John Elway, the legendary NFL Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl champion, lay on the frozen Mile High Field turf staring incoherently at his own teeth. The outsized incisors were embedded in the hardened muck, blood, and snow covering the field, right alongside the shattered remains of a football helmet. The world teetered in slow motion, slewing from left to right as Elway's concussed brain struggled to get its bearings.
‘Where… is the… ball?'
Elway looked down at his empty hands and saw only mud. There was the roar of cleats as a herd of linemen thundered past, racing toward the Denver goal line. And that's when Elway realized: He had fumbled.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Denver Broncos were flying high, coming off a huge victory against division rival Kansas City and making a stretch run for the playoffs. With the struggling and ailing Cleveland Browns coming into Mile High, Denver seemed certain to run its record to 9-5.
And then the injuries hit. On the third play from scrimmage, Broncos' QB Jake Plummer scrambles out of the pocket and collides with Browns defensive end Courtney Brown. Despite playing with his injured right arm strapped to his body, Brown strikes Plummer so hard that the mobile QB flies backward into Broncos center Tom Nalen. The impact knocks Plummer out cold and sends him into severe convulsions. Two plays later, the Browns score on a nifty Tim Couch to Dennis Northcutt to Tim Couch pass catch and lateral.
Danny Kannell enters the game on the next series, only to have his foot broken in the huddle when Nalen accidentally steps on it. That leaves third-string QB Jarius Jackson to carry the team. But Jackson lasts only three plays before he, too, is injured, lost in a pile-up after Nalen's shotgun snap goes high and wide over Jackson's head.
Tom Nalen is inconsolable. The talented center has almost single handedly wiped out the Broncos quarterbacking corps and caused a pair of turnovers. Despite coaches' efforts to talk him down, Nalen flees the sidelines, not to be seen again until he is picked up early the next morning by Denver police. Nalen and Oakland center Barrett Robbins would later team up to start a non-profit organization—Centers for Sobriety—aimed at helping youths avoid substance abuse.
Separated at birth? Broncos center Tom Nalen does his best Nick Nolte impersonation, and becomes an instant hit among readers of thesmokinggun.com.
With the Browns up 14-0, Denver coach Mike Shanahan calls three consecutive time outs while he works a quick deal with agent Marvin Demoff. Ten minutes later, John Elway has rushed down from his luxury box seats to suit up for the Horses. The crowd goes absolutely bananas. Grown men weep in the aisles as overweight housewives litter the end zone with panties. No fewer than eight streakers take to the field, all of whom spend time in the hospital suffering from frost bite and hypothermia.
The problem is, John Elway is 43 years old and playing behind a suddenly depleted offensive line. When Clinton Portis gets stuffed for a loss on two straight handoffs, it's time for Elway to show his mettle. Instead, he gets shown the top of Orpheus Roye's helmet. Stepping into the pocket to avoid an onrushing Mark Word, Elway walks right into Roye, who pile drives the veteran QB and forces the first of seven Elway fumbles.
By the start of the third quarter, a lot of Denver housewives are wishing they could get their underwear back. Elway has thrown 14 passes—six of them for touchdowns—all to Browns defensive backs and linebackers. He's also lost six fumbles and run backward for 115 yards.
And then the fateful play. Down by 124 points, Elway drops back looking for Shannon Sharpe. Browns linebacker Chaun Thompson roars in off the left corner, untouched, striking Elway right between the shoulder blades. The impact shatters Elway's helmet and dislodges nearly half of the QB's famed teeth. The ball lands in the hands of Gerard Warren, who plows over Clinton Portis and rumbles 25 yards for the score.
Sometimes, it's best to just stay quit.
With three quarterbacks, a Pro Bowl center, and a living legend all sidelined, Mike Shanahan has seen enough. The Broncos head coach orders his team off the field and tells the officiating crew that he's forfeiting the game. It is the first such concession in recorded league history.
As for Elway's missing teeth, they would turn up a week later on eBay.
And that's the way I see it. GMD