My little brother, Ronnie, wrote me letters my first year of college. "I figured I'd write you to try and keep you from getting lonely," he told me, in his sloppy, terrific, handwriting. His letters often included a RONNIE'S SPORTS CAP, complete with crudely drawn field goal posts and little kicking stick figures. He thought it essential to inform me of all Denver team's scores and stats, but no team was more important, more significant to Ronnie, than the Denver Broncos:
Oct. 27 2002
(6-2) Broncos 27, (4-4) Chiefs, 20
He also kept tabs on rival AFC teams, like the Raiders, who were actually kinda good about twenty years ago, and the Patriots, who were surely hate-able even back then.
We grew up in the Elway Era, surrounded by adults who still reminisced about The Orange Crush Broncos of the 70's, but had long since hung their hats on "Good Ole Buck-toothed John," as our father referred to Mr. Elway. "He owns car dealerships too," Dad told us many times, as though his legendary quarterback status wasn't impressive enough.
And it wasn't, for a time. Five AFC West Division Titles, three AFC Championships, and then, finally, those back-to-back Superbowl wins of '97 and '98. Ronnie paid close attention during our little Superbowl parties at Dad's house, rather, his wealthy girlfriend's house, while my sister and I ate as many Crockpot meatballs as possible, and screamed when prompted. Ronnie had been initiated early by our father, a man full of We. Look, we gotta just keep the ball slow and steady. There we go, we got that touchdown! When we won in '97 and '98, we--Dad, my sister and brother and I--ran into the streets of his girlfriend's ritzy neighborhood and banged pots and pans together. We honked car horns, and delighted in stories from Mile High, about riotous fans flipping whole vehicles--what strength, we thought, what dedication! I stopped wearing my Dolphins Starter Coat that same year. I figured I ought to be loyal to my team, my family, and in truth I'd only demanded the coat because, frankly, I really liked dolphins.
My father died not long after Elway retired--rest assured the two events were not related--and it seemed only natural Ronnie take on his enthusiasm for Our Denver Broncos. He taped sports clippings to the walls of his room, collected action figures and Wheaties boxes and kept them in mint condition. He played high school football for about a minute, then realized he had more fun as a spectator. A little of the rabid fandom dispersed to Daisy, my sister, and Mom seemed more invested too. Me? Meh. I mostly watched the games for the little Crockpot meatballs.
But Ronnie did not live to see another Broncos Superbowl, either. After his 2008 death in Iraq, we--Mom, Daisy, my stepfather and stepbrother--began to watch the Broncos religiously. Every Sunday we knelt before the TV, substituted prayer with an excessive amount of profanities, and felt a fervor for football we'd never known. I figured out two-point conversions. Daisy taught me about onside kicks. I learned my mother could convert the F-word from a one syllable word to an approximate twelve.
The Denver Broncos are still on the walls of Ronnie's room in my mother's house. Hanging among them is a random Peyton Manning ala the Colts action figure, waiting in its case. I hadn't known Ronnie was a Peyton fan until very recently. Daisy, who became invested earlier than I, remembered. Back in 2012, when a fresh-out-of-surgery Peyton left Indy and decided between teams, at the last moment he chose Denver and Daisy thought, "It's like Ronnie's playing chess in Heaven."
We had a lot riding on the 2013 Superbowl. None of it monetary, all of it some great big intangible emotion. Like a resurrection was possible. As if winning another Superbowl got us back a little bit of Ronnie, and maybe even our father. I told my husband, several times, "The stakes are just too high," although I had trouble explaining just what I meant by that. After the first fumble, I turned to a bottle of Patron Silver (we've found it necessary to take up many things on Ronnie's behalf) and barely remember the best part of that God-awful game: Bruno Mars.
So, 2016. It's a banner year for the Broncos. We've got that whole NFL WE SHALL OVERCOME narrative happening--it's a miracle Peyton's on any field, anywhere, right?--and it's the 50th Superbowl ever. DIVISION CHAMPS AT HIGH ALTITUDES. We just beat the Pat's, America's Cheatiest Team, and we did so in Denver in fifty-degree sunshine, bleeding out orange and blue. After the first touchdown today I called my mother and she was screaming, then sobbing. I called her after the monstrous fourth quarter to sob a little myself. The stakes are too high, we know this--we know.
When the Broncos win, it brings us closer to Ronnie. But maybe when the Broncos lose, it brings us closer too. He would be so pissed at a loss, like the time he called Daisy from the barracks in Fort Hood to say, "The Broncos lost. I threw a chair off my balcony and it broke." As he got older he began to slowly take it all in stride. "It is what it is," he'd say, or "We'll get them next year." The thing is, he didn't get much older; he didn't get next years. It's unbearable, at times, contemplating the loss of Ronnie, a twenty-year-old man who adored the Nuggets and the Rockies, but most of all those Denver Broncos. It has too often brought us to our knees, the loss of him, and, at least on football Sundays, the kneeling feels productive. I don't pray to God for a Superbowl win because I don't know just what I believe in. And I understand the silliness or even danger in believing in a professional sports team, in the grueling, unpredictable game they play, in their "LAST SEASON EVER?" hopes and dreams.
It's best to believe in my little brother, who'd be sporting a shit-eating grin right now after this hard-won Broncos win. In honor, our mother is going to purchase orange and blue flamingos and adorn his grave with them. If he were here, he'd be knocking back Patron shots, or buying the bar a round on him. I'd like to think we'd all agree to wear our jerseys and Bronco gear every day until February 7th--and even a few days past, no matter the outcome.
*(to the tune of the Nationwide Insurance theme)