On Sept. 9, 1960, the presidential campaigns of Vice President Richard Nixon and Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy were in full swing, NASA was still some eight months from sending the first American into space, the Pittsburgh Pirates were four days from beating the New York Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series on a ninth-inning home run by Bill Mazeroski, and the Baltimore Colts were preparing to begin the NFL seeking their third consecutive championship.
And at Nickerson Field in Boston, the Denver Broncos won the first game ever played in the American Football League, beating the Patriots 13-10. The highlights featured a 59-yard touchdown pass from 32-year-old Frank Tripucka, a former Notre Dame star and first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949 and one of several former NFL castoff quarterbacks playing in the fledgling league.
When Denver rallied to beat the Patriots again in October of 1960, thanks to four touchdown passes by Tripucka, including two in the fourth quarter, those original Broncos were sitting pretty with their 4-2 record.
In that inaugural AFL campaign, Tripucka would finish first in several passing categories, both positive and negative: attempts, completions, total yards, yards per game and interceptions (a staggering 34 in a 14-game season). Lionel Taylor would lead the league in pass catches with 92, 12 of which were for touchdowns, the first of five seasons he would rank first in that category.
But, with few exceptions, defense wasn’t a cornerstone of the early AFL, and Denver wasn’t one of those exceptions. In that first year of their existence, the Broncos yielded an average of 28 points per game, ranking seventh in defense in the eight-team league. In the concluding four games, opponents scored an average of 39 points per game.
After that 4-2 start, the Broncos didn’t win another game in 1960.
It would be a while before things got better.
In the 10-year history of the AFL, which included the beginning of the Super Bowl era following the 1966 regular season, the Broncos never had a winning season (a 7-7 record in 1962 was their high point) and were the only one of the original eight franchises never to play in the postseason.
Not until 1973, under former Stanford coach John Ralston, did the Broncos finally win more than they lost, going 7-5-2.
Eventually, of course, they would make it the Super Bowl, today being their seventh appearance, including consecutive wins following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
And lo and behold, the ghost of Frank Tripucka, who died in 2013, will be on the scene once again today. Or at least his jersey number will.
Peyton Manning had worn No. 18 during his 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. When he signed with the Broncos in 2012, No. 18 had been retired for nearly 40 years in honor of the Broncos’ original quarterback. But Tripucka, then 84, gave his blessing to have the number un-retired.
“It’s perfectly OK for him to go ahead and use it,” Tripucka told the Denver Post. “I would be honored for (Manning) to wear it.”
The original Carolina Panthers of 1995, with intriguing future connections to the 49ers, fared much better than that first Broncos team. But even the most rabid Carolina fans would have been hard-pressed to find a silver lining after the team started 0-5.
However, with future 49ers coordinators Vic Fangio and Greg Roman working under head coach Dom Capers, that first edition of the Panthers won seven of their remaining 11 games and finished 7-9, highly respectable for a first-year expansion team.
One of those seven wins for the original Panthers came on Nov. 5 at San Francisco against the Super Bowl defending champion 49ers, coached by future Carolina coach George Seifert.
A 96-yard interception return for a first-quarter touchdown by former 49er Tim McKyer set the tone for the game. Fangio’s defense (which would rank eighth in the 30-team NFL) kept the 49ers out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. Carolina held on for a 13-7 victory, a bold statement, perhaps the highlight of the Panthers’ maiden season. It certainly set expectations high for a franchise that has met that challenge, having earned playoff berths seven times in its 21-year history and making its second Super Bowl appearance today.
Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.