I own a Denver Bronco trophy buckle, along with the bragging rights to a Bronco record that has stood for five years and may be an NFL mark as well. The inscription on the silver belt buckle reads 90 P.S.I., sterling evidence of what may be the most insane feat in sport (or on the perimeter thereof): catching a football as it plummets to earth at some 100 mph.
As a logger, or more specifically, a timber faller (a woodsman who fells trees for commercial logging), I had spent most of the year with my hands curled around a 40-pound chain saw. I had been packing that saw for three months on the steep, snowy Rockies of Montana in 1983 when I decided to hang up my hard hat and head to Denver for a family Christmas. Most of my eight brothers and sisters planned to be there, including my brother Bill, who at the time worked as the equipment manager for the Broncos. My wife and I knew that Bill wouldn't be on the road with the team, because as we drove through Wyoming we listened on the radio to the AFC wild-card game in Seattle. It put a damper on that Christmas Eve ride to hear Denver going down 31-7.
By the time we arrived at my mother's house, Bill had returned from Seattle and was sitting in the living room. He was his usual taciturn self, shrugging off defeat and enjoying all his wee nieces and nephews and their sugarplum anticipations.
We tried to coax bits of locker room gossip from Bill. It's hard to think of his dealings with the Broncos as being boring or humdrum, but he rarely had much to say about what his days were like. Finally, on Christmas night, he started to tell us about a "football cannon" that the Broncos were using for punt and kickoff return practice.
The machine used compressed air to shoot footballs. Forty pounds per square inch (p.s.i.) would launch the ball in a fair imitation of an NFL-caliber kick. But boys will be boys, and somebody got the idea of letting the compressor run up to 90 p.s.i. and pointing the business end of the machine straight up to see what would happen. Bill said the ball nearly disappeared from view before it fell back to earth. Then somebody decided to try to catch the ball when it came screaming down. Bill said it was one of the funniest things he ever saw. Guys who made zillions of dollars catching footballs were unable to handle this leather meteorite. He said it was a challenge just to catch the ball on the bounce. In fact, when Bronco kicker Rich Karlis misjudged one ball, it grazed his helmet, hit the ground and bounced onto the roof of a nearby warehouse. Bill said that the ball had to be doing at least 300 mph.
"Baloney, Bill," I said. I told him (we're all amateur physicists at heart) that every falling object has a terminal velocity, and by quick, and perhaps dubious, mental calculations I reckoned that the velocity for a football was closer to 100 mph. Then, before I had to start backing up my theory with more precise math, I said as calmly as possible, "I could catch it." He laughed derisively.
Now was the time for me to apply some amateur psychology. "Those big prima donnas are psyching themselves out because they've never seen a football coming at them that fast, even with Elway throwing it at them," I said. "I have the advantage of not knowing the difference. I could do it if I had five chances."
"Tom, I would bet you any amount of money it can't be done. You wouldn't believe it. No, you can't do it," Bill said. He was both a little steamed and a little amused by my bragging.
"I won't take your money," I said, "but I'd sure like to have a go at it. Five tries?"
"You're on. Come on out tomorrow."