DENVER — Take it from a Denver Broncos’ legend, Condoleezza Rice knows football.
"Backwards and forwards," Rick Upchurch, a Broncos Ring of Famer and the best punt returner in team history, said in an interview Tuesday with 9NEWS.
"We’d go over after a game and talk about what happened. Me and her dad, he was a huge Cleveland Browns fan and Jim Brown fan, he would ask about certain situations that happened in the game," said Upchurch. "Condoleezza would ask, ‘Why did you run a play?’ She knew the game. She understood football because her dad was such a big football fan."
As pointed out Monday by Woody Paige in his column for the Denver Gazette, Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State and now part owner of the Broncos, and Upchurch once dated.
"I know Condoleezza very well," Upchurch said.
They met in 1975, Upchurch’s rookie year, through a common friend, Eric Penick. Upchurch and Penick sprint competitors in high school track meets in Ohio.
Penick became a star running back for the Irish and was enrolled in law school at Notre Dame when he met Rice, who was getting her master’s degree in political science in 1975.
Penick wound up as part of the Broncos’ tremendous 1975 draft class that included Louis Wright (1st round), Upchurch (4th), Rubin Carter (5th) and Steve Foley (8th). Let’s see George Paton beat that.
“Eric gathered all the rookies that year and said anyone who didn’t finish their degree in college, come to a meeting with John Rice and he’ll help guide us through the process of finishing up,’’ said Upchurch, who starred at the University of Minnesota. “And so we went over to John Rice’s house and met John and his family was there. A bunch of us went over there. Rubin Carter was there, Louis Wright.”
It was Upchurch, though, who caught the fancy of John Rice’s daughter.
Does Upchurch, now 70, remember what he said the first time he met Condoleezza?
“It was a typical initial conversion: How you doing? It’s my pleasure to meet you,’’’ Upchurch said.
They dated for a year or so, Upchurch recalls. He would not say whether they became engaged.
Rice mentioned Upchurch as her boyfriend in the mid-1970s, in her memoir: “Extraordinary, Ordinary People,’’ that was published in 2010. She wrote that her parents "were very impressed with his politeness."
While Upchurch and Rice were a couple, he broke out as a Broncos’ triple threat – a combined 168 yards rushing, 4 punt return touchdowns and an astounding 24.5 yards per catch in his first two seasons of 1975-76. Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, was working on her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Denver where she earlier received her bachelor’s of arts degree at age 19.
“Very, very, very intelligent,’’ said Upchurch, when asked what he remembered about his former girlfriend. “Very smart, very level-headed. She knew what she wanted. She was confident. And athletic. She was a skater and classical pianist.’’
The dating part of their relationship ended when life, still in the early years for both, took them separate ways.
“She went on to do something in Washington and got started with her career,’’ Upchurch said. Indeed, Condoleezza first worked in the State Department under the President Jimmy Carter administration in 1977. “And then her career took off from there.”
Rice said it was early in 1976, when Upchurch went back to finish his degree at Minnesota, and she started her Ph.D work at Denver that the two started to drift apart.
"Our relationship ended gently and we remained friends,'' she wrote.
Rice eventually became Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s second term from 2005-2009.
Rice was announced as a new Broncos owner, joining the Rob Walton-Greg and Carrie Penner group, on July 11.
“I wasn’t surprised,’’ Upchurch said. “Was not surprised because I knew she had the ability. She’s very smart business-wise, she’s good with people, she gives her opinion. I think Condoleezza Rice joining the Broncos’ ownership group is going to culturally help the NFL. It’s good to have a woman in a leadership position. Women are so organized. And women are not going to be afraid to fight the fight.’’
As for Upchurch, he found the right woman in Donna.
“Happily married for 26 years,’’ he said.
They live in Las Vegas. He has four children; Donna has a son who’s a firefighter in Las Vegas. Upchurch was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011 and while he takes three pills a day, he is a survivor.
“I wake up every day and the moment my eyes open I say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for all you have given me,’’’ Upchurch said.
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