A young John Elway recorded his first 4th quarter comeback against the Colts in 1983 (Getty Images)

Broncos Classic: 1983 Baltimore Colts @ Denver


On December 11, 1983, John Elway was starting to come into his own during his rookie season. He had taken over the starting duties from Steve DeBerg earlier in the year and had gone through some serious growing pains. But Elway had played well a week earlier against the Cleveland Browns and used 2 touchdown passes to lead the Denver Broncos to a big 27-6 victory. Despite the difficulties that are commonplace with a midseason quarterback switch, coach Dan Reeves and his Broncos came into this matchup against the Baltimore Colts right in the middle of the playoff race with an 8-6 record. Prior to the game, the media was talking about how Elway was starting to live up to his billing, and they were also talking about his matchup against the team he had jilted prior to the NFL draft just months ago. Little did anyone know, this game would become the very first step in the long journey that would turn Elway into a legend of the game.

The game was the 101′st consecutive sellout at old Mile High Stadium, which is a streak that is still alive today. This was also Randy Gradishar’s final home game as a Bronco. Many people feel that Gradishar should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including myself, but his detractors claim the he retired too early. Gradishar played 10 seasons, but he retired during his prime. Had he played longer, he would have been a lock for the Hall, but instead the 7-time Pro Bowler has been a finalist twice and a semi-finalist 4 times without breaking through.

The Colts started the game on offense and both teams punted on their first possessions. On the Colt’s second try, quarterback Mike Pagel threw a 66-yard screen pass to Curtis Dickey for an electrifying touchdown. But offsetting penalties would wipe out the play and the drive would eventually stall out. The Broncos would start in good field position, but a fumble by John Sawyer would give the ball right back to the Colts. They drove the ball right down the field and took a 3-0 lead on a 42-yard field goal by Raul Allegre, and that score would stand at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was a tough one for the Broncos. They fumbled the ball on the Colt’s 2-yard line during their only decent drive, and they yielded 2 field goals and a 40-yard touchdown pass to the Colts’ Bernard Henry. They were torched over the first 2 quarters in regards to total yards and time of possession, and the Broncos went to the half-time locker room down 16-0 in front of a very unhappy Mile High crowd.

The third quarter was not much better as the only score was another Colts field goal. The Broncos had not accomplished very much offensively up to this point, and it looked like this would be an afternoon to forget when all was said and done. But as the 3rd quarter wound down, the Broncos started a drive that looked promising. Despite a couple of holding penalties that wiped out some big gains, the offense finally showed some signs of life. The 4th quarter would begin with the Broncos in a 19-0 hole, but as it turned out, this was right where John Elway wanted ‘em.

The Broncos started the final quarter with a 3rd and 7 on the Colts 34-yard line, and a hurried Elway fumbled the ball to the Colts. It looked like the final nail in the coffin, but the Colts were called for illegal contact and the Broncos got their faint glimmer of hope back. However, Elway was banged up on the play and had to hobble off the field while Gary Kubiak came in for a few snaps. Elway made it back onto the field a few plays later, but the Broncos promptly turned it over on downs, and it looked like the game had been lost.

The Broncos’ defense, which had played very well all afternoon despite getting no help from the offense, stiffened again and forced a quick 3-and-out. Denver started their next drive on their own 45-yard line, and after a couple of big plays, they finally broke into the endzone with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Elway to Clint Sampson. That one play completely energized the crowd, and after the Rich Karlis extra point, Denver found themselves down only 19-7 and gaining momentum.

The Colts got the ball back, and the Mile High crowd was ecstatic. It was amazing how loud it got so quickly. After one first down, the Colts looked like they were going to have to punt after a huge sack by Tom Jackson. But a personal foul on the defense gave the Colts a 1st-down and 10 on their own 40-yard line. The clock was ticking and there was only 8 minutes to go. It was going to take some big plays to pull this one out. On the very next 3rd-down play, Louis Wright picked off a heave from Pagel and returned it to the Colts 43-yard line. There was still a chance as the crowd went nuts!

A few plays later, Elway threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse Myles. The crowd went from nuts to ballistic. The Broncos were now down 19-14 with just under 5 minutes remaining in the game, and there was a sense that the Broncos really could pull this off. The defense held once again and the Broncos got the ball back on their own 25-yard line with 3 minutes remaining. Elway took over from there and started leading the Broncos down the field. He completed a big pass to Steve Watson and then scrambled for a first down to get Denver into Colts territory at the 2-minute warning. On 4th-down and 2 with 44 seconds left to go in the game, Elway completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Gerald Willhite. Complete mayhem ensued in Mile High Stadium! Willhite back-flipped in the endzone to celebrate, and Karlis’ extra point brought the score to 21-19 in favor of the Broncos. On the final play of the game, a 65-yard field goal attempt by Allegre fell short and Denver had a huge victory that vaulted them into the 1983 playoffs.

Watch the second half of this clip to see the Willhite touchdown pass that gave Denver the lead.

Elway finished with 345-yards passing and 3 touchdowns without an interception. Watson led all Broncos’ receivers with 98 yards, and the running game was almost nonexistent with the entire team combining for only 45 yards. But this game is especially memorable because Elway completed his first ever 4th quarter comeback victory, and that is a storyline that would be written over-and-over again during his spectacular Hall of Fame career. 

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Tags: Baltimore Colts Bernard Henry Cleveland Browns Clint Sampson Curtis Dickey Dan Reeves Denver Broncos Gary Kubiak Gerald Willhite Jesse Myles John Elway John Sawyer Louis Wright Mike Pagel Mile High Stadium Randy Gradishar Raul Allegre Rich Karlis Sammy Winder Steve Deberg Steve Watson Tom Jackson