Salt Lake City's NFL secret: Die-hard Broncos fans make gameday flights to Denver
They are the vocal minority. Represented by jerseys, hats, stickers and buttons. Symbolized by a proud, roving sea of orange, blue and white. With hearts that belong in Denver, but lives, jobs and homes tied to Utah.
Broncos Country stretches from the Mile High City to California, spreading across the western United States and touching far reaches of the globe. But few regions capture the devotion to Denver's playoff-hopeful NFL team like the Beehive State, and no area facilitates the love more than Salt Lake City's airport.
To some, Salt Lake City International Airport is just a hub a brief touch down on the way to greater destinations. To Broncos die-hards, it's a gateway to football heaven.
For less than $200 for a quick round-trip ticket, Utah residents for years have turned SLC into a portal. One minute, they're in NFL-less Utah. A little more than an hour later, they're within 30 minutes of Sports Authority Field at Mile High, within eyesight of the house John Elway built and the stadium Tim Tebow brought back to life.
The Salt Lake Tribune learned there are 135 active Utah-based accounts associated with 402 Broncos season tickets, with many more Utahns who typically make the trip to Mile High with single-game tickets.
"We're very fortunate to have such a loyal, dedicated and passionate Broncos following in Utah, including many season-ticket holders and other fans who regularly attend our games in Denver," a team spokesman said. "The Broncos have one of the largest out-of-market fan bases in the National Football League and season-ticket holders in all 50 states. Our organization is appreciative and grateful for the support and popularity in Utah, and throughout the Mountain time zone in particular."
Hometown love • Ogden residents Amy Jones and Dean Testa made the SLC-Denver trip Dec. 18, using the cover of a romantic weekend getaway as an excuse to see the Broncos up close for a Sunday afternoon game against New England.
Draper's Dustin Carlson led a group of four that flew in a week earlier, absorbing every second of Denver's 13-10 overtime win over Chicago on Dec. 11.
They weren't alone. Reporters for The Tribune made several trips to Salt Lake City International on Broncos game days during the past six weeks. Each time, spots of orange, blue and white were tucked between suitcases, suits and skirts.
Hours before Tebow pulled off a stunning last-minute touchdown run Nov. 17 during a 20-17 comeback victory against the New York Jets, orange No. 15 jerseys snaked through security lines inside Terminal 1 at the airport. The same sights were seen for the Patriots and Bears games, with children, teenagers and adults proudly sporting Denver's orange-maned horse logo.
"Broncos Country is truly everywhere," the team spokesman said.
Testa knows that as well as anyone. He grew up enchanted with Elway's classic fourth-quarter comebacks, despite living in Massachusetts under the shadow of the Patriots. His Dec. 18 trip to Sports Authority Field was the first time he entered the Broncos' home stadium. Twelve days after the journey, Testa was still buzzing. And despite Tom Brady's Patriots flattening Denver, all Testa could remember was the pilgrimage.
"This was by far the best football experience I've ever had," he said.
Jones was just as thrilled. A newcomer to Broncos Country, she started watching games because Testa did. Then the Tebow thing happened. Less than two months after the energetic, heartthrob QB made his first start, Jones was yelling his name at Mile High.
"This is the first year I've got back into watching football and it's all thanks to Tim Tebow, I can't lie," Jones said.
Carlson has been watching Broncos games almost his entire life. Born in Idaho, the Draper resident moved to Utah as a child. With the nearest NFL team more than 500 miles away, Carlson followed his grandfather's advice: cheer for the team closest to you.
"The only thing that would change me from being a Broncos fan would be if Salt Lake somehow got a team," Carlson said.
A true Denver die-hard, Carlson estimated he's been to a dozen Broncos games in the team's home state. If Denver knocks off Kansas City on Sunday, wins the AFC West and earns a playoff spot, Carlson will soon be pricing flights.
"That's the next step," he said. "I've never been to an NFL playoff game, and I'd love to do that."
NFL charm • Denver isn't just for Broncomaniacs. Real Salt Lake equipment manager Michael Rigby also made the Dec. 18 trip to Mile High. He wore a Patriots jersey, though, soaking in every second of New England's 41-23 domination.
Two years ago, Rigby flew to Denver to support his Pats. New England lost 20-17 in OT, and the experience was "terrible." Welcomed by the Orange Crush, Rigby was almost pickpocketed, hit in the back of his head and doused in beer.
Given the option of returning to Denver this year, Rigby didn't blink. He found tickets on StubHub, pulled seats in the 516 section and found himself surrounded by kinder, gentler Broncos fans. Then Brady and Bill Belichick beat down Tebow Nation. Rigby's football circle was complete.
"It's awesome," Rigby said. "I'm trying to make a tradition of it. Make a trip to every Patriots game when they come around to Denver."
Broncos fans will be waiting. And some from Utah will be flying in with him.
A Denver Broncos spokesman said there are 135 Utah-based accounts associated with 402 Broncos season tickets. Many diehard Broncos regularly fly from Salt Lake City to Denver for Broncos home games, and some make the journey a quick one-day trip. Delta, Frontier and Southwest offer multiple daily flights to the Mile High City. A single-day round-trip ticket can be obtained for less than $200 if purchased a few weeks in advance.
Chiefs at Broncos
P 2:15 p.m., Sunday
TV • CBS
On the line • Denver can clinch the AFC West with a win. If Oakland loses to visiting San Diego, Denver is in. If the Broncos lose and Oakland wins, Denver will fail to make the playoffs for the sixth straight year.