Forgotten Player of the Moment – RICK UPCHURCH
(by PHIL RIPPA)
I am not sure what makes Rick Upchurch more “forgotten”, the fact that you really need to be over the age of 40 to know he existed or that he specialized at a position that the NFL is doing its damndest to eliminate. Upchurch is one of the greatest return men to play in the NFL (and if you live in Colorado, he is the greatest return man ever.) He was basically Tim Brown before Tim Brown minus the Hall of Fame induction but that is another matter all together.
Lists of the greatest returners in NFL history (punt or kickoff) are a fascinating exercise IF you leave all logic behind before reading them. I know one major publication *cough* Bleacher Report *cough* that listed Josh Cribbs #1. Another one *cough* NFL Network *cough*, had Devin Hester #1 after only two seasons. Dante Hall is almost always on them for his one good season. X-FACTOR~! Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Mel Gray are always criminally underrated and Gale Sayers is ALWAYS bitter about his placement. With all of that being said, to truly judge the credibility of a list all one needs to do is look at the placement of Upchurch. And when I say that I mean – if Rick Upchurch isn’t on the list, the list was compiled by someone who understands nothing about football. (Of course – the list that had Upchurch #2 was the one that had Cribbs at #1. Dammit!)
Upchurch was from Ohio so I am assuming Ed will tell me about growing up seeing Upchurch’s face plastered all over Ford Grandas. Of course – Upchurch went to Minnesota so I am assuming he is dead to the folks of the Buckeye state since he didn’t go to Ohio State. A two year starter at running back on some mediocre Gophers teams (that had Tony Dungy and Marc Trestman as quarterbacks amongst others at the time), Upchurch could at least be relied on to find the end zone as he was good for 10 touchdowns each of his two seasons. The Broncos drafted him in the 4th round as a wide receiver.
Upchurch is beloved in Denver. Now most of that is due to playing his entire career there and being pretty freaking awesome. But he was a made-man from his very first game. If you want to be instantly loved by the home fans – go out and destroy your rival. The Kansas City Chiefs never knew what hit them when Upchurch dropped 284 total yards and two touchdowns on them in leading the Broncos to a victory. It would be safe to say that a 90 yard TD catch and a TD off a reverse while setting the Denver record for yards in a debut is a good way to get Bronco fans chucking their dungarees out the window.
Depending on which position you are looking at his best season was either 1976 (his 2nd season) or 1979. 76 if you are talking about his best year as a returner (his four punt returns for TDs still remains the NFL record in a single season (shared with 3 others now)). 79 if we are focusing on his receiving as he barely missed a 1000 yard season to go along with seven receiving scores. Both saw him as a first team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.
In fact – Upchurch was a four time Pro-Bowler and three time first team All-Pro and since folks definitely overrated those in regards to Hall of Fame merit – Upchurch not having a bust in Canton is baffling. It’s not like the Hall of Fame wasn’t aware of him. They named him to the first team all decade team for the 70s and the second team for the 80s. The man retired in 1983 as the NFL’s career leader in punt return yards and tied for the lead for most career punt return TDs (8). (He is now 11th and 4th respectively.) Maybe if he did the chicken dance in the end zone people would have cared. Stupid White Shoes Johnson.
The more I think it about though – I should be happy that no one knows/remembers Rick Upchurch because I am positive that if he played in this century it would be nothing but Deadspin posting stories about him sending dick pics to Condoleeza Rice. Oh yeah – Upchurch and Rice were an item in the 70s including being briefly engaged. This may or may not be why she is NFL Commissioner right now.