Tom Jackson, the heart and soul of the Denver Broncos for 14 years, was the emotional linchpin of the franchise as it climbed out of the abyss of mediocrity to become a premier NFL team.
Many fans today know him more for his lengthy career with ESPN, but many fewer are aware that he only had two employers after leaving the University of Louisville: the Broncos and the fabled television network.
Always approachable by media and fans, Jackson (more often referred to as “T.J.”) stands at the top of the short list of most popular, most talkative and most philosophical Broncos players.
He was also one of the franchise’s most successful players, too, helping lead the Broncos to many memorable moments.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the league’s most legendary franchises, and back in 1977, when they came to Mile High Stadium for their divisional playoff game against the upstart Denver Broncos, they were in the midst of a six-year span in which they won four world titles.
It was the first playoff game in Broncos history, and few who were there on Christmas Eve, 1977, could have imagined that Denver would go to the Super Bowl eight times and claim three world championships over the next 40 years.
Let’s let T.J. tell it as he remembers the day.
“The Steelers were the first playoff opponent in Denver history,” Jackson says. “We were in Mile High and I was very confident we would play well. It was a very physical game and the ebb and flow of it just sticks out in my mind.”
Jackson ranged sideline to sideline for seven tackles against the Steelers, the most among the Broncos’ front seven that day, and two of the biggest plays of the game were interceptions by Jackson.
In addition to a fumble recovery, three of Pittsburgh’s drives ended with the ball in his hands.
The score was tied 7-7 in the second period when Jackson recovered a fumble and returned it 30 yards to the Pittsburgh 10-yard line, setting a go-ahead touchdown run by Otis Armstrong for the Broncos. They went into the half tied at 14-14, but the Broncos never trailed in the game, and they led all the way in momentum, with their young linebacker exhorting the crowd.
Saving his most dramatic moments for the fourth quarter, Jackson stole two passes from Terry Bradshaw in the final period.
“It just felt to me — and I have always been proud of this — that game was the biggest game, at that time, that we had ever played, and I played my best in it,” Jackson says. “The interception that was really the most difficult one was right on the line of scrimmage, the first one.
“I backed up into the end zone, but I was kind of reading one of the running backs that wasn’t coming out. Terry gunned the ball, and I assumed it was a square end of a curl that was right behind me. To this day I couldn’t tell you because I never turned around, but I just jumped up and happened to hit the ball. It was straight up in the air and it came right down to me. I got a pretty good return and put our offense in position where they had a short field.”
Jackson’s 32-yard return set up Jim Turner’s second field goal in a 13-point fourth quarter for the Broncos.
“The other interception, the second one, was a little out route late in the game where Terry throws to the flat. I got that one, then we walked off with a win and I think our history really started to be written.”
That second interception came with the Broncos holding onto a 27-21 lead and Pittsburgh believing it could win. Jackson returned it 17 yards to the Steelers 33, and two plays later Craig Morton hit wide receiver Jack Dolbin on a 34-yard score to cement the win with 1:57 left to play.
Jackson’s three takeaways had led to 17 of the Broncos’ 34 points in the first-ever playoff win for the Broncos before 75,011 orange-clad fans who were watching the start of an NFL dynasty in Denver.
“I think that for a long time people looked at the Denver Broncos and didn’t really look at all,” Jackson says. “It was like we were just stuck out in the mountains, and for many years we just had not won. That game got us off to a good start in the playoffs and helped change our national perspective.
“I don’t think I ever played a better game in a bigger game.”
As big as his play was against the Steelers, his emotional leadership of the team and unrivaled bond with Denver fans was just as huge a factor in the making of what the Broncos were becoming.
“Different people have different personalities,” he says. “I kind of wore my emotions all of the time on my sleeve.”
The crowd was one with Jackson for his entire career, and the cheers for him as he left the field after beating the Steelers were deafening. He waved to the Broncos’ sellout audience, and it seemed as if he was waving individually to every fan in attendance.
“It never felt any better than that day against Pittsburgh,” Jackson says. “Winning for the first time is so special. I felt like I was perfectly suited to that group of guys, and I can really say this: That team that won that first playoff game gave Denver that first thrill.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there was something present other than just a bunch of football players playing a game. We were willing to sacrifice for each other and make it happen, and it was one of our proudest moments.”
A lot of football blood, sweat and tears have been spilled in the 40-plus years since Dec. 24, 1977, to the present day, and there is no question that the run of postseason success for the Broncos was built from the foundation that began with that victory over the Steelers.