The Pro Football Hall of Fame is the highest accomplishment an individual player can achieve in the NFL. Induction puts a player into the most exclusive group in league history, becoming a legend of the game.
The legendary fraternity includes Denver Broncos greats John Elway, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis, Champ Bailey, Pat Bowlen, Steve Atwater — and the newest members of the Hall — Peyton Manning and John Lynch. However, as one of the most storied franchises in NFL history, the Broncos are still underrepresented in Canton.
Today, I will make a case for the Bronco players who should be in this exclusive group.
Rod Smith | WR
Smith was a fan-favorite and continues to be to this day. Going undrafted in 1994 out of Missouri Southern, he would finish with school records in receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns. Smith would be named first-team All American by the Associated Press and a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which was given to the top player at the Division II level.
After Smith’s collegiate career, he would go undrafted and would sign with the Broncos. His rookie year would start slow as he'd have to fight and claw his way up the depth chart.
Smith would ultimately get his chance when fellow receiver Mike Pritchard got injured, allowing Smith to get his first start. Smith made the most of it by catching a 43-yard Hail Mary touchdown from Elway to seal the 38-31 victory over Washington.
Smith’s career would not kick into high gear until his third season, where he would start all 16 games and record his first 1,000-yard campaign. He would also haul in 12 touchdowns and help the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory.
Smith would go on to becoming a premier receiver for nearly a decade, racking up numbers that rivaled Dallas Hall-of-Famer Michael Irvin. Smith retired with three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro nods on his NFL resume, plus his two Super Bowl rings, to go with the copious body of work below.
Louis Wright | CB
When Broncos fans think of franchise lockdown cornerbacks, they think of Bailey, or names in more recent history like Chris Harris, Jr. or Aqib Talib, but if you go back further, you come to Wright's name. The Broncos drafted Wright in 1975 in the first round with the 17th overall pick out of San Jose State.
He would excel at both football and track in his college career. In track, Wright would run a blazing 9.6-seconds in the 100-meter dash and reach 25-feet-7-inches in the long jump, which still ranks top-5 in school history.
Wright would go on to play all 12 of his NFL seasons for the Broncos. He would have an immediate impact his rookie season, starting 11 games, recording two interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Wright would later go on to be a key contributor on the Orange Crush defense in his breakout season in 1977.
Local sports columnist Woody Paige would say on his sports show with Les Shapiro, “Louis Wright was one of the best cornerbacks ever to play the game.”
Wright racked up numerous awards throughout his career that would rival any defensive back wearing a gold jacket, including five Pro Bowl nods and five All-Pros (four first-team).
Randy Gradishar | LB
During his all-time great NFL career, Gradishar was thought to be the game's finest inside linebacker. He was drafted in the first round out of Ohio State University by the Broncos.
Gradishar would win consensus first-team All-American honors in the 1972 season and garner a unanimous All-American selection in 1973, finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hays would go on to say, “Randy Gradishar was the finest linebacker I ever coached.”
When asked what allowed Gradishar to dominate the game, he would say, “One of my strengths was being able to study the game on downs and distances.” Jill Collier had everything broken down by down and distance and would have an encyclopedia each week of our game plan.”
Gradishar used this cerebral style of play to put himself in the best position to disrupt the play and make the tackle. He would be a vital part of the historic Orange Crush defense that would go on to Super Bowl XII, beating venerated teams that were thought to be superior in the media’s eyes such as the Pittsburg Steelers with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swan, and the Steel Curtain, which was followed by an impressive victory over the rival Oakland Raiders, quarterbacked by Ken Stabler in the AFC Championship game.
Gradishar would play 10 seasons for the Broncos, racking up out of this world statistics. Averaging a whopping 200 tackles per season is unheard of and unprecedented.
Stats such as these are what have Broncos Country in disbelief that Gradishar is not in the Hall of Fame. It's a real disservice to Gradishar's contributions to NFL canon and strikes righteous anger and sadness into the heart of every Broncos fan. Each year he's passed over for enshrinement only adds insult to injury.
Miscarriage of Football Justice
Fans have been left scratching their heads on why these Broncos legends are passed over year after year to being invited into the NFL’s exclusive fraternity. Some fans and even journalists have speculated that if Smith, Gradishar, or Wright had dawned a Steelers, or Cowboys jersey, they would have been enshrined years ago.
Another reason is that the Broncos, especially those who played in the 1980s or earlier, played in a small market and didn’t get the national exposure the East and West Coast teams did. Either way, these Broncos need to get the respect they deserve and receive that infamous knock on the door inviting them into the Hall of Fame for time and eternity — where they belong.
Follow Kenneth on Twitter @KennethMHH.
Subscribe to Mile High Huddle on YouTube for daily Broncos live-stream podcasts!