ENGLEWOOD - Peyton Manning was about to move into his retirement press conference at the Denver Broncos headquarters but before he did he took a seat across from Joe Ellis.
During the exit interview in the office of the Denver Broncos’ president and chief executive officer, Ellis informed Manning there were plans to display the team’s three retired numbers inside the stadium for the first time.
As part of that celebration, Ellis told Manning the team would recognize the quarterback for his accomplishments while wearing one of those retired numbers.
The Broncos will honor their retired numbers during their game Sunday afternoon against the Indianapolis Colts. There will be the No. 7 for John Elway, No. 44 for Floyd Little and -- the first number ever retired by the organization -- No. 18 for Frank Tripucka.
Banners of those three numbers will be placed to the left of the South Stands scoreboard, or a little above where Graham Gano hooked his missed field goal last week.
Elway and Little will be there when their numbers are officially displayed in immortality. And on the 18th of September, there are expected to be 18 members of the Tripucka family representing Frank, who died three years ago, and his wife Randy, who will soon turn 89 and won’t be able to make the trip.
“It could have been 15 of us, it could have been 25, or whatever,” said Kelly Tripucka, the former Notre Dame and NBA star and second youngest of Frank and Randy’s seven children. “We said, 18? Can you believe it? We have no idea how that happened.’’
Manning will be in the stadium, too. Along with Tripucka’s No. 18 banner, the Broncos will include the name of Manning with the mention he wore that number from the 2012-15 season.
“I thought it was a great idea,’’ T.K. Tripucka, the fifth of Frank Tripucka’s seven children, said of including Manning with his father’s No. 18. “The Broncos’ organization has always been great to my dad. I thought it was a great idea. The family’s thrilled about it.’’
“It was always retired, Peyton just borrowed it,’’ Kelly said. “We’re thrilled Peyton wore the number. We’re thrilled he was successful. We’re thrilled the Broncos won the Super Bowl and he should certainly have a mention because he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
“And the fact he wore my father’s number, it kind of brought back memories and gave him some life. No problem whatsoever that he’s mentioned with this number.’’
In fact, Frank Tripucka, the Broncos’ original quarterback in 1960 and the first in professional history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season, likely would have gone one more step and welcomed the sharing the retired No. 18 in Manning’s honor as well – as the New York Yankees did in retiring No. 8 for both Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey.
“That’s the first one that came to mind because we had known Yogi for years,’’ T.K. said. “I played football against one of his sons, Dale, when I was in high school football.
“If you knew my dad he didn’t live for honors. I always laughed, if someone called him and said ‘Frank, you’re going into Canton.’ He’d say, ‘Oh, OK. Do I have to be there?’’’
“When they retired my father’s number he didn’t think much of it,’’ said Mark, the third oldest Tripucka child who was 9 years old when his dad played in the Broncos’ inaugural season of 1960. “He said, ‘Thank you.’ It was back in 1966. After that was over, 50 years goes by and Peyton calls, and dad, said, ‘Sure you can have the number.’’’
Manning was the most sought-after, free-agent player in NFL history when the Broncos signed him in March, 2012. Manning had worn No. 18 with the Indy Colts for 14 years and before his introductory press conference in Denver, he called Frank Tripucka at his New Jersey residence.
During the conversation, Tripucka encouraged Manning to wear the No. 18.
“My father knew how great Peyton Manning had been for the league,’’ Kelly said. “His family -- I think my mom has a very high regard for Mr. and Mrs. (Archie) Manning and their kids and how successful they’ve been. I think it reminded my mom of her kids even though we have seven of us.’’
Frank Tripucka died Sept. 12, 2013, five days after Manning threw 7 touchdown passes in the season opener, on his way to an NFL single-season record 55 touchdown passes.
Three days after Frank died, the Broncos were playing their second game of the 2013 season against the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. The day before the game, Manning visited with the Tripucka clan at the team hotel.
“As a guy who’s older than him and was a professional athlete, I think Peyton’s tremendous,’’ Kelly said. “He couldn’t have been more of a gentleman in how he handled it.’’
Only two players ever wore the number No. 18 for the Broncos. No other player will wear it again.
It was a tricky situation for the Broncos, but credit Ellis with a creative solution. Tripucka’s No. 18 was retired without ceremony in the 1960s.
“Obviously, today with the media everything is so much more pronounced and blown up,’’ T.K. said. “Back then they said we’ll retire your number and there’s a picture of him in the newspaper next to a jersey on a hanger. That was it.’’
Compared to some other sports franchises, the Broncos are judicious in retiring numbers. Elway and Little were franchise players. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were no-brainers.
Manning presented a unique dilemma. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, too, in five years but roughly 75 percent of his record-setting career passing yards and touchdowns were thrown while playing for the Colts.
Then again, the Broncos posted records of 13-3, 13-3, 12-4 and 12-4 in Manning’s four seasons. His 2013 season was the best single quarterback year of all time as his 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards remain records. He led the team to four division titles in four years, plus two Super Bowl appearances and one world championship.
Manning is more than worthy of eventual election into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame. But a retired number? Terrell Davis and Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe don’t have their numbers retired.
It would be difficult to retire a number in Manning’s honor before the likes of Davis, Sharpe or even Champ Bailey.
Tripucka was also a rare case. He only played three full seasons for the Broncos, and two games into a fourth season of 1963 when he retired.
He threw 51 touchdown passes against 85 interceptions for the Broncos. But what modern football fans may not realize is in the early American Football League days of the 1960s the thinking was that if a quarterback didn’t throw two interceptions a game, he wasn’t aggressive enough with his passes. Joe Namath, George Blanda, Jack Kemp and John Hadl were all AFL star quarterbacks who threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
It was Broncos general manager Dean Griffing and owners’ Robert Howsam and Gerald Phipps who wanted to show their appreciation to Tripucka for lifting the franchise from possible embarrassment to one that was usually competitive each week, if not always victorious. Randy has said it was Howsam’s idea to honor Tripucka by retiring his No. 18.
“They don’t understand back in 1960 it wasn’t how good he was, the Broncos didn’t have anything,’’ Mark said. “He gave them a little bit of respectability.’’
Frank Tripucka started his career playing for the NFL Detroit Lions in 1949, then the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) in the early 1950s and then the rest of the decade in the Canadian Football League.
Griffing had also worked previously in the CFL as a coach and scout, and he recruited Tripucka to the Broncos – as a coach.
But after a few practices, it was obvious the Broncos – who lost their first four preseason games by scores of 43-6, 31-14, 42-3 and 48-0 – were a disaster at quarterback.
“They said what do you want (in salary),’’ Kelly said. “He said, ‘double.’ They said you’ve got it. And he said, ‘Damn, I should have said triple.’ That was my father.’’
Tripucka quarterbacked the Broncos in their fifth and final preseason game and they lost to the Los Angeles Chargers, 36-30. Tripucka then led the Broncos to wins in their first two AFL games. He threw the first touchdown pass in AFL history.
“Believe me that he played those 3 ½ years was amazing because he was old,’’ Mark Tripucka said. “He didn’t really want to come back and play quarterback. The head coach talked him into it, Frank Filchock.’’
The beauty of Manning wearing Tripucka’s number? With many of the old greats, their names go up in the stadium façade, and they are soon forgotten, not talked about for years.
When Manning accepted the No. 18, it brought Tripucka’s legacy back to life.
“No doubt. I can’t tell you how many times in the last couple years people even I knew, would tell me, “I did not realize your dad played for the Denver Broncos,’’’ T.K. said. “’I didn’t know his number was retired.’ I get comments like that all the time.’’
The retired number ceremony will be a proud moment for Tripucka’s children – twins Heather and Tracy are the oldest, followed by Mark, Todd, T.K., Kelly and Chris. They range in age from 66 to 53. The Broncos are flying them out for their dad’s big day.
Chris will have the most difficult challenge attending the ceremony. His son Shane Tripucka, Frank’s grandson, will punt for Texas A&M on Saturday at Auburn. Chris is going to that game in Auburn before he hurries to Denver in time for the retired ceremony on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s great that the Broncos are doing this,’’ T.K. said. “I was telling Patrick Smyth (the Broncos’ vice president of public relations) I haven’t been to Denver since 1961. You could have heard his jaw drop.’’
“My dad would probably think you’re making a big deal out of nothing,’’ Kelly said. “I don’t want to speak for him – in fact it was three years ago today that he passed away -- but my dad would think you’re fussing over him and he didn’t think he was that big of a star. He loved Denver. Absolutely loved everything about it.
“I’m thrilled with how Pat Bowlen and his family treated him and my mother. Included him in everything.
“But it was just a number to him – he holds it in high regard, but this was Peyton Manning, he wanted to borrow it. OK, no problem. The last thing he told him was, ‘Wear the number in good health and do one favor for me: Go win a Super Bowl.’ And look what happened.’’
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