Well, the world didn't end last weekend, but the Bronco's season did, on a partly sunny January Sunday with almost 70,000 people almost packing Mile High.
The differences between this year's finale and last year's are almost too numerous to list. There were no stealth helicopters during the national anthem, no ten-minute standing ovations when old records fell, no second-half comeback, no victory lap, no flashbulbs, no declarations of love from the quarterback, no Super Bowl butterflies, no tearful goodbyes, no Shannon Sharpe, no Terrell Davis, no John Elway. And it wasn't easy for us.
After so many years of being the fans who loved the team that could never win a Super Bowl, it didn't take us long at all to become the fans who loved the team that always won the Super Bowl. We don't have a lot of experience as fans of a team that's six and ten.
The official party line from Shanahan and several of the players in all the pre-game shows Sunday seemed to be, "There's only one team that isn't disappointed at the end of a football season." The line seemed to want to dismiss the question it ultimately begged. Are there degrees of disappointment at the end of a football season, and if so, in what order do they fall? Is it better to be six and ten than it is to suffer defeat to the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs? Is it better to be six and ten than to end your season in defeat in front of the entire world at four Super Bowls? Do you feel worse if your wife leaves you for a smart, funny and attractive man, or worse if she leaves you for a total nerd? Are the fans secretly glad about the top-ten draft choice and the fact that we'll get to play Cincinnati 14 times next year? Is Shanahan? Is Griese?
Is it possible that we secretly feel like the Broncos deserved a season to regroup after all the joy they've brought us recently? Is it possible that we love this team unconditionally -- in spite of ourselves -- whether they have a winning season or not?
My season tickets are in section 527, in the north end zone, row 13, four rows from the lights. I've had them, now, for three years. I make a lot of statements like, From that height, I have come to a much greater understanding of football because I am able to see the architecture of the plays, but what I really mean is, My seats stink but I'm just as pleased as punch to be there.
When I was asked to write this article and told I would have a sideline photographer's pass to the Seattle game on December 19, I didn't really understand how much it would mean to me. I didn't really contemplate the fact that Eddie McCaffrey would catch a pass inches from my feet and then trot back to the huddle blowing hard, and I would think, like a child, "He breathes!" How, several plays later, Maa Tanuvasa would open a small gash in his arm, and I would think, "He bleeds!" Harald Hasselbach, Mike Lodish, Rod Smith, Derek Loville, Chris Watson ... all these concepts that had previously been just blue and orange blurs, just names in the announcer's mouth, that had all been just part of the architecture were suddenly living, breathing, hand-warming, gum-chewing, blood-spitting human beings.
I will unabashedly admit that being on the field at that game was one of the most exciting things I've done in my life, and I've had what most people would consider a pretty exciting life. I was so thrilled to be there I didn't even feel the cold, which was considerable, and when I tried to zip up my jacket as the game moved into overtime I was startled that I couldn't make my hands work because I was mildly hypothermic. Before and after that revelation, I was having too much fun to care.
And hard as I tried to be a responsible member of the press, to get my photos and think of thought-provoking locker room questions and be unfazed by the sheer wonder of it all, I still managed to do every uncool thing a reporter can do on the sidelines: I cheered. I took pictures of Thunder and the Cheerleaders. I missed shots of key plays because I was so concerned about the outcome I forgot to take the picture. I asked if I could have an autograph in the locker room (only one...) and at the last minute (worse yet) a picture.
I don't regret a single thing I did, which is another way of saying, I'll be a fool for the Denver Broncos anytime. If I do have a regret, it's for what I didn't do, what there was no way to do, which was somehow let them know, individually or collectively, what they've meant to me over the years. No way to explain that for three days after the 1998 Super Bowl I couldn't draw a full breath because I'd pulled all my chest muscles screaming. How once, during last season's game against the Dallas Cowboys, a man I thought I loved tried to break up with me and I told him to put it on hold until after the game. How any one of a dozen highlight films can make me cry real tears no matter how many times I see them. No matter how intelligent I think I am. No matter how many times I try to say, It's only football.
There are two young women who sit in front of me in section 527; I don't think they've ever missed a game. They are slim and pretty with perfectly manicured nails and fresh, shiny hair. In any other city in America, they'd either be at the riding stables or the mall on a Sunday, but in this city, Sundays are for football, and they bring their blankets and their thermos of hot chocolate, and with quite some intensity, they watch and discuss the game. And so, too, the professor who sits down the row, and the lesbian couple on the other side, and the actors down three rows in front, and the writer of literary fiction two sections over, and contractors behind me who sometimes get a little over-focused on the cheerleaders. In Denver, we're all in this together, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
We may have finished the season six and ten, but there's still no denying the fact that football fans in Colorado have plenty to be thankful for:
There's Eddie Mac, and the way he puts his body on the line each week, and the fact that, as long as he keeps bending that neck back and forth, no one seems able to break it.
There's Olandis Gary, who stepped into Terrell's shoes like somebody who believed he was a member of a championship team.
There's Brian Griese who certainly will be, before long, the quarterback Shanahan expects him to be.
There's Shanahan himself. We didn't name him the Mastermind for nothing.
There's the fact that Jimmy Johnson isn't our coach.
In the final analysis, I can't work up too much ire over the failure of this football season. Maybe it's because six and ten feels a whole lot different after two Super Bowl victories than before them. Maybe it's because when John helicoptered himself to a first down in Super Bowl XXX he did more than give the team a reason to win. Maybe he bought his Denver Broncos at least a couple of losing seasons before this Bronco fan won't be excited almost beyond words to head for the stadium on any given Sunday.
For anybody who feels differently, remember that there's a fan in section 527 just dying to move down into your seats.
Pam Houston is an acclaimed author (Cowboys are My Weakness, Waltzing the Cat), an outdoor adventurer and a bit of a Broncos fan.