Retired Denver Bronco Rick Upchurch speaks about game commitment to the players and coaches of the Craig Middle School seventh- and eighth-grade football teams Wednesday afternoon at the CMS field. Upchurch was part of the Broncos roster from 1975 to 1983 and will be inducted into the team's Ring of Fame in September.

Photo by Andy Bockelman

Retired Denver Bronco Rick Upchurch speaks about game commitment to the players and coaches of the Craig Middle School seventh- and eighth-grade football teams Wednesday afternoon at the CMS field. Upchurch was part of the Broncos roster from 1975 to 1983 and will be inducted into the team's Ring of Fame in September.

Craig Middle School football teams learn from Denver Broncos great

Rick Upchurch talks dedication with young athletes

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— Only a small percentage of athletes ever reach the top levels of competition in their sport, and being able to meet someone who’s been part of the tradition of the World Series, the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl is a rarity.

Apparently, the players of the Craig Middle School football teams are just that lucky.

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Rick Upchurch, center, jokingly surrenders while in possession of the ball as Craig Middle School football players Kevin Hernandez, left, Conner Murphy, Josh Pando and Caleb Cuevas surround him on the defensive. Upchurch, who played for the Denver Broncos in the 1970s and 1980s, spoke to middle school players Wednesday afternoon.

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Craig Middle School seventh-grade football player Caleb Cuevas shakes the hand of former Denver Broncos player Rick Upchurch, left, on Wednesday afternoon, as Upchurch also talks with Cuevas' teammates Carter Ogden, middle left, Josh Pando, middle right, and Conner Murphy, right.

The seventh- and eighth-grade teams received a surprise visit in their first week of practices from Denver Broncos great Rick Upchurch on Wednesday afternoon.

Upchurch was part of the Denver roster for nine seasons from 1975 to 1983, contributing to the team’s first Super Bowl appearance in 1978 against the Dallas Cowboys, as well as a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

The Bulldogs were curious about Upchurch’s experiences, but he was more interested in discussing their game and what steps they could do to have a successful season.

“What does commitment mean to you?” he asked the young athletes circled around him on the CMS field.

Upchurch went on to state that the individuals of a team always should be committed to one another in achieving their common goal. He likened the team to a jigsaw puzzle or an orchestra that only functions the right way if every piece or instrument is in place, doing its job.

He stressed that it was at this point in players’ lives that they could buckle down and prosper in the sport, if they take it seriously.

“If you’re fair to the game, it will be fair to you,” he said. “It’s the best game that’s ever been played, teammates coming together. Not everyone can play this game, but the ones who are able to stick it out down the road in life are going to be able to overcome things. When you get knocked down, what do you have to do? Get up.”

The ability to take a rush of adversity is one Upchurch, 62, has developed more and more in recent years. Where once he had to take on Tom Landry’s Doomsday Defense and other threats on the gridiron, it was in 2011 that he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.

Chemotherapy treatments have helped keep the disease in remission, and the former Bronco remains in good physical shape. However, he wants to do more to help others who also have been tackled by cancer get back in the game.

A tour to meet and greet with more fans in general in the months to come is also on his mind.

“This is Bronco Nation, man, we spread out like butter. That’s what we do, and we love it,” he said. “We have a relationship with our fans. I’ve sat at people’s tables with their grandparents and mothers and fathers and children. If I can give back to them any old kind of way, I don’t care what it is, that’s what I want to do.”

For his feats as a wide receiver and kick and punt returner — currently sharing two separate National Football League records for most seasons leading the league in the number of punt returns and the most punts returned for a touchdown in a single season — Upchurch also recently was named an upcoming inductee into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame, joining such team legends as Shannon Sharpe, Floyd Little and Terrell Davis, to name a few, as well as quarterbacks Craig Morton and John Elway, both of whom Upchurch played alongside during his tenure in the NFL.

The Ring of Fame ceremony will take place during the Broncos’ Sept. 14 match-up against the Kansas City Chiefs and also will honor 1960s player Gene Mingo and former coach Dan Reeves.

This isn’t the first time Upchurch or other Broncos have visited Northwest Colorado, having been in the area for football camps and other events in past years. It was in the 1990s when Upchurch met and befriended Craig resident Tony Maneotis, an assistant coach for CMS football, who arranged for him to talk to the Bulldogs.

“He’s just a super fantastic guy,” Maneotis said about Upchurch.

Maneotis said he hopes to arrange for Upchurch and additional pros to return to Craig later this year.

Head coach Norm Yoast was very pleased to see someone he’d watched in the game during the Broncos’ Orange Crush era when he was the same age as the CMS players, someone who also could provide meaningful advice.

“It’s the same kind of stuff we tell them, but they’re hearing it from someone who’s been there,” Yoast said.

Seventh-grader Caleb Cuevas was among the kids lined up to shake Upchurch’s hand and receive an autograph, whether on a piece of paper, a football or on one of their cleats.

“It was awesome,” Cuevas said. “It was so inspirational for him to come and talk to us.”

Cuevas and several teammates who were able to stay a little longer after practice also got the chance to toss around the pigskin with the old pro.

Upchurch motioned to the entire group of seventh- and eighth-grade players while finishing his pep talk.

“I expect great things from you guys,” he said.

Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com or follow him on Twitter @CDP_Sports.

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