Not to make you feel old if you remember the Broncos’ first trip to the Super Bowl as if it were yesterday, but Craig Morton’s 69th birthday is Sunday, the same day as Super Bowl XLVI.
“I live in northern California, right outside of San Francisco in Mill Valley,” the former Cowboys, Giants and Broncos quarterback told us on the Dave Logan Show recently.
“I was working with the University of California at Berkeley for the last seven years as a fundraiser and helped raise about $320 million. They had some cutbacks and so they kind of said, ‘Well, I guess you’re getting real old, Craig, so we’ve got to get rid of you.’
“So I’m just sitting here looking at the tulips and I’m looking at San Francisco across my little balcony here, so life is not that bad.”
Morton played in the AFC championship game that catapulted the Broncos to their first Super Bowl after spending the preceding week in the hospital, but he wasn’t above playing it up a little to inspire his teammates.
“I was in the hospital from after the Steeler game until Sunday morning of the championship game,” Morton recalled, referring to the Broncos’ 34-21 victory over Pittsburgh in the divisional round.
“I couldn’t move the leg. They would try everything. Jack Dolbin really helped me a lot. He found this machine called the galvanic stimulator and it helped pump some blood through it. They’d come in five times a night and try to drain the blood from my leg.
“A friend of mine came in to pick me up to take me to the stadium on Sunday morning and he said, ‘You’ve worked all your life for this opportunity again; do not consider not playing.’ When he said that, I said, ‘Get me to the stadium.’ I sat in the whirlpool for a few hours and I really played it up. I sat on the training table and made sure everybody could see my black leg as I was turning colors.”
Various accounts at the time described Morton’s hip as black, blue and, in some places, a certain shade of green.
“I could back up and throw,” he said. “If I had to run, I couldn’t do it. But it worked out. I just said, ‘If they don’t touch me, we’ll win this game.’ I think they touched me twice. The defense played great and Haven (Moses) came through and the offensive line came through and we did it.”
As a result of that victory over the Raiders, Morton became the first player in NFL history to start Super Bowls for two different teams — the Cowboys in Super Bowl V and the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. Kurt Warner later became the second.
Part of Morton’s enduring affection for his days in Denver arises from Denver’s enduring affection for him. In Dallas, he’d been part of a running quarterback controversy with Roger Staubach. In New York, by his own account, he was not exactly a fan favorite.
“What (Cowboys) coach (Tom) Landry did to me two or three times, this is kind of his relationship with me,” Morton recalled. “He’d call me at about 10:30 at night when he was trying to make his decision who to go with, Roger or myself. And he’d say, ‘Craig, you’re home.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m home.’ Whatever my reputation is, I would never break curfew. I mean, who wants to feel bad? I’m a single guy, (but) I’m not going to go out the night before a game or any of that stuff.
“And he says, ‘Can you come over?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ So I go over and his wife, Alicia, would answer the door. Tom would be there and he said, ‘Come into my study.’ And I go into his study and I sit down and he says, ‘Craig, you know, I’ve just got this feeling, I think I’m going to go with Roger. Thanks for coming over.’ And that was it.
“And I said, ‘What do you mean you’ve got this feeling? And what do you mean coming over here for five seconds? Let’s get into this a little bit more.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that in person, so thanks for coming over.'”
When he finally asked the Cowboys for a trade, they moved him to New York. He played two and a half seasons there before the Giants moved him to Denver before the 1977 season.
“Going to Denver was a whole new deal because I wanted to leave New York so badly because we were so bad and they didn’t like me at all,” Morton said. “The last game I played with the Giants was against Denver and I said, ‘Boy, this team could be great if they just had a quarterback that wouldn’t make any mistakes.’
“Then coming in and seeing what their offense was, that’s exactly what they did, is play to (defensive coordinator) Joe Collier and his defense. That’s what my role was. I knew it. They didn’t have to tell me. You knew, just give the defense a chance to give you better field position.”
Morton got to see a limited number of telecasts featuring this year’s Broncos, but I asked him for his take on the option offense offensive coordinator Mike McCoy installed to take advantage of quarterback Tim Tebow’s skill set.
“I don’t know if he could play any other offense,” Morton said. “I’ve heard that John (Elway) was considering working with him. He’s got a lot of work to do in his footwork and his hips. But he’s got great talent and he’s a winner and he’s one of the great role models I’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years and man, I hope he’s successful.
“He’s got a pretty good arm. He’s got some hitches in it, but with his athletic ability and how strong he is, he can get that ball up a little higher and he can throw that ‘out’ at 15 (yards). He just needs a little work on it. But he wins. And I know Elway will make the right decision because he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen play. If he can rub a little bit off on Tim Tebow, then he’ll have great success.”
It’s been 34 years since he helped the Broncos win their first AFC championship, but Morton still has fond memories of that team.
“We were a great, close team that had a tremendous amount of fun,” he said. “We spent hours after games together. We had dinners together. We had great guys that loved Red Miller, that loved Fred Gehrke and just loved the whole situation that we were thrust into. Denver adapted to us and cheered us on and painted everything orange. It was just a magical thing that certainly will never happen again.
“Our team was just fortunate to be as close as we were. And we let the whole town in on our fun, too, so that was a great time.”