Every time I see a net raised behind the goal posts for an extra-point or field-goal attempt in the NFL, I can't help feeling a bit sad. Sure, the net is probably the only way to prevent fans from beating each other up in pursuit of balls kicked into the stands, but that doesn't serve to reduce my melancholy, especially when I recall a boyhood incident at Bears Stadium, where the Denver Broncos and I grew up together.
The place is now called Mile High Stadium and regular-season games have been sold out for 10 years, despite a sizeable increase in capacity—from 34,264 to 75,103—since the day in 1960 when the Broncos of the newborn AFL played their first home game, against Oakland. I'm one of the 100,000 or so folks who now claim—except I'm not fibbing—to have been among the 18,372 fans who attended that game. I was 11, and for the '60 season and many thereafter, the games seemed almost incidental to other special Sunday activities at Bears Stadium.
Every now and then admission was free for kids wearing little league football jerseys—an unthinkable promotion today—and my brothers and I would meet friends at the stadium. When we tired of the action on the field, we would roam the sparsely-filled stands, savoring the atmosphere and our youthful camaraderie. Halftime was often spent underneath the makeshift east bleachers, scrounging for money or souvenirs that had fallen through the planks.
When the Broncos were winning, which wasn't very often, we were attentive and vocal fans. But to be honest, a Bronco victory was less important than fulfilling our yearning to emerge from one of the extra point free-for-alls with an official AFL football.
To appreciate the depths of this longing, it's necessary to understand the hierarchy of souvenirs in which a football ranked highest. Autographs were fine for kids, but by fifth or sixth grade my friends and I had advanced to the pursuit of more prestigious chin straps, which were not as easily acquired.
The initial obstacle to chin-strap gathering was getting past a menacing line of orange-jacketed ushers that formed around the perimeter of the gridiron at the two-minute warning to keep fans off the field after the game. Our strategy was to rush onto the field in a group at one point, overloading a single usher. Although he would usually chase us halfheartedly, his colleagues couldn't afford to break ranks, and after we penetrated the line it was usually clear sailing.
Then it was simply a matter of pestering a player until he consented to give away his often bloodstained chin strap. As with autographs, the value of a chin strap was directly proportional to the fame of its donor.
If a player wasn't particularly well known, one simply made him a hero for his generosity and faithfully followed his exploits on special teams or on the offensive line. Because many players weren't eager to part with chin straps, acquiring one from even the most obscure member of the team was generally regarded as a far greater accomplishment than getting the quarterback's autograph.
After a number of chin straps were obtained, however, they began to lose their appeal. After all, only one chin strap could adorn one's little league helmet at any time, and though some of my friends tacked them to their walls like scalps, they were hardly decorative.
Growing indifference toward chin straps led to the pursuit of other more valued mementos—usually more substantial pieces of equipment. My friend Charlie once acquired a shoe, but the most common of this higher order of souvenirs was the foam rubber forearm guard that we called a shiver pad.