UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Recalling R. Gradishar for all who missed him

Approximately 3.7 million of Colorado’s nearly six million current residents are under age 45, i.e. born in 1978 or after.

That means about two-thirds of today’s Coloradans were either too young to appreciate Randy Gradishar’s play for the Broncos or weren’t born yet when his 10-year career ended in 1983.

In addition, an undetermined number of the remaining two million-plus state residents over the age of 45 were living somewhere else when Gradishar terrorized opponents in the National Football League.

And so, for all who didn’t get to see him lead Denver to its first Super Bowl appearance after the 1977 regular season (including infants who grew up to be ardent Broncos fans and, presumably, Gradishar admirers), let me acquaint you with the city’s newest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gradishar was a three-year starter at linebacker for the Ohio State Buckeyes of coach Woody Hayes, whose own gilded legacy was tarnished by an unfortunate sideline incident late in his illustrious, if sometimes bombastic, career. 

“The best linebacker I ever coached,” Hayes once said of his consensus first-team All-America in 1972 and unanimous first-team All-America in 1973. “No more outstanding young man has participated in our athletic program,” said OSU athletics director Ed Weaver back then.

Sixth in Heisman Trophy voting after his senior season (and the only defensive player among the top six), Gradishar was drafted 14th by the Broncos. Only two players chosen ahead of him—No. 1, defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and fifth pick John Dutton, a defensive tackle, played more NFL games than his 145.

“Too Tall” played the most—224, all for Dallas—and was named to three Pro Bowls (to Gradishar’s seven). He played for the Cowboys when they beat Gradishar and the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. Nonetheless, he hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame.

Five players from that ’74 draft preceded Gradishar to Canton: Steelers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster (four HOFers in one draft!), and Raiders tormentor Dave Casper. All were chosen after him.

Gradishar joined the Broncos following their first winning season in history—7-5-2, good for third place in their division, in 1973. 

He became a starter midway through his rookie season, and by 1976 was the centerpiece of what came to be known as Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense. During his 10 years in orange and blue, Denver won 83, lost 55 and tied one, and went to the playoffs four times.

Forty years later he remains tied for 11th in pass interceptions, all-time, with 20. Of note, the 10 players ahead of him all got theirs as either safeties or cornerbacks, who are expected to rack up PIs.

He’s also tied for seventh all-time in fumble recoveries with 13. Two of the six ahead of him are quarterbacks, who were preventing turnovers when they fell on loose balls.

Gradishar set the NFL record for tackles with 2, 049 and was renowned as one of the league’s hardest hitters. No better testimony to that exists than an account from Tony Dorsett in the book The Truly Great.

Dorsett rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season eight times in his 12-year career, and is one of two players ever to win the Heisman, a Super Bowl and a collegiate national championship, and be inducted into both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.  In the book he relates a game against Gradishar in 1980:

“I ran a pass pattern and was wide open, but Danny White did not see me. I go back to the huddle and tell Danny that I am wide open.

“I ran the same route again, but this time I was almost decapitated. My eyes were only partially open when I hit the ground.

“Trainers and doctors came running onto the field. They thought I was dead. Hey, I thought I was dead, too.”

A year later, SPORT magazine named Gradishar one of the five hardest hitters in the NFL.

His Hall-ness is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame, the Broncos Ring of Fame, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and the GTE Academic Hall of Fame, among countless honors.

Add, 50 years after he was drafted, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

If you didn’t already know why, you should now.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 16 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.