The Broncos Emerge Heroes in the Summer of the Little Super Bowls

The benchmark game in the history of the NFL-AFL rivalry, the game in which the American Football League gained parity is always regarded as Super Bowl III. The New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts 16-7 on January 12, 1969.  But, to true fans of the AFL, the parity game occured two years earlier, on a hot summer night in Denver, CO. It was on that night that the lowly Denver Broncos defeated the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Not only was it the first win for the AFL, but it happened in the first exhibition game between the two leagues. It evened the AFL’s record against the NFL.  Green Bay had won Super Bowl I seven months earlier.

In the summer of 1967, the NFL-AFL merger was now a done deal. The two leagues would combine play in 1970. Before then, the leagues would meet in the Super Bowl and in a series of summer exhibition games. The first of these games were played in the summer of 1967. The 1967 preseason was called the "Summer of the Little Super Bowls".  And, to kick the exhibition season off that summer, the Denver Broncos met the Detroit Lions on August 5, 1967. Unlike preseason games of most seasons before and since, these games were very serious matters. The teams of both leagues took them very seriously. It was not only regarded as a real game, but it was vitally important to win. Larry Felser of The Sporting News wrote:

“Exhibition” is hardly the word. From the talk around both leagues, at least some of those games if not all of them, will take on the characteristics of a vendetta.

Said Lance Alworth of San Diego and the AFL, “I’ve been dying to play the NFL since my rookie season.“ Dick Schafrath of the Cleveland Browns said, “Our pride is at stake. No NFL team wants to be the first to lose to the AFL.” Defensive tackle Alex Karras said he would walk home to Detroit if his Lions lost to the Broncos.

The Detroit Lions of 1967 were expecting big things. They had a new head coach, former Lions’ great Joe Schmidt. The team was blessed with two great quarterbacks in Karl Sweetan and Milt Plum. They also had the newly arrived talents of rookie Mel Farr from UCLA, who would lead the team for years to come. But, they were suffering from preseason injuries to Wally Hilgenberg, Nick Eddy, Roger Brown and Gail Cogdill. The Broncos were one of the worst teams in the history of the AFL coming into the 1967 season, having compiled a total record of 26-69-3 in 7 years and winning only 4 games in 1966. They had a new coach in Lou Saban, who had built championship teams at Buffalo in 1964 and ‘65, but none of his assistants had any experience at the professional level. The Broncos did have an outstanding draft, acquiring halfback Floyd Little of Syracuse and Notre Dame lineman Pete Duranko. Another key move was the acquisition of bruising runner, Cookie Gilchrist, who had played for Saban in his Buffalo days. Coming into the Detroit game, Denver had already lost its first preseason game, 19-2 to Miami.

The two teams met at the University of Denver Stadium before 21,288 delirious fans. The Broncos’ defense, playing smash-mouth football, completely mesmerized the Lions. In the second quarter, Lonnie Wright of the Broncos ruined a possible Lions’ scoring pass when he came out of nowhere to pick off a Sweetan pass intended for Bill Malinchak at his own 20. Later in the quarter, Wright batted down another pass in the end zone stalling a Lions' drive. The Lions got no farther than the Bronco 36 yard line in the first half. There was no scoring in the first half.

In the third quarter, Denver quarterback Scotty Glacken hit Al Denson with a 56 yard pass. That set up a 35 yard field goal from rookie place kicker Errol Mann and the Broncos led 3-0. Later in the quarter, with the ball on the Detroit 44, Bob Scarpitto dropped back to punt on 4th and 11. Instead of punting, Scarpitto took off on the right side and scrambled 28 yards to the Lions 16. Six plays later, Gilchrist crashed over from the one. The score was 10-0. The Lions continued to struggle on offense. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Lions drove to midfield only to see Milt Plum intercepted by Gene Sykes. It was the farthest penetration by the Lions in the quarter. In the last period, Detroit was finally able to score with 10:40 remaining in the game on a 15 yard pass from Plum to Malinchak in the endzone. But, Mann added another field goal from 32 yards out late in the game and the final was a stunning 13-7. The Broncos, who had averaged 83 yards per game rushing in the 1966 AFL season, gained 227 yards on the ground with Gilchrist accounting for 89. And, Gilchrist sat out all but the game clinching series in the second half.

On the bus following the game, Roger Brown, the Lions’ defensive tackle moaned, “The Denver Broncos….It didn’t happen!“ Following his first game as head coach, Schmidt said, “But, I want to pay tribute to the Denver team. And, if the other AFL teams show as much desire, there will be many other surprises in the preseason inter-league competition.” It would not be the last of Denver’s amazing accomplishments that summer as they pulled off an equally shocking victory thirteen days later with a 13-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. In that game, the Broncos held the Viking to three Fred Cox field goals.  The AFL would actually only win three games against the NFL that summer while posting 13 losses (the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs downed the Chicago Bears on August 23). But the first bite was the best for the aspiring league thanks to the lowly Broncos.  In the words of Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, "The AFL is going to surprise a lot of people.  In fact, since Denver beat the Lions and Vikings, I guess it already has."


In the grainy wire photo from 1967, Detroit quarterback Karl Sweetan is tackled by Dave Costa while Bill Keating (80) protects against the pass





















Scoring Summary


Third Quarter

DEN- FG Mann 35

DEN- Gilchrist 1 run (Mann kick)


Fourth Quarter

DET- Malinchak 15 yard pass from Plum (Walker kick)

DEN- FG Mann 32





For a complete list and recaps of all the games played between the two leagues from 1967-1969, Click HERE.