DENVER — When Randy Gradishar was a teenager, he received a phone call that changed his life. It was from the office at Champion High School. Gradishar had a visitor, some guy named Woody Hayes.
“I had no clue who that was,” Gradishar recalled last summer.
It was not long before Hayes, the iconic Ohio State football coach, was chatting up Gradishar’s father at the local grocery store. The two talked about World War II. They hit it off, and soon afterward, Gradishar became a Buckeye and college football star.
Thursday night, he received another memorable call. Gradishar learned that the selection committee rubberstamped his candidacy, leading to his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Randy is one of the most impactful figures in the history of the Broncos and one of the greatest linebackers of all-time. The famed 'Orange Crush' will now finally have its first Hall of Famer,” said Broncos owner and CEO Greg Penner.
Gradishar joins a class that includes returner Devin Hester, pass rusher Dwight Freeney, wide receiver Andre Johnson, linebacker Patrick Willis, Bears defensive lineman Steve McMichael and defensive end Julius Peppers.
For Gradishar and the Broncos, it ends one of the most confusing snubs of excellence. Gradishar last played in 1983. His stats have not changed — he remains a seven-time Pro Bowler, multiple-time All-Pro and the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year. Yet, it took three decades to reach Canton.
Gradishar leaned on his faith over the past decade, refusing to become soured by his omission. It made his election Thursday, which was announced at the NFL Honors in Las Vegas, resonate even deeper for his friends, family, and advocates.
“Oh man, this means a lot. Many people have heard me say this 1,000 times, 'Randy Gradishar should have been in before a ton of Hall of Famers,' including myself,” Broncos Hall of Famer Steve Atwater said. “He’s always been deserving. He was the epitome of the Orange Crush. He’s such a wonderful guy. I love that he’s not even upset that it took as long as it did. He’s happy he’s in now, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.”
Gradishar carved out a legacy as an iron man, playing in all 151 games of his career with versatility and ferocity. The former Ohio State star intercepted 20 passes and scored three touchdowns. But the highlights of Gradishar begin and end with a man who had more big hits than Taylor Swift.
He became a stop sign at the goal line. Go through the black-and-white photos or the YouTube highlights, then pick up your jaw. Gradishar slammed into ball carriers in a way that caused cringes of concern for the running back’s family.
"A lot of that was because of (defensive coordinator) Joe Collier," Gradishar said. "When I first came to Denver, he was the inventor of the 34 defense, at least for the Broncos."
And about those stats. Gradishar finished with more than 2,000 tackles. He could crank out 20 in a game and 200 in a season with alarming regularity. There were so many that his numbers were viewed suspiciously. That led to a discussion that he was good, not great. It was a mistake of ignorance. There’s no other way to view it.
In August 2023, Gradishar called his advancement by the senior committee a blessing. He remained optimistic and unselfish over the last decade as his name threatened to become a fading memory.
Thursday became a validation of his career, even if he wasn’t seeking it. The Broncos’ Orange Crush defense represents the pinned location that put Denver on the map as a legitimate sports city. When Denver beat the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, it changed everything. That defense inspired T-shirts and Orange Crush sodas.
"I was just one of a 11 guys," Gradishar said. "It was just a great historical time."
Remember Rocktober in 2007? This was similar. And in some ways, Gradishar was the Broncos’ Todd Helton. Like Helton, he played his entire career with one team and showed off a sleeves-rolled-up work ethic.
Gradishar joins a list of recent Broncos to reach Canton, including the first defenders in Champ Bailey and Atwater. Gradishar turns 72 next month, but he will always be remembered as No. 53, a man who will now forever walk with the game’s immortals.