From the top of a fire truck, Von Miller thrust the Super Bowl trophy into the air again and again as the Denver Broncos convoy made its way through streets lined with blue-and-orange clad fans.
Behind Miller, the Super Bowl MVP, stood Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware. Behind them, the architect of this team and Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway.
Fittingly, the group traveled the route, which was a bit longer than a mile, in fire truck No. 18 – Manning’s number. Will he be back with the Broncos?
A question for another time. Because Tuesday was parade day and a million fans – according to an estimate from the city’s mayor – showed up to cheer on the Super Bowl champions after beating Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers 24-10 on Sunday. The supporters held up signs and screamed “Thank you, Peyton!” at the top of their lungs as they soaked in the sun while basking in the glow of the Broncos’ third Super Bowl title – and first in 17 years. Fans packed in tightly along the route, while others watched from balconies, rooftops and even the branches of trees as the players rode by on a series of fire trucks.
Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler signed footballs and threw them into the crowd as he rode by on another truck, while Annabel Bowlen, the wife of ailing Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, took a seat next to Miller.
Pat Henderson and Melanie Novak usually cheer together at the stadium, where they met at a Broncos game a decade ago in a part of the stands they proudly described as the rowdy south section. During the season, “it’s our responsibility to all the Broncos nation to help the team by yelling,” Henderson said. The task Tuesday, she said as she stood with Novak along the parade route, was a bit different: “To have fun and represent Denver.”
The parade followed an outdoor concert by a trio of Colorado bands, including Big Head Todd and The Monsters, near City Hall and the state Capitol. The sea of fans went crazy on the sunny morning as the music started. The smell of marijuana hung over the park, even though smoking pot in public is illegal in Colorado.
People gathered for hours before the concert and parade. Classes were in session Tuesday, but school-age kids mingled in the crowd. Denver schools offered students excused absences if their parents let officials know.
Once on stage, Manning acknowledged his teammates and the crowd, but he said nothing of his plans for the future. “Everybody has really stuck together this year. That’s why we’re here where we are today, and it’s great to be with all these great fans,” Manning said.
Judy Ayce drove nine hours with her 81-year-old mother Dorothy Ayce from the Chinle Navajo reservation in Arizona for the parade, arriving at the Denver home of Judy Ayce’s niece late Monday. Tuesday morning, Dorothy Ayce’s wheelchair was parked against a barricade. A plastic bag of drinks and snacks dangled from the chair. The family was ready to spend the day celebrating.
“We brought our mats. We brought our food. We brought blankets for Grandma,” Amanda Ayce said.
Judy Ayce, speaking in Navajo, asked her mother whether she was there for all the Broncos, or especially for Manning. “Peyton,” was the answer.
“She just likes watching sports, and she’s followed him for years,” her granddaughter said.
Fans began celebrating Sunday night as the clock ticked down on the Broncos’ win in Super Bowl 50. That crowd became unruly at times, but officers for the most part watched from the sidewalk. Police reported a handful of arrests, mainly for criminal mischief.
On Tuesday, the mood was light. Even some people stuck in traffic near the parade route honked at fans dressed in Broncos jerseys walked on the sidewalk toward the event.
Some kids had an impromptu snowball fight – making missiles out of remnants of snow from a week ago when the city received about a foot of fresh powder – while several adults painted their faces for the occasion.
Although many took the day off, Gary Baca, chief of security for a downtown building along the route, was working. He wore a bright orange tie with his white dress shirt, and took a moment to survey the crowds he said were sending a message to the Broncos.
“I want them to understand that we as fans truly love them,” Baca said. “The love deep down is genuine.”
It meant the world to longtime Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar, the centerpiece the team’s famed “Orange Crush” defense from the late 1970s.
“I can see why Broncos fans are charged with being the greatest fans in the country,” Gradishar said. “It’s great to see all the excitement and enthusiasm.”
Miller, who was wearing a cowboy hat, couldn’t agree more. A chance at a Super Bowl repeat?
“I think so,” Miller said. “Back-to-back, right?!”