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For 21 summers, Broncos camped and bonded in Greeley — both off and on the field

July 22, 2018


Terry Frei 

In this 1988 file photo, Denver quarterback John Elway takes aims at a receiver during practice at the Broncos’ training camp at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. The Broncos’ previous No. 7, Craig Morton, a coaching intern that season, watches. The Broncos’ training camp opens Saturday at the team’s Dove Valley facility. The team held training camp in Greeley from 1982-2002. (Associated Press)

On my tour of the State Armory Event Center on Greeley’s 8th Avenue this past week, Justin Kleinsorge took me to a corner on the second floor.

“John Elway would have sat right here,” Kleinsorge, the husband of building director Lindsey Kleinsorge, told me. “This was the raised booth area, and he would have sat in this corner right here. That’s the legend.”

The State Armory Events Center today. As a bar and restaurant, it played host to Broncos players and fans during the team’s training camps from 1982-2002. (Terry Frei/tfrei@greeleytribune.com)

When the Broncos held training camp in Greeley at the University of Northern Colorado from 1982 through 2002, the State Amory was a restaurant and bar known for burgers, beer, pool tables, pinball, shuffleboard and music — and as a hangout for Broncos players. Their other Greeley favorite was the Smiling Moose, on 11th Avenue, a block from campus.

If the walls in both buildings could talk, they’d have great stories.

Camps then lasted as long as six weeks, NFL teams had more players on initial camp rosters than are in some Colorado towns, and teams essentially put down stakes, usually on college campuses. At UNC, the Broncos and media members stayed at high-rise dormitory Lawrenson Hall.

 Denver Broncos Training Camp sites


» 1960-61 and 1965-66: Colorado School of Mines, Golden

» 1962-64 and 1976-81: Colorado State University, Fort Collins

» 1967-71: Broncos headquarters, unincorporated Adams County

» 1972-75: Cal Poly Pomona, Pomona, Calif.

» 1982-2002: University of Northern Colorado, Greeley

» 2003-2018: Broncos headquarters, Dove Valley


Many Greeley residents attended practices and also encountered Broncos players and staff around town.

The most memorable Broncos training camp in Greeley was the second one, in 1983. John Elway’s rookie camp at UNC ran from July 12 to Aug. 18, or through preparation for the third exhibition game. Amid an escalating Denver newspaper war, there was no such thing as excessive Elway coverage.

Thirty-five years ago in Greeley, Elway’s every move was chronicled in print, including in a daily “Elway Watch.” When he went to get a haircut, he was shadowed.

I was an NBA writer at the time, covering the Nuggets, but was brought into the mix, too, and my most vivid memory is of getting a call in Lawrenson Hall from an editor, pointing out that neither I nor my sports staff compatriot on Broncos duty that day had filed the Elway watch.

I explained that since we were far into training camp and nothing significant had happened beyond what we mentioned in our stories, we could skip the Elway Watch for the day. We nicely were told that wouldn’t do, and we each filed a couple of tongue-in-cheek items to be pieced together, and I thought it was fairly obvious we were gently poking fun at the saturation coverage concept.

It ran as we went it.

High-rise University of Northern Colorado dormitory Lawrenson Hall was the Broncos’ home away from home for 21 summers, from 1982 through 2002. (Terry Frei/tfrei@greeleytribune.com

The Broncos’ run in Greeley ended when the team, in line with the NFL trend for shorter camps and shrunken initial rosters, switched camp to their own Dove Valley training facility in 2003.

That’s where the team’s 2018 camp will open Saturday.

For a long time, Greeley unquestionably was the Broncos’ auxiliary home. During the Broncos’ stay in Greeley, they made it to the Super Bowl five times and won twice, beating Green Bay 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII and Atlanta 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII.

Few players wax nostalgic about training camp. It is not a popular phenomenon, and that was even more the case in the era of more hitting, longer practices, and conditions that more replicated games.

At camps now, you can walk away thinking you just saw an intramural flag football game.

Ring of Fame linebacker Karl Mecklenburg was with the Broncos from 1983-94 and never went to training camp anywhere other than Greeley. He was a 12th-round draft choice in 1983, the same draft when Elway went to the Colts at No. 1 overall and Gary Kubiak went to the Broncos in the eighth round.

 Denver Broncos 2018 training camp


Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to attend this year’s Denver Broncos training camp in Englewood:

» Fans can use still cameras during the workouts but video (cell phones and tablets) will not be permitted.

» Players as a position group (receivers one day, linebackers the next, etc.) will be available for post-practice autographs on the west side of the practice fields.

» Practice times are subject to change.

Practice schedule

Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Sunday: 9:30 a.m. to noon

July 30: 9:30 a.m. to noon

July 31: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 1: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 3: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 4: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 5: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 7: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 8: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 9: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 14: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Aug. 15: 9:30 a.m. to noon

Source: The Denver Post


“I think there’s an advantage to getting away with your teammates and kind of isolating yourself and spending some time together,” Mecklenburg said. “That’s one thing that’s missed from not going to Greeley.”

He laughed and added, “I still get the willies when I drive by Greeley. It wasn’t fun, but it was good for the team, I believe.”

Did he go to the Smiling Moose and the State Armory?

“Uh, I’ve been there,” he said.

His more serious point was that Greeley — and the other out-of-town sites of longer and more rigorous NFL training camps in different eras — was part of a system more conducive to discovering unheralded talent and getting players ready for the physical trials of the upcoming season.

“It was 110 guys coming to camp and five weeks later, after knockdown-dragouts, blisters, sun, the coaches, just the whole thing, it was as physically, emotionally demanding as anything I’ve ever done,” Mecklenburg said. “For a while there, I was doing one-a-days when everyone else was doing two-a-days because the doctor told (Coach) Dan (Reeves) I had only so many steps left in my knee. But still, it was a challenge.

“They don’t hit the way they used to hit, and I think that shows in what you see in tackling and contact the first few weeks of the season. And truthfully, I don’t know if I would have made the team under these conditions. I was the 310th pick in the draft because I don’t look good in shorts.”

Mark Jackson, one of Elway’s “Three Amigo” wide receivers, went to Greeley training camps from 1986-92. “Probably the most powerful thing about the Greeley experience was the fact that you were totally immersed,” Jackson said. “You’re football 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There always are going to be distractions if you let them come into your life, but there are no easy distractions. For the guys who have kids, it might be your kid falling down and scratching his leg. There are a lot of things that can take your mind off football.

“When you’re in Greeley, though, it’s football. If you’re a rookie, it’s, ‘How do I make this team?’ If you’re a veteran, it’s, ‘How do I keep my job and how do I get better?’ To be on the campus at Lawrenson Hall with all the security checks, I think it lent itself for you to treat football as a profession. As a rookie, it went from a game you played to a profession.”

Jackson roomed at Lawrenson with fellow “Amigo” Vance Johnson for six of his seven camps.

“Some people think that everyone you play football with are your best friends,” Jackson said. “That’s just not true, but the bonding part that comes out of it, you get to learn a personality and you get to know and trust that person.”

And what of the Broncos’ hangouts?

The State Armory restaurant and bar closed in late 2006. The building since has been reconfigured as a site for offices, plus weddings, church services and other functions. But the Broncos still are part of the building’s legacy, as much as the rigging ropes still on display from the HMS Bounty and mutineer Fletcher Christian.

During the Broncos’ Greeley run, this was the Smiling Moose. It’s now shuttered. (Terry Frei/tfrei@greeleytribune.com)

The Smiling Moose shut down in late 2002 and has been through several incarnations since. It’s now shuttered.

Knowing the likely answer, I also asked Jackson if he had been to the hangouts as a player.

“No,” Jackson said. “You know something? I never set foot in …”

He cut himself off.

“I’m lying,” he said, then laughed. “Yeah, that was the other part of the bonding. Eat together, sleep together, shower together and then drink together. I forgot about that one. That’s when you really learn a personality, right?”

Now let me explain why I swear I could hear laughter when I approached Lawrenson Hall Sunday. The staff bonded at camp, too.

During the Broncos’ run in Greeley, Jack Elway, John’s father; and Jerry Frei, my father, worked for the team in roles that evolved through the years. Both had been college head coaches, Jack at Stanford, Jerry at Oregon. Jack primarily was director of pro scouting and Jerry at various times was offensive line coach, scout and director of college scouting. By 2000, they both were considered emeritus consultants, after many years sharing an office at Dove Valley and sitting together in press boxes at Broncos games at home and on the road.

Jack & Jerry: Jack Elway and Jerry Frei pose in the Broncos’ winning locker room in Miami after the Super Bowl XXXIII victory over Atlanta. (Terry Frei/tfrei@greeleytribune.com)

At the Broncos’ offices, they were “Jack & Jerry,” the ampersand-linked veteran voices with respected personnel judgment instincts.

In Greeley, they also shared a golf cart for the practices and navigation on campus, and also a corner suite in Lawrenson that was the nightly Happy Hour (and later) spot for Broncos coaches and staff.

Jerry, the only man on the planet to earn the World War II Air Medal (three times) and a Super Bowl championship ring (twice), died of congestive heart failure on Feb. 16, 2001.

At his memorial service, many Broncos officials, including coach Mike Shanahan and owner Pat Bowlen, spoke, most bringing up Jack & Jerry.

Then Jack himself got up.

Jack spoke of the Happy Hour sessions in Greeley, saying each morning at camp in the Lawrenson suite, he would ask Jerry, “How many people do I have to apologize to?”

Jack added, “And he always had a list for me.”

Jack suffered a fatal heart attack two months later.

At Jack’s memorial service, Pat Bowlen proposed a toast to Jack & Jerry.

It was as if they all were back in Greeley.