Frei: The most glaring ex-player Ring of Fame omission is Otis Armstrong

Ring of Famers' monument pillars shown here are for Karl Mecklenberg, John Elway and three of Otis Armstrong's teammates -- Louis Wright, Tpm Jackson and Randy Gradishar. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos’ Ring of Fame committee has decided that for the first time since 2011, there will be no inductees this year.

There was only one name added last year — that of Red Miller, the fiery coach who guided the Broncos to their first Super Bowl berth in the 1977 season that played a major role in Denver’s transformation from an outpost with an inferiority complex to a major (and not just sports) market.

Nan Miller, with the rest of Red Miller’s family behind her, salutes the crowd last season at Red’s Ring of Fame induction. He was the only inductee.

The unfortunate part of that was it came too late, since Red passed away in September from complications of a stroke. His widow, Nan, and family accepted the honor in November at the game against the Bengals.

For many years, I was on record that the three major Ring of Fame omissions among ex-players were Rick Upchurch, Simon Fletcher and Otis Armstrong.

Rick Upchurch finally went on the Ring of Fame in 2014. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Upchurch went onto the Ring in 2014.

Fletcher went onto the Ring in 2016.

Armstrong went onto the Ring in …

Well, he still hasn’t. And the earliest it can happen now is 2019.

That’s ridiculous.

Armstrong led the NFL in rushing in 1974, his second season in the league.

Let me repeat that. A Broncos running back who during his career led the NFL in rushing — and actually did it playing out of position for a significant part of the season — is not on the Ring of Fame.

He belongs there.

Otis was raised in Chicago, forming a lifelong friendship with young Darryl Stingley. They both went to Purdue and Otis gained 3,315 yards in three seasons and as a senior won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football as the league’s most valuable player in 1972. (Otis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.)

Armstrong was the Broncos’ first round draft choice in 1973, befuddling many because future Hall of Famer Floyd Little was entrenched at running back. But the Armstrong pick proved to be another savvy decision made by GM-coach John Ralston during the franchise’s buildup to respectability.

Otis opened the 1974 season at fullback, and even he admits he was no fullback.

“Halfway through the season, I was the leading fullback in the league in rushing — and in headaches,” he told me.

Then Little was injured and Armstrong moved to tailback and Jon “Make Those Miracles Happen” Keyworth stepped in at fullback.

Armstrong finished the 14-game season with an NFL-high 1,407 yards on an economical 263 carries, for a 5.3 average per rush.

Armstrong and Little were on the roster together for only three seasons — and only one season after Little’s injury-plagued 1974 — and when they were on the field together, Armstrong clearly was playing out of position. His numbers might have been even more impressive if he had been the featured tailback for more of his career.

He went on to an eight-year career with the Broncos before he was just too banged up and pain-ridden to keep playing.

He finished with 4,453 rushing yards and 123 receptions for 1,302 yards.

Armstrong went through a long fight to obtain disability payments because of neck, spine and back issues from 1987 until he turned 55 in 2005 and was eligible for the NFL pension.

“It’s the life of a running back,” he told me. “I don’t know a running back who doesn’t feel that way in the morning. Floyd and I have talked about it. But if we had it to do over again, we’d go right back out there.”

In 1984, he pleaded guilty to one count of illegally obtaining the powerful painkiller Percodan — a charge he insisted was unjust, but decided not to fight — but that was wiped off his record after a year.

His malpractice suit against team doctors, alleging he was misdiagnosed, was dismissed, also in 1984.

It’s time for everybody to put all of that behind them … and to put Otis on the Ring.

The problem now is, it will be at least another year.

* * *

Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2015 and 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including “Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” His web site is terryfrei.com. His additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are here and his Greeley Tribune columns and major features, including his Memorial Day tribute to another Dick Monfort, can be accessed here.   

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

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