Rick Upchurch kicked off his National Football League career with the Denver Broncos in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on September 21, 1975. It was a painful start!
“I remember walking out on the field at Mile High Stadium, not believing I was starting a career in the NFL,” Upchurch said. “On the very first kickoff I got beat up. I just wanted to touch the ball. Then I got hammered – like a car accident. It was like I needed the ‘Jaws of Life’ to get me out of the pile. They cracked my helmet. I needed smelling salts, and my lip was swollen.”
Dazed but unfazed, the rookie Upchurch went to the sideline wanting to settle into a moment of peace after experiencing his first taste of NFL mayhem. But his moment of peace did not last very long.
“Haven Moses comes out of the game, holding his teeth in his hands, all busted up…and he’s a veteran! Now, I’m back in the game because I am his backup.” The smelling salts awakened Upchurch. Then he opened the eyes of the Chiefs, as well as the entire football world. By game’s end, Upchurch had scored his first two NFL touchdowns – one on a reverse, the other on a 90-yard pass play – and accounted for 284 total yards (a Broncos’ rookie record that still stands) in a 37-33 Denver win. “I was running scared,” Upchurch said.
As his career flourished, it was Upchurch who frightened opposing teams with his speed and ability to turn nothing into something special. He and 1967 Colorado Sports Hall of Fame inductee Jack Christiansen are co-holders of the NFL’s single-season record for punts returned for touchdowns (four) and are tied for second all-time in NFL career touchdowns scored off punt returns (eight).
Upchurch was named to four Pro Bowls, the NFL’s 1980’s all-decade team 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.
There always was a feeling of electricity in the air whenever Upchurch touched the football. He gave the fans a much-needed jolt in Super Bowl XII against the Dallas Cowboys, returning a kickoff 67 yards to set up the Broncos’ first touchdown in a Super Bowl Game.
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).
Growing up in Holland, Ohio (near Toledo), Upchurch played running back at Springfield High School and wore jersey No. 40 through high school and college (Indian Hills Junior College and the University of Minnesota) in honor of his childhood hero, Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers. Broncos’ fans will remember Upchurch as a blur wearing No. 80. He is the 15th former Broncos’ player to be voted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Thirteen of those CSHoF members are also members of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame.
Upchurch was not particularly big, but “I was durable, could run through the line and take some punishment,” he said of his college years. “But I knew if I was going to survive at the next level, it would have to be as a wide receiver. I knew I could play in the NFL, but I never tried to be in a position where I was lucky. I always had to work harder.”
Upchurch resides in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife Donna.
I knew I could play in the NFL, but I never tried to be in a position where I was lucky. I always had to work harder.