September 21, 2010
Rick Upchurch had been chosen by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round of the 1975 draft out of the University of Minnesota primarily due to his reputation as a kick returner. Small at 5’10” and 170 pounds, it was hoped that his speed could add needed depth at wide receiver as well. In his first regular season game on September 21, 1975 Upchurch contributed mightily.
The Broncos hosted the Kansas City Chiefs at Mile High Stadium in their season-opening contest. Under Head Coach John Ralston, they had put together the first two winning records in the franchise’s history in 1973 and ’74 and were looking to improve further. Veteran QB Charley Johnson had revived his career in Denver and the running game, led by RB Otis Armstrong, the NFL’s leading rusher in ’74, was strong. They also had an All-Pro in TE Riley Odoms. But there were questions regarding the offensive line and defense as the club entered the new season.
There was plenty of excitement and big plays by both the Broncos and Chiefs. Kansas City had started off the scoring in the first quarter with a 69-yard touchdown pass play from QB Mike Livingston to TE Walter White. WFL refugee Jack Dolbin, another new wide receiver on the Broncos, scored touchdowns on a 39-yard pass from Johnson in the second quarter and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. Chiefs placekicker Jan Stenerud booted four field goals, three of them from over 40 yards. Moreover, Denver overcame a 33-24 fourth quarter deficit to defeat Kansas City, 37-33.
However, the biggest star of the game was Upchurch, who touched the ball seven times and accumulated 284 total yards. In the second quarter, he ran for a 13-yard touchdown on a reverse, and in the third quarter scored again when he gathered in a pass from Johnson and went 90 yards for a TD. The rookie caught two more passes, covering 33 and 30 yards apiece. He returned a punt 30 yards as well. Overall, Upchurch gained 153 yards on the three pass receptions, 13 yards on one running play, 88 yards on three kickoff returns, and 30 yards on the punt return. It was a total yardage record for a player in his first NFL game.
Not surprisingly, Upchurch was Denver’s leading receiver in the contest. Charley Johnson passed for 329 yards with three TDs and two interceptions while completing 12 of 20 passes. Otis Armstrong was the leading rusher with 82 yards on 18 carries. While the Broncos compiled 425 total yards to Kansas City’s 312, they also led in turnovers (4 to 2) and penalties (9 to 5).
The Chiefs had the most first downs (18 to 15), rushing yards (146 to 127), and sacks (5 to 4). Mike Livingston went to the air 27 times with 13 completions for 221 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Thanks to the long TD catch, Walter White led KC in receiving yards with 79 on two receptions. HB Ed Podolak caught three passes, for 29 yards. FB Jeff Kinney was the team’s leading rusher with 59 yards on 18 attempts.
Ultimately, it was a disappointing season for the Broncos, who fell back under .500 at 6-8 to rank second in the AFC West. The Chiefs were in third at 5-9.
Charley Johnson suffered through a difficult final season, splitting time with Steve Ramsey while completing just 45.8 percent of his passes while tossing five touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. Otis Armstrong played in only four games due to injury and ran for a mere 155 yards. 33-year-old Floyd Little, also in his last season, gained 445 yards rushing and caught 29 passes.
Rick Upchurch, however, was a significant bright spot and had the greatest impact over the course of the season as a kick returner. He ranked third in the AFC with a 27.1-yard average on his 40 kickoff returns (which led the conference) and his 11.6 average on 27 punt returns ranked fourth. Backing up at wide receiver, Upchurch caught 18 passes for 436 yards (24.2 yards-per-catch) with two TDs. He also ran the ball 16 times for 97 yards for a 6.1-yard average with the one TD. Altogether, the rookie’s 1929 all-purpose yards ranked third in the NFL.
While Upchurch would eventually get an opportunity to start at wide receiver, his nine-season career would be most notably defined by his kick returning ability. He was particularly adept at returning punts, averaging 12.1 yards on 248 returns with eight touchdowns. On three occasions, he was the league leader in punt return average – the first was in his second season, 1976, when he averaged 13.7 yards and scored four TDs – an NFL record matched only by Detroit’s Jack Christiansen in 1951 and Devin Hester of the Bears in 2007.
Used less often to return kickoffs (he primarily did so in his first three seasons and never after the fifth), Upchurch averaged 24.8 yards on 95 returns with no scores. He was a competent pass receiver whose best year came in 1979 when he snagged 64 passes for 937 yards and seven touchdowns. But it was as a punt returner that Upchurch received consensus first-team All-Pro honors on three occasions and selection to four Pro Bowls.