Friday February 5th, 2016

The 1992 playoffs could have ended much differently for Gary Kubiak. The Broncos head coach — then, the Broncos’ backup quarterback and field goal holder — had made one big gaffe hanging over the team’s chances during a divisional round game against the Houston Oilers.

Kubiak had botched a hold on a first-quarter extra-point attempt that loomed large in the fourth quarter, with Denver trailing 24–23 and Kubiak largely responsible for the point differential. A 31-year-old career reserve, Kubiak had designs on retirement, win or lose.

Rick Reilly’s 1992 Sports Illustrated story, Driven, details what happened next. “I was standing there thinking, I've got to live all year knowing I messed up that PAT,” Kubiak said then. With 2:07 left in the game, and the Broncos and starting quarterback John Elway set for one last drive, the two men shared a quick but substantial moment.

From the SI Vault:

As Elway got ready to drag himself back onto the field one more time, Kubiak yanked on his arm. "Pick me up, Wood," Kubiak said. In sportsese, "pick me up" means “save my bacon.” Wood is what Kubiak calls Elway, Wood being short for Elwood, Kubiak's handle for Elway. To Elway, Kubiak was always Koob. Drafted the same year—Elway the shiny first pick in '83, Kubiak the 197th—Kubiak always knew what the score was in Denver. He would sweep up after Elway's parade. Still, they became roommates and best friends. In Elway's first few tumultuous years in Denver, the years when he felt hounded, confused and ready to quit, nobody dealt out more hang-in-theres than the Texas farm kid, Kubiak.

But there was more than just bacon to be saved this time, and they both knew it. Elway knew that Kubiak was going to retire after the season. Maybe nobody but Elway cared about the retirement of a lifetime understudy. Here was a guy who had spent his best years behind one of the most durable and celebrated quarterbacks in history, with not a hope of starting, hardly a hope of playing. And yet Koob had never bitched, sniped, complained or even short-sheeted anybody.

“As I was walking out there,” Elway said, “I was thinking, We can't let Koob end his career on that bobbled snap.”

And of course, Elway improvised his way to a scoring drive, converting on multiple fourth downs to save the season, and Kubiak’s personal honor, effectively.

The Broncos kicked a 28-yard field goal with 16 seconds left to win the game. Catching a bad snap and recovering in time for a solid hold? Who else but Kubiak. Denver won the game 26–24.

The Broncos lost in the AFC championship game a week later, and Kubiak retired to enter coaching shortly afterward.

More than two decades later, Kubiak, Elway and the Broncos will take on the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday.

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