ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It has launched countless backyard barbecue conversations and has been a part of family gatherings for three decades, and it is as tightly woven into the fabric of life in the Rocky Mountain region as the mountains themselves.
Thirty years ago Wednesday, John Elway and the Denver Broncos authored “The Drive," the 15-play, 98-yard slice of football history.
Many in the Broncos’ faithful can recite the particulars as quickly as the date of their first-born’s birthday. Elway has even joked that if his own memory starts to fade over the years, “that they’ll just help me out and tell me what we did."
What the Broncos did on Jan. 11, 1987, was take over on their own 2-yard line on a frigid day in Cleveland, with 5 minutes, 32 seconds to play, trailing the Browns 20-13 in the AFC Championship Game. The team’s current vice president of security, Keith Bishop, was in the huddle, and his former teammates always say that Bishop simply said, “We’ve got them right where we want them," with the 98 yards of expanse in front of the Broncos.
The first domino to fall was a 5-yard completion to running back Sammy Winder to open the possession, then a 3-yard run by Winder to put the Broncos in a third-and-2 at the Broncos’ 10-yard line as Denver took its first timeout. Without a conversion, “The Drive" would have been just a possession that faded into the mist of a frustrating loss.
But Winder went over left tackle for 3 yards, and the Broncos were on their way. Elway ran for 11 yards, then hit passes for 22 and 12 yards before he had his first incompletion of the drive. Elway then took a sack for an 8-yard loss, and the Broncos were in a third-and-18 at the Browns’ 40-yard line with 1:47 to play.
Elway converted with a 20-yard pass to Mark Jackson, hit Steve Sewell for 14 yards two plays later and rushed for 9 more yards two plays after that. And on third-and-1 from the Browns’ 5-yard line, Elway threw low to hit Jackson for the touchdown that tied the game at 20-20 with 37 seconds to play in regulation.
What followed in overtime has always been lost in the jet wash of that 98-yard drive. But the Broncos forced the Browns to punt on their first possession of overtime, and the Broncos then put together a nine-play, 60-yard drive that put Rich Karlis in position for a 33-yard field goal to win the game.
The overtime drive included an Elway-to-Steve Watson pass for 28 yards that converted a third-and-12 that moved the ball to the Browns’ 22-yard line. Karlis kicked the game-winner four plays later.
Most of the players involved have told the story countless times at alumni gatherings or fan events. Watson went on to become an assistant coach on Mike Shanahan’s staff, while the holder for the field goals and extra points that day, a backup quarterback named Gary Kubiak, won Super Bowl 50 last February as the Broncos coach.
Last season, Kubiak said: “Just to be there, be a part of that team, those are the kind of moments you want to be around. They’re why you play, why you coach."