It is fitting that we begin this Narrative on Denver Broncos legends with Rick Upchurch. Today is his 61st birthday.
Before Rod Smith wore #80 for the Broncos, there was Rick Upchurch. During the 1970s and the early 1980s, Upchurch was the best punt returner in the NFL. His accomplishments include 4 Pro Bowls and 5 All-Pro selections. He is a member of the NFL 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams, and an NFL all-star silver anniversary team that included the likes of Joe Montana, the late Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. Upchurch is ranked the 6th greatest return specialist in NFL history on NFL Network’s NFL Top 10 Return Aces. In 2000, he was named one of the 300 best NFL players of all time.
Rick was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 4th round (95th overall) in the 1975 NFL Draft out of the University of Minnesota. He grew up in Holland, Ohio where he attended Springfield Local High School before playing for Centerville Community College in Centerville, Iowa.
During his nine NFL seasons (1975–1983) all as a Bronco, Upchurch excelled as a receiver and a kick returner on Special Teams. As a rookie, he rushed for 97 yards, caught 18 passes for 436 yards, returned 27 punts for 312 yards, and added another 1,014 yards returning Kickoffs.
In 1976 (his 2nd year), Rick set an NFL record by returning four punts for Touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl. In 1977, he led the league in Punt Return yardage with 653 and helped the Broncos to their first ever Super Bowl appearance. Denver lost Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys 27-10, but it wasn’t because of Upchurch, who had a good game. Rick racked up 125 total yards (94 Kick Return, 22 Punt Return and 9 receiving), including a Super Bowl record 67-yard Kickoff Return in the 3rd quarter to set up Denver’s only touchdown of the game.
He dated and was briefly engaged to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the 1970s.
Upchurch stayed with the Broncos until the 1983 season. He led the NFL in Punt Return average twice (1978 and 1982), and finished his career with 49 carries for 349 rushing yards, 267 receptions for 4,369 yards, 248 punt returns for 3,008 yards, and 95 Kickoff Returns for 2,355 yards. Overall, Upchurch gained 10,081 total yards and scored 35 Touchdowns: 8 on Punt Returns, 24 receiving and 3 rushing. At the time of his retirement, those 8 Punt Return Touchdowns tied the NFL record shared by Jack Christiansen. Upchurch is one of five players to record a career average of over 12 yards per Punt Return.
As his career flourished, it was Upchurch who frightened opposing teams with his speed and ability to turn nothing into something special. During the franchise 50th Anniversary celebration, Upchurch was one of the fan-elected Top-50 Denver Broncos of all-time. In 2003, Rick was the 15th former Broncos’ player to be voted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Ironically, 13 of those CSHoF members are also members of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame.
By the time he retired from the NFL after the 1983 season, Upchurch had scored 32 career touchdowns for the Broncos. He still ranks among the Broncos’ all-time list for career receptions (267), receiving yards (4,369), combined yardage (10,081), punt return yards (3,008), punt return average (12.1 yards) and kickoff return yards (2,523).
After the NFL, Rick coached football at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas during the early to mid-1990s. In 2005, he became the head football coach at East High School in Pueblo, Colorado, where the team posted a 1-19 record in his two seasons as head coach.
Rick Upchurch was all about team and always had a team first mentality about him. When praised about his record setting performance he would always remind everyone that it’s mainly to do with those 10 other guys on the field blocking for him. Chiefs’ special teams coach Steve Ortmayer couldn’t disagree more, as his unit was constantly victimized by Upchurch. “The Denver return teams are really sky-high right now and that’s because Upchurch gives them something to believe in.” said Ortmayer.
Here are a couple of videos for you to visualize how “Special” Upchurch was.
Happy Birthday Rick Upchurch!
– Kaptain Kirk