The Mile High Club Denver's South Stands are the second home to a close-knit gang of diehards bonded for life by their passion for the Broncos

December 25, 2000

Hey, how ya doin'? You got a ticket for that seat? Let me check
it out. Sure enough, you're in the right place. Section DD.
Third row. Seat 18. South Stands. You must have bought one of
Victor Marquez's tickets. Am I right? I heard his granddaughter
wasn't feeling well, a cold or something, so you got her seat.
Welcome to Mile High Stadium.

I know you're new here, so let me tell you that you're in for a
different kind of day, a day...Well, how should I describe it?
You're joining a family, my friend. You're joining a football
family. A Denver Broncos football family. So settle in. And try
to keep warm.

This is watching sports the way it used to be. You've probably
gone to games in other stadiums, maybe even sat in somebody's
luxury box and been wined, dined and maybe caught a T-shirt shot
into the air from a backpack cannon by a group of management
troglodytes. Oh, yeah, and you probably watched a little bit of
the game too. Well, this isn't like that.

You're going back in time here. This is Boston Garden and
Franklin Field in Philadelphia and the old Yankee Stadium with
the old New York football Giants. This is bedrock sports. We
watch the game here. Watch it? Man, we inhale it.

There used to be a guy, Billy--sat right near here, two rows
down--who used to get mad when people going up the stairs stopped
to watch what was happening on the field, blocking everybody's
view. Billy doesn't come much anymore, not since the divorce, but
he would tell those people to sit the hell down. The people would
say something back, and then, wow, it would start. We watch the
game here. Yes, we do.

We're fans the way fans used to be. Nobody's here on a corporate
account, getting a tax write-off for the money he spends. This is
money from the cookie jar, from the Christmas club account or
something. I know $25 for a ticket doesn't sound like much, but
10 games times $25 is $250. If you buy two tickets, that's $500,
and if you bring a family of four, that's a grand. You throw in
parking and some dogs and maybe a few adult beverages, and it
adds up. It's all worth it, though. We're paying to follow our
hearts.

Look around you. Look at all the Broncos stuff. Everybody's
wearing something. Look at those two big guys two rows back, the
Oletski brothers, in their Romanowski jerseys. That's their
sister, Carrie, in the Griese shirt. And her friend Harold in
the Easy Ed McCaffrey shirt. Everybody is here for the Broncos.
Here for the game. Here for the win. We want the Broncos to rip
some hearts out. So take your seat...

Yeah, that's your seat, that little 16-inch-deep stretch of wood
covered by that bleached-out skin of orange fiberglass. Yeah,
it's a little small for the modern backside, especially when
everybody's wearing a ski parka against the cold, but scrunch up.
Everybody does. Scrunch up and lean back against the knees of the
guy behind you--that's O.K., it's John Soper Sr., a good guy--and
kind of get your breathing in sync with the rest of the folks in
the row and enjoy. You're in the group now. Let me tell you about
it.

The South stands have room for 8,096 backsides, and 8,096
backsides have filled those spaces for 33 years. All these seats
are for season tickets, most of them owned by the same people for
most of that time. Anywhere you go in the South Stands, you'll be
sitting in the middle of a bunch of people who know one another,
three-row and four-row societies, each one bleeding into the
next. If you're a stranger, you stand out like a kicker's clean
jersey, like Jason Elam in the fourth quarter on a rainy, muddy
afternoon.

Kathryn Harding, that tiny woman, looks like a retired
schoolteacher, three rows back? She did work for the Boulder
Valley school district, in the cafeteria. She says she has to
call people if she can't make it to a game because they'll worry
about her, think she's dead. She's 77. She's been a
season-ticket holder since 1967.

Victor Marquez--the guy whose seat you're in--is 80. He grew up two
blocks from here. He remembers when this was a garbage dump. Then
Bears Stadium, a Triple A ballpark, was built in 1948, and it was
enlarged to create Mile High when the Broncos were formed in
1960. Victor's had his tickets since '67 too. He says he would
have had them earlier, but there was no need. That was when the
Broncos had those vertical stripes on their stockings and played
in the old AFL. They were terrible, but for five bucks you could
buy a ticket and sit just about anywhere. When the AFL merged
with the NFL and tickets became a hot item, he and his brother,
Jo-Jo, the one who sparred with Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler,
decided they liked the South Stands best of all, so that's where
they went.

The Oletski brothers? The big guys? They're second generation.
Their dad, Ben, bought season tickets just about the same time
Victor and Kathryn did. At first Ben went to the games with his
brother, but Ben's wife, Marilyn, started pestering him about
taking her to the games. Ben finally said he would. But on the
day of the game, there was a terrific snowstorm. Marilyn bundled
up and grabbed a shovel and headed toward the door.

"What do you think you're doing?" Ben said. "Three feet of snow
are out there."

"I'm going to shovel out," Marilyn replied, "so we can go to the
game."

"My father looked at her," Greg Oletski, the brother with the
shaved head, says. "He said, 'O.K., I'll take you to the game.
But the first time you start pissing and moaning, we're coming
home, and you're never going to another game.' They went to every
game for the next 27 years."

When they were kids, Greg, now 37, and his brother, Ray, 40,
would sit at home and listen to the games on radio. They were
Broncos fans too. They had pennants of all the NFL teams on their
bedroom wall and rearranged them each week according to the
standings in each division.

Ben bought a third ticket and started taking Ray when he was 12.
When Greg turned 12, he and Ray alternated games. A year later
Carrie, their sister, was added to the rotation. Eventually more
tickets became available, and all the kids went to every game.
Eventually Ben and Marilyn stopped going. Eventually Ray and Greg
each got married and brought other people. Carrie invited Harold
Lif to go to the games with her. "He wasn't my boyfriend or
anything, just a friend," Carrie says. "I wanted someone to go
with because my brothers were married. Now both my brothers are
divorced, but I'm still going to the games with Harold."

The Sopers (those are John Sr.'s knees in your back, remember)
are second and third generation. John Sr.'s father, Frank, also
bought tickets early in Broncos history. Frank was a character.
"He was a big man," John Sr., 60, says. "Pleasant, but tough. A
real type A. The one thing he hated was people walking in front
of him on the way out of the parking lot after games, so he just
drove over 'em, hit 'em. We'd leave the game, and he had this big
car, and people would be pounding on the side after he hit
'em--the car was all banged up, all these dents on the side--and
he'd keep going."

"My first memory of a Broncos game, I must have been about seven,
was of my grandfather driving out of that parking lot," Soper's
son John Jr. says. "He just hit some guy. Bam! The guy punched
the side of the car with a full fist. Bam! My grandfather kept
driving."

Now John Sr. brings his sons to the games. John Jr., 36, lives in
Salt Lake City, where he is a district manager for Payless Shoe
Source. He starts driving on a Friday night or Saturday morning,
a minimum of eight hours on the road, sometimes with his wife and
two kids, sometimes alone, then drives back after the game on
Sunday. Tom, John Sr.'s other son, is a doctor in suburban
Sterling. He comes to the games when he can, but he has to miss
them when he is on call. That is when Dan Gabbron, John Sr.'s
grandson, gets the ticket. That's Dan in the fatigues.

"Everybody knows everybody else in our section," John Jr. says.
"It's nice. Sometimes you don't see these people anywhere else
except at the games. But when the next season starts, you pick
right up."

For a long time, Victor Marquez would go to the games with his
wife, Pat, and son Mike, both of whom suffered from muscular
dystrophy. Victor always parked in a handicapped space right near
the stadium--for years he would have to get in line at some city
office and stay there overnight before the season to sign up for
that spot--but the walk to the seats was still filled with peril
for Pat and Mike. Soper Sr. noticed this while driving through
the lot on Sundays, and he started a ritual. Every week he would
arrive with his two sons and have them escort Pat and Mike to
their seats.

"We did this for a few years," Soper Sr. says. "It wasn't any big
deal. Then one summer, about 27 years ago, I had trouble with my
garage-door opener. I called a place, the V&A Door Company, to
have it fixed, and who shows up? Victor. I never knew that was
his business. It turned out, he lived in Westminster, not too far
from us. We got to talking, and he said, 'Hey, I have a van.
Parking is tough. Why don't you and your boys come to the games
with me? I have a lot of room.' So we did."

Pat died in 1991 and Mike, now 44, is too frail to go to the
games anymore, but the arrangement remains in effect. The Sopers
arrive at Victor's house on the morning of the game, and
Victor--80 years old, remember--still takes the wheel. "He's sort
of like Mr. Magoo," John Jr. says. "He's this little guy, sitting
up there in this big van, talking away, looking everywhere as
cars jam on their brakes. It's hilarious."

"Put it this way," John Sr. says. "At an amusement park you would
have to pay five bucks for the ride that Victor gives us."

So this is the basic group. Get comfortable. Relax. Victor now
sits with members of his family, and Kathryn, whose husband died
in 1996, sits with her daughter, or a friend. Greg Oletski, who
this year took custody of his 12-year-old son, Zach, sometimes
gets an extra ticket, but this is the core group in Section DD.
There are other people, on the edges, to know about. Like Eric
Hayes, who isn't here because his mother-in-law is getting
married today, and that group of 10 metro Denver firemen on the
other side of the aisle, the ones who get into a jam every now
and then. There are characters to know from Section DD history,
like Leroy, the big guy who now has a job moving the chains down
on the field, and the heavyset woman who used to dress up as the
Bronco Bunny (she stopped coming after her husband died)...but
this is the basic group.

You will probably notice that this group doesn't do a lot of
drinking, not anymore. Victor used to bring a bunch of stuff in
the van for a pregame tailgate, even though he doesn't drink, but
he stopped a few years ago. A friend, a policeman, got him
nervous about even carrying open liquor bottles in the van. Greg
will fill up a couple of plastic squirt bottles with "whatever I
can find around the house, usually peppermint schnapps," and
he'll have a celebratory shot after each Broncos touchdown--not
field goals, never--with his brother and sister and Harold, but
that's it.

The one betting ritual also involves the Oletskis. Greg collects
two bucks at the start of each game from whoever wants to play.
(Are you in?) Sometimes the pot is $10, sometimes it's as much as
$30. The money is passed from left to right, then back again,
from one person to the next after every point--even an extra
point--scored during the game. The person holding the money at the
end of the game gets the pot.

Football, however, is the really big thing. Not so much football
as the Broncos. "I'm not a football fan," John Soper Sr. says.
"I'm a Broncos fan. I want to see the them win."

"It's different now with the Rockies, the Nuggets and the
Avalanche in town," Victor says. "For such a long time, the
Broncos were the only thing we had."

These are people who have been around for the team's entire
bumper-car ride. Victor remembers when practices were on a dirt
field outside the stadium, when he and his friends could walk up
to the players during a break and start talking with them. Soper
Sr., an electrician, remembers when the team practiced across the
street from his union's headquarters at 56th and Union. You could
just look through the fence, except on the weeks of big games
against the Oakland Raiders or somebody, when canvas was hung to
foil inquisitive eyes. Greg Oletski remembers his first live
game, Broncos against the Baltimore Colts in the early '70s. His
mother took him to the Colorado School of Mines the day before
the game to watch the Colts practice. He collected autographs
from Johnny Unitas, Bubba Smith, a bunch of people. He then went
to Mile High the next day and joined the crowd rooting to have
Unitas's head knocked off.

The long stretch of lean years for the Broncos gave way to years
of frustration--so close, all the way to Super Bowl in 1990, then
disappointment--which ended with back-to-back championships, in
1997 and '98. Floyd Little gave way to Randy Gradishar, who gave
way to John Elway, who gave way to Romo and Terrell Davis and
Easy Ed. They were characters in a drama more than people in real
life, knights sent out to save the reputation of the city. "I
don't know any of the players," Greg Oletski says. "They all live
south of the city now, in the rich neighborhoods. I never go down
that way. I yell to Romanowski on the field, 'Hey, Romo,' and
sometimes he waves back. But I don't know him. I don't know any
of them.

"Wait, I do know one, kind of," Oletski says. "We had a family
reunion this summer. This cousin showed up; she was beautiful. I
hadn't seen her for about 21 years. I asked my aunt how closely
related this girl was to me, you know, to see if I had a chance.
My aunt said, 'Forget about it. She's going out with Brian
Griese.'"

The passion is more for the team than for the individual players.
When Kathryn's late husband, who most of the time preferred
fishing or playing cribbage to sitting through a football game,
refinished their basement, he looked at her and said, "O.K., I'll
give you one wall." She turned the wall into a Broncos shrine,
covered with team pictures and autographs and posters and
pennants. For years Soper Sr. has flown a Broncos flag in front
of his house during the season. John Jr. has carried on the
tradition at his own house, even when he lived in Houston for
three years. Ray Oletski, facility manager at the Arvada Covenant
Church, teaches Sunday school there. On game days he teaches in
his Broncos gear. "The kids know it's a game day," he says. "We
get into their minds early."

There is some history out here too. Did anyone tell you? The
South Stands are one of the main reasons the Broncos even exist.
The stands were built in the late '50s for baseball. Branch
Rickey was going to start another major league, the Continental
Baseball League, and Denver wanted to be a part of it. The rub
was that each franchise had to have a park that seated more than
25,000 fans. The stands were added to fulfill that requirement.
But the CBL never got off the ground, and the city still had the
stands and was still paying for them when this goofy new football
league, the AFL, was looking for teams. That was a way to pay for
the stands.

The cool thing about being here--you probably noticed--is that all
of us are practically sitting on top of the Broncos' locker room.
Coach Mike Shanahan's words are pretty much going through the
ceiling and into the soles of our feet, good vibes, and you can
see the players, close-up, coming on and off the field. The
visiting team's locker room used to be at the other end of the
South Stands, underneath Section BB, and that used to be a bit of
a problem. People would throw whatever was available, especially
snow, at the visiting players.

That's changed, probably for the good. The visiting teams come
out of the north end now, underneath that green canopy, but this
still is known as the place where the true spirit lives. Joe
Ellis, the vice president of business operations for the Broncos,
says that every week he notices the difference between the South
Stands and the rest of the stadium. Parking is terrible at Mile
High, so by kickoff the stadium is still only 75% full. Except in
the South Stands, where everyone is in his or her seat. The end
of the game? Same thing. During a blowout half the stadium will
be empty, but the South Stands will be full.

You get a different view here, the end zone view, but as Soper
Sr. says, "You can watch the game from this angle best, see the
holes open in the line." You might miss some things when the ball
is at the far end of the field, but you know what? Every quarter,
they switch everything around. You have to pay attention--no
replays for us because the big board is behind the South Stands,
but that's all right. See it once, replay it in your mind. Catch
the highlights at home.

You're here with people who care. That's what matters. You want
to shout? You shout. Ray Oletski says the greatest relief he has
in life is standing up here and bellowing like the big bear he
is. Nobody says a thing. The frustrations just come out. You want
to be tough? Be tough. Victor says he never has had a fight, but
his late brother, the one who sparred with Willie Pep and Sandy
Saddler, had more than a few. His brother loved the Broncos.
"Somebody'd say something bad about the Broncos?" Victor says.
"Jo-Jo would coldcock him."

Here's how much these people care. On Nov. 27, 1994, coming back
from the rest room, Kathryn was knocked down from behind by two
kids who were running. She broke her hip, wound up in St.
Anthony's Central Hospital. "I went to a football game," she
says, "and didn't get home until three weeks later." Those two
kids gave an old woman a lot of misery. You know what she says
was the silver lining? That it happened at the final home game.
She was back in her seat for the first exhibition game the next
season.

O.K., now the bad part: You're a little late. When the playoffs
are done this season, Mile High is done. As you came through the
gate, did you notice that giant concrete and steel spaceship
right behind the South Stands? You had to see it, right? That's
the future. That's where the Broncos are going to play the 2001
season, and that's where all of us are going to be. I hate to say
it, but nothing is going to be the same.

Oh, they're going to try. There will be a South Stands, and
everyone has signed up, requesting the same seats. John Soper Sr.
even made a list of the seat numbers and names and gave it to the
Broncos' ticket department. He's been assured that every effort
will be made to fulfill all requests, and I'm sure the Broncos
will give it a shot. But you know what? It won't work.

As we speak, there's talk about keeping the name Mile High for
the new stadium, rather than accept some big advertising money,
but that'll last until the cost over-runs start arriving. This
will be an Alltel, Intel, Do-tell, some kind of dotcom stadium
like the rest. Wait and see.

There will be two giant scoreboards to bring you every slo-mo,
stop-action replay and to sell you green beans or something
during all those TV timeouts. There will be luxury boxes
decorated better than most people's homes. (Soper Sr. is working,
right now, as an electrician in the new stadium. He wired Broncos
owner Pat Bowlen's box the other day.) There will be glitz and
glamour, the showbiz approach that makes the game--the game--simply
a part of the overall attraction.

In the new South Stands everyone will have an actual seat with an
actual back and actual armrests and an actual cupholder. There
will be actual room to cross your legs, lean back and enjoy. The
up-to-date shopping plaza, with its up-to-date food courts and
souvenir stands and interactive exhibits, will be outside the
gates. The prices also will be up to date. Each ticket in the
South Stands will cost $50 instead of $25.

"What will happen?" the Broncos' Ellis says. "I don't know. It's
safe to say that as ticket prices have gone up in all sports, the
fan base has changed. Will that happen in the South Stands?
Probably, to a degree."

Kathryn Harding wonders what effect the new prices will have on a
retired woman with a fixed income. Victor Marquez sees a rise in
prices everywhere. Hot dogs will be more expensive. Soft drinks
will be more expensive. Parking will be more expensive. And once
a new fan base is established, Victor's ticket, which will be $50
to start, will cost more and more in coming years. Greg Oletski
wonders how many games his son will be able to see, because
"there aren't enough chores for him to do, not enough dog poop to
pick up in the backyard to work off $50 a week."

The sad fact is that everything will be different. There will be
some good parts--maybe you won't go home with your parka smelling
of someone's spilled beer, and maybe you won't get hit in the
head anymore by a snowball thrown by an idiot in the back of the
section, and maybe a full seat and cupholder aren't entirely bad
ideas--but there will be a change in the atmosphere. The new South
Stands will be the suburbs. The old South Stands are the city.
Tenements. The closeness will be gone. The need to connect, to
meet your neighbor, greet you neighbor, to get to know him so
well you eventually trade Christmas presents, will be gone.

Settle back, my friend, but not too far back. Enjoy. This is the
way it used to be.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE ORANGE-AND-BLUE BLOODS From left, top row: Harold Lif, John Soper Sr., Dan Gabarron Jr., John Soper Jr., Greg Oletski. Bottom row: Victor Marquez, Kathryn Harding, Carrie Oletski, Ray Oletski. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JIM GUND BOXED SEATS Our group of South Stands fanatics convene in Section DD (see box), near the field and other like-minded fans. TWO COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE GET 'EM YOUNG On game days, Ray Oletski teaches Sunday school class in Broncos gear, proselytizing for God and team. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE LIFER Marquez grew up two blocks from Mile High Stadium. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE GOAL LINE STAND Greg Oletski has been a regular for 25 years. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE MILE HIGH WIRE ACT John Soper Sr. will miss the old stadium, but is happy to be doing electrical work on the Broncos' new home.

In the South Stands, you'll be sitting in three-row and four-row
societies, each one bleeding into the next.

"Somebody'd say something bad about the Broncos," says Victor,
"and Jo-Jo would coldcock him."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)