There was never much affection between Cookie Gilchrist and the Denver Broncos. Last year he refused to report to camp until the Broncos had filed a $400,000 breach-of-contract suit against him. This year he reported 10 days late and was fined $1,000. He also brought along Willie Ross and demanded that his pal be given a tryout. Ross is the back Gilchrist once put into a game for himself while he was at Buffalo, resulting in his suspension and the eventual trade to Denver. Bronco General Manager Jim Burris and Coach Mac Speedie would have no part of Ross, and so out walked Cookie into another suspension. "I'm going out the same way I came in, with no real emotion except that Fm making a $47,000 sacrifice," said Gilchrist. Replied Speedie: "For me, Christmas came early this year."
It was no secret that Gilchrist and Speedie regarded each other with a stunning lack of admiration. But neither was it a secret that the tempestuous 250-pound fullback played a big role in the rise of Denver's offense to second in the league last season. When he wants to be, Gilchrist is as punishing a pass blocker as there is in the game. And last season he rushed for 954 yards. Without him the Denver offense could become mediocre again. Considering the state of Denver's defense, that would be a disaster.
Also missing is Quarterback Jacky Lee, who has returned to Houston after a two-year lend-lease deal. Lee played little at Denver until the end of the 1965 season when he hit for five touchdowns. Lee's departure leaves the Broncos with two veteran quarterbacks, John McCormick and Mickey Slaughter, both of whom have a history of injuries. Speedie brought seven rookie quarterbacks and NFL veteran Buddy Humphrey to camp this year, hardly an expression of confidence. Speedie says he intends to pick one quarterback and stay with him, abandoning the in-and-out system of prior seasons. It is not likely Speedie will be able to hold to that plan.
But even with Gilchrist gone, the Broncos are blessed with some excellent running backs. Returning is Charlie Mitchell, who was the team's leading rusher in 1964 but missed all of last season because of injury. Mitchell joins two other fine halfbacks—Abner Haynes and Wendell Hayes. Haynes, an All-AFL performer for the Kansas City Chiefs and the league's most valuable player in 1960, is at times a brilliant runner. He carried the ball only 41 times last year but scored six touchdowns. Hayes is one of the league's better runners.
Besides Gilchrist and Lee, the Denver offense has lost two other players whose absence will be felt. One is Offensive Tackle Eldon Danenhauer, who retired, changed his mind, broke his arm and retired again. The other is Tight End Hewritt Dixon, who was traded to Oakland. That leaves Al Denson, who caught only nine passes last season, as the lone veteran tight end. But Lionel Taylor, the league's alltime catching champ, is back at split end with his fancy moves and his suction-cup fingers. Bob Scarpitto returns at flanker and will be pushed by rookies for his job. The Broncos signed a record (for them) crop of 55 rookies, including 10 draft choices. The offensive line was much improved last year over 1964, but that improvement may not last without Danenhauer. The trade of Dixon to Oakland was a calculated risk. As much as Denver needed Dixon at tight end, the Broncos needed a middle linebacker more. For Dixon they got Archie Matsos, a fine one even though at 212 pounds he needs big tackles in front of him. Matsos, operating in the middle, will try to shore up a Denver defense that gave up 392 points in its last 14 league games. John Bramlett, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1965, is a light but violent linebacker on the right. There are three candidates at left linebacker. Tackle Ray Jacobs and End Max Leetzow are the nucleus of the defensive line.
One of the biggest problems with the defensive backfield was the slowdown of Corner Back Willie Brown, who was injured most of the season. Brown, an All-AFL defender in 1964, is healthy again. At the other corner Nemiah Wilson has a year's experience and has improved. The veteran Goose Gonsoulin is gone, so at one safety the Broncos are taking a chance with rookie Goldie Sellers of Grambling. John Griffin, whose development last season was a surprise, is the other safety.
From the days of Bob Howsam to the more enlightened operation of Gerald Phipps, the history of the Broncos has not been a happy one. Except for the 1962 season, when the Broncos won seven games and finished second, the record on the field has been poor. And except for last year, when Denver drew an average of 31,398 for home games (a figure many teams would consider a calamity), the record at the gate has been just as poor. Perhaps some of Denver's rookies will bring on better days, but not this season.