Here in the Rockies, we experience a powerful converge of epic powder days and big games.
Almost all of my most vivid football memories, especially those of the Broncos’ six Super Bowl appearances—two glorious wins and four heart-stabbing losses—are inextricably tied to the wind-in-your-face sensation of speeding down a snow-covered hill. I was in Salt Lake City both times the Broncos actually took the title (my liver thanks God for 3.2 beer), and in both ’98 and ’99, I spent the following day at Snowbird. I giddily proclaimed that I was “from Colorado,” to any sucker unlucky enough to share my chair.
The losses? I was off at college in the late ‘80s and spent the mornings before the embarrassments at the hands of the Giants and Redskins snowboarding lake-effect powder in upstate New York. After the fateful games, I was mocked as the school’s only available “Denver Dude.”
I bought my first avalanche transceiver the week after the blowout to San Francisco in 1990, when I was living as a ski bum in Jackson Hole. That particular beatdown was so bad—55-10!—that the guy I bet against felt so bad he refused to take my money. He even picked up my tab at the bar. The only message on my phone when I got home was from an East Coast friend braying, “Heee-Hawww! Heee-Hawww!”
But to this day I wonder if the crappiest game in Broncos history didn’t keep me from getting killed.
I was on the mountain all morning on that gray windy Sunday. My friends and I kept skiing across the Cirque into the trees and a little powder meadow known as “The Study Plots” below. It wasn’t long after we decided to head down to prepare for the football festivities that the huge hanging face of the Headwall avalanched, ripping through those same trees where we had been less than an hour earlier, running all the way across the groomed run Gros Ventre and nearly climbing the other side of the hill.
We went up on the search line to help the ski patrol probe. I made the decision to buy a transceiver right after driving a long steel shaft as deep as I could about 100 times over and over into the slide-frozen snow.
“I’d give up an eyeball to get hit by one of these if I was under there right now,” one buddy said.
“Yeah, and I’d throw in a kidney and a couple toes.”
Incredibly, just like the Broncos defense that day, no one was there. No one had been trapped beneath the snow. No one died. Maybe not even a squirrel. There could have been dozens of people carving corduroy on that slope, but the game and the cold weather had chased them indoors. Which makes that loss the easiest one for me to take of them all.
It helps make all those other grand powder days and pigskin memories sweeter still. Like that famed Monday Night Football “Snow Bowl” game against The Green Bay Packers in 1984, when the field crew had to keep shoveling the yard lines and the next day all across the Rockies ski resort reservation lines started ringing off the hook. Or that blizzard just before Christmas when they gave the fans the MVP just for showing up. It felt like Alaska and me and my dad spent the whole day driving to Mile High Stadium and back in the Scout.
“Good thing they won,” my dad said on the way home.
In 1997, the season they won that first Super Bowl, a blizzard hit just before the Broncos were supposed to fly to Buffalo. To get to the airport some of the players got picked up by fans on snowmobiles. (The Broncos won that game, in overtime with a field goal.) Or there was the game when running back Terrell Davis went over 2,000 yards rushing the next season, and I had just started driving home after an incredible ski day in Taos and heard that very play as he reached the milestone, then lost the reception on the radio.
That really is one of the most magical times in the world—heading back from the mountains in your car with a raccoon tan and the heater blasting and a good game to listen to. Or settling down for the second half still wearing your boots, getting a beer and a slice in Vail at Vendetta’s, or the Sidewinder in Monarch (with five guys in Chiefs jackets at the next table) or rocking at Loveland’s Rathskellar like it was a downtown bar.
It’s a tribal experience, to be with other fans who enjoy a powder day as much as you do, to be among the faithful who keep hoping that every day the snow’s going to get a little deeper, and that your team is going to win the next game, and the game after that, and maybe another Super Bowl—or at least the faith that there will be another epic powder day soon.
There’s certainly reason to hope for both this year. For Broncos fans and skiers alike, it really has been a magical start to the football/ski season. Loveland and Arapahoe Basin both boasted record openings, with Copper and Keystone close behind, then Breck, and the Broncos came out of the gate to play football like a house on fire. From the miracle play at the end of the Cincinnati game, to two tomato-can kickings of Cleveland and Oakland, then impressive smackdowns of the Cowboys, Patriots and Chargers, The Broncos started flat out 6-0 perfect before finally falling back to earth. Hard.
In the mountains, that kind of action can sell some season passes. And on the field, it got a lot of wayward fans hurrying back into the fold. Including me. I have never felt so good about being so wrong before. The impact of an El Nino winter and the wisdom of hiring a young rookie coach have both been aggressively questioned in this column. And both Mother Nature and the NFL have effectively reminded me that in both football and forecasting, I’m about as accurate as what comes out of the back end of a donkey.
That’s cool. Skiing deep powder and cheering winning football is way more fun than saying, “I told you so.” •
Peter Kray is an East High School graduate who married a Cherry Creek girl. He keeps a framed copy of John Elway’s Broncos rookie card next to his wedding photo. Read more of his writing, including excerpts of his upcoming novel, The God of Skiing, at shredwhiteandblue.com.