind by two kids who were running. She broke her hip, wound up in St. Anthony's Central Hospital. "I went to a football game," she says, "and didn't get home until three weeks later." Those two kids gave an old woman a lot of misery. You know what she says was the silver lining? That it happened at the final home game. She was back in her seat for the first exhibition game the next season.