The origins of many good stories are hard to track, because they have roots in many places. The story of mine and my brother’s football could go back as far as the 1986 movie, The Three Amigos, because that’s where three Denver Broncos’ receivers got their nickname in 1987. Ricky Nattiel (84), Vance Johnson (82)and Mark Jackson(80), John Elway’s Three Amigos. For my brother, Wes, age 7, me age 8 and our best friend Aric Harper, age 9 – these guys were heroes (as were most of the Denver Broncos). When we played our little “sandlot” football games I’d be Vance Johnson, Aric would be Ricky Nattiel and Wes would be Mark Jackson (if I recall correctly).
It was that 1986/87 season, too, that would plant Mark Jackson firmly in NFL history forever. It was the AFC Championship game in which Denver needed to win to get to the Super Bowl 21 and the Broncos were losing with 5 minutes left in the game. The Browns kicked & due to a mishap by the return team, the Broncos were stuck with a grave 98 yards between them and a score. What ensued has gone down in NFL history as The Drive in which Denver marched down field and culminated in a bullet from Elway to Mark Jackson in the End Zone. The game was tied and a field goal by Rich Karlis sent the Broncos to the Super Bowl with the New York Giants (sadly they lost).
When my brother and I finally got to attend a Broncos preseason game September 3, 1987 against the Minnesota Vikings, we took along a football in hopes of getting some autographs before or after the game. I remember waiting out in the parking lot at Mile High Stadium and catching glimpses of players as they pulled up to the stadium in their fancy cars and hurriedly entered the locker rooms. A few of the players were nice enough and stopped to quickly scribble some signatures for us on the ball. To the extreme excitement of two little boys (& probably their dad too), the highlight was an autograph by one Mark Jackson! Unfortunately the Broncos lost both of those games we were at, but being at a real life Bronco game at Mile High and seeing John Elway down there throwing his historic passes was enjoyment enough for us.
And the football? It sat on out mantel for years and years. Unfortunately we had too much confidence in the permanence of the Sharpie pen used for the autographs and continued to play catch with the ball. Over time the signatures all but wore off until they were unreadable. I couldn’t tell what players we even had sign the ball, little lone which one was Mark Jackson’s. After I left home for college I believe the ball ended up in my brother’s possession and we both forgot about it.
Some years after I graduated college, it was no small news in Grand Junction that two of the Three Amigos were coming to the Western Slope of Colorado to start a mortgage company. It was Mark Jackson and Vance Johnson. However, some disagreements led to a split & they ended up each starting their own. I was doing graphic design for copy shop called CopyCopy in Grand Junction when a lady named Molly Fritzel came in ordering work to be done for a new mortgage company in town. The company was called Neighborhood Mortgage and it wasn’t long before I found out it was Mark Jackson’s.
To my surprise, Mark Jackson began to come into the store himself to get the logo for Neighborhood Mortgage designed along with business cards, letterhead, etc. He worked pretty closely with me putting together the Neighborhood Mortgage logo and making it match the Broncos colors.
One day, he plopped down a Topps trading card with image and told me he wanted to use that on his business card. I think it was that day I said “You know, Mark, I gotta tell ya – my brother & I loved watching you play for the Broncos when we were kids. In fact, I’m sure you don’t remember this at all, but one time we waited outside Mile High before a preseason game & got your autograph on a football!”
Graciously and with an appreciative smile he replied “Oh yeah? Is that so?”
“Yeah,” I said, “but that was so long ago, your signature – along with the other players’ – got wiped off,”
“Really?” he came back “Well, I tell ya what – if you still have the ball, bring it to me. I’m going to Denver this weekend. I’ll resign the ball and get a bunch of the other guys to to sign it too!”
I couldn’t believe this twist of events and so I was obliged to bring him the ball later that week. He took the ball to Denver with him and strangely enough Mark disappeared for a while. I’m not sure what the reason was, but it had me wondering if the old pro had taken my ball never to return.
Finally after a few weeks Jackson returned to the store and I hesitantly brought up the ball in conversation.
“Ohhhh, your ball!” he recalled “Funny thing…when I was in Denver my jeep was stolen! Yep, no joke! And your ball was in the jeep! Don’t worry though, the cops are on the look-out!”
As if befriending a childhood hero wasn’t a good enough story, now my ball was in the possession of some thief who had stolen Mark Jackson’s jeep!
Finally after a few weeks of me thinking the ball was gone for good, Mark tells me the police found his jeep and, yes, the ball was still in it!
“I’m going to a “Raider Hater” party soon. I tell ya what, not only will I resign the ball, but I’ll have a bunch of ex Broncos sign it too! Do you remember the Barrel Man? He’ll be there!” he listed several other former Broncos. In time he got the signatures & returned the ball to me. At this time it is in my brother’s possession.
Since those days, I think Mark decided to leave Neighborhood Mortgage to Molly Fritzel and tried his hand at running a brew pub called The Stadium. I saw him less and less and the last time I saw him was at my brother’s proposal dinner in December of 2003 at Dolce Vita on Main Street in Grand Junction. He was hanging out with friends in the bar area which was visible from the street because of the large windowed front area. Wes had planted me in the entry way with a camera and a painting he did for his fiance with the ring attached to it. As patrons entered the restaurant they saw me and the painting and knew what was about to happen ans so they kept watch from the bar through the windows. As my brother brought her to the painting and got down on one knee, everyone in the bar erupted in applause and cheer, including my friend and NFL and Bronco history’s Mark Jackson.
I don’t know where Mark is these days (I do know Vance Johnson is still running a restaurant in Parachute, Colorado), but I do know where a football, touched and signed by hands that caught John Elway’s most famous throw, is now.
(pictures to come)