Replacing a superstar or a legend, especially one who has won a couple of Super Bowls, is never easy, and it is always a pressure-packed situation where one will be under a microscope.
Some people just don’t have what it takes to get the job done in such a situation, but others can handle it very well.
Olandis Gary was forced to replace one of the greatest and most popular players in the NFL in the late 1990s, and he didn’t disappoint, even if he wasn’t quite as transcendent as the man he succeeded.
Unfortunately, his success in that role was short-lived, although it wasn’t totally his fault.
Early Life And Childhood On The East Coast
Olandis Gary was born in Washington, D.C. on May 18, 1975. He attended Upper Marlboro Riverdale Baptist School, a private Christian K-12 institute in a suburb of D.C., where he played halfback and stood out.
While there, he set a record for all private schools in Maryland with 5,375 career rushing yards, and after graduating, he moved on to Marshall University, a Division I-AA school located in West Virginia.
At Marshall, he had a relatively nondescript tenure, serving as the backup to running back Chris Parker. Although Parker would make it to the NFL, he would play just one game there for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But Gary had visions of greatness, and in 1996 he decided to transfer to the University of Georgia and play for the storied Bulldogs program. One reason why is that Jim Donnan, the head football coach at Marshall, had just been hired by the Bulldogs.
Bob Pruett, who replaced Donnan at Marshall, thought Gary was making the mistake of his life.
“He gave me a million and one reasons why I couldn’t play in the SEC,” said Gary. “But I wanted the challenge. I thought I could play on that level.”
Pruett apparently thought that Gary thought too much of his ability and overestimated his chances of stardom in college football’s most competitive conference.
Per NCAA transfer rules, Gary was ineligible to play during the 1996 season. In 1997, he had to beat out Robert Edwards, who would go on to play just one full NFL season with the New England Patriots, and he wasn’t able to do so.
That year, Gary only got six carries a game, and although he averaged a strong 5.8 yards per rush attempt, it was only enough for 381 yards on the season.
However, he did manage to score seven touchdowns, which seemed to suggest that there really was potential inside of him.
For much of the 1998 season, the final year of his college eligibility, things did not look much better for him. Through the first seven contests, he still wasn’t getting many opportunities, as he was getting just nine rushing attempts a game.
But at that point, things started to change, and Gary would make the most of the situation.
In Georgia’s next game, which took place against Florida, he got 13 carries, which still wasn’t a terribly high number, but he did manage to turn them into 73 yards.
Then against Auburn, which had a reputation as a defensive powerhouse, Gary took it apart by recording 130 yards. By now, his touches were increasing, as he got 24 carries that day.
Versus Ole Miss, another strong defensive squad, Gary had 132 yards, and he closed out the regular season against Georgia Tech with 95 yards on 18 rushing attempts.
His production helped Georgia qualify for the Peach Bowl against Virginia. In that contest, the Bulldogs fell behind 21-0 and looked to be dead in the water.
But thanks to Gary’s 110 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Georgia pulled off a remarkable comeback and took a 35-33 victory, and he was therefore named the offensive MVP of the game.
Olandis Gary appreciation tweet.#DGD pic.twitter.com/GcCcIYBCwQ
— UGA Hoops Mafia (@UGAHoopsMafia) February 15, 2022
With 698 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games on the season, Gary’s numbers were not prolific, but his performance in the Peach Bowl made pro scouts take notice of him. He was not going to be overshadowed anymore.
Moving On To The Super Bowl Champs
In the late 1990s, the Denver Broncos were the best team in the NFL. They won back-to-back world championships in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, and they did so with a very well-balanced roster on both sides of the football.
Other than legendary quarterback John Elway, the team’s best player was Terrell Davis, its industrious running back. Davis was coming off a season in which he had run for over 2,000 yards while scoring 21 touchdowns and winning the league MVP award.
Going into the 1999 campaign, Elway had retired and was being replaced by Brian Griese, the son of Bob Griese, who had quarterbacked the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
Still, Denver was expected to be a very competitive team, if not a title contender.
Gary was not that high on the radar of NFL teams heading into the 1999 NFL Draft, but the Broncos took him in the fourth round with the 127th overall pick.
This gave him a perfect opportunity to be broken in gradually while learning the running back position at the feet of Davis, who had also played for the Bulldogs.
Gary had just graduated with a degree in consumer electronics, and as a backup to Davis, he wasn’t expected to do much, at least not for a while.
But he did make his mark on the squad almost from the start.
In a preseason practice that August, Gary was carrying the ball into the end zone when a free safety named Tori Noel attempted to make a defensive stop. Instead, Gary simply ran over Noel, who had been a practice squad player in 1998 and was looking to make the actual roster for the new season.
“I was making a second effort just to get into the end zone,″ Gary said. “He pulled up on the play thinking the play was over and left himself defenseless.″
Noel suffered a herniated disc that required surgery. He would never play a single snap in an NFL game.
The 1999 regular season began with a contest against the Miami Dolphins, a team in slow decline that had a 38-year-old QB named Dan Marino. The Broncos were favored to win by six points, and the contest was supposed to be their first stepping stone towards what they hoped would be a three-peat.
Griese played relatively well, but Davis was held to just 61 rushing yards, and the Dolphins pulled off an upset win, 38-21.
These things happen to defending champions. Championship hangovers are a real thing, and often times, such teams have a need to pace themselves through the regular season and make it to the playoffs in one piece.
The next week, Denver took on the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that would go on to miss the playoffs. The Broncos were again favored, but again, they lost, as they were only able to muster a measly 10 points.
Then came Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a powerful team coached by Tony Dungy that featured one of the most physical and stingiest defenses. Denver again scored just 10 points and lost by three points.
The defending champion Broncos were now 0-3, and there was some real tension in Colorado. Griese simply wasn’t the threat Elway was, and it allowed teams to bottle up Denver’s running game.
To this point, Davis was underperforming, having registered just 193 yards and one touchdown in three games, far under the standards he had set for himself over the past few seasons. Still, Gary did not see the field in any of those contests.
Then came a catastrophe in Week 4 that would turn things upside-down, while giving Gary the chance of a lifetime.
Getting The Call To Start
Playing against the New York Jets, Griese had a rough outing, going 15-of-31 and throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns. His backup, Bubby Brister, had two interceptions in just five pass attempts.
After holding a 13-7 halftime lead, Denver collapsed in the second half and lost 21-13, falling to 0-4. If that was the extent of its bad fortune that week, it would’ve been bad enough.
In the first quarter, after a Griese interception, New York’s Victor Green was taking the ball the other way. Davis attempted to tackle him, but he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee, forcing him out of the game.
He would require surgery and would be out for the season, and just months after repeating as world champs, the Broncos suddenly were going through what felt like a cursed season.
At first, head coach Mike Shanahan, regarded as one of the NFL’s best offensive minds, declared that Derek Loville, the incumbent second-string running back, would take over as the starter. It seemed a wise choice, as Loville was in his eighth pro season and had been a member of the 1994 Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers.
But for some reason, Gary got the start in Week 5 on the road against the Oakland Raiders, the Broncos’ longtime AFC West rivals. That meant dealing with the Raiders’ notorious fans in Oakland, who were some of the most classless and vocal fans in all of sports.
The D.C. area native didn’t put up the biggest numbers, but he did rush for 64 yards on 20 carries, and although it wasn’t an efficient game for him, he did well enough to help the Broncos finally win their first game of the season, 16-13.
In Week 6, The Broncos hosted the Green Bay Packers in what was something of a rematch of Super Bowl XXXII.
Even though both teams were different than they were two years earlier, the Packers still had legendary QB Brett Favre and were not exactly a pushover.
After the first half ended in a 3-3 tie, Denver dominated the second half behind Gary. He got 37 carries on the day and finished with a robust 124 rushing yards, as well as a touchdown, his first in the NFL.
Denver won, 31-10, and it seemed like it was starting to turn its season around, for no small reason because of its unheralded rookie from Georgia.
The Broncos lost their next two games versus the New England Patriots and Minnesota Timberwolves, but both were very close losses, and Gary continued to perform well, putting up 90 and 70 rushing yards, respectively, in the two contests.
Week 9 pitted Denver against the San Diego Chargers, who were a mediocre team but were very good at stopping the run. They boasted a streak of 26 consecutive games in which an opposing running back had failed to reach 100 yards on the ground against them.
But Gary obliterated that streak by gaining 108 yards and scoring two touchdowns, leading the Broncos to a 33-17 win. Most of those yards were earned in the second half, as he was held to 32 yards before halftime.
On Nov. 22, the Broncos hosted the Raiders on Monday Night Football, and it was a doozy of a battle. After Denver went up 15-7 at halftime, the Raiders blanked it 11-0 in the third quarter, only to have Broncos kicker Jason Elam force overtime with a 53-yard field goal.
In the extra period, Oakland QB Rich Gannon turned the ball over, and once the Broncos’ offense took the field, Gary took a handoff and drove the ball 24 yards into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Let’s remember Olandis Gary#Broncos & #Lions RB (1999-2003)
🏈 48 games
🏈 496 rush
🏈 1998 rush yards
🏈 11 TD
🏈 1x 1000 yard season#NFL #Denver #Detroit
Olandis scores the OT game-winner against the #raiders in 1999 👇 pic.twitter.com/lVuWxbAspT
— letsremember_someguys (@remember_guys) January 21, 2020
He finished the game with 95 rushing yards in total.
Two more losses in the next two games eliminated Denver from playoff contention, but Gary didn’t mail it in. The very next week, he poured in 183 yards in a victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and he followed it up with 185 yards and a touchdown when his team beat the Detroit Lions 17-7.
Although the Broncos finished with an anemic 6-10 record, they had gone 6-6 with Gary starting in the backfield. In those 12 games, he had put up 1,159 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Although he wasn’t selected to appear in the Pro Bowl, he had undoubtedly put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers. His 96.6 rushing yards per game was third in the NFL, and he was ninth with 4.2 yards per carry, which was good enough for All-Rookie Team honors.
Not bad for a man who some thought could not do anything playing Division I football in the SEC.
Trying To Run It Back
With Davis expected back for the 2000 season, the Broncos had relatively high hopes for the immediate future. Although at least one team was interested in trading for Gary, Shanahan said no, knowing his team needed depth in the backfield.
In fact, the Broncos would draft Mike Anderson, yet another running back, in the 2000 NFL Draft.
The first game of the season had the Broncos competing on Monday Night Football against the St. Louis Rams, who had taken a Cindarella ride the previous season all the way to a Super Bowl championship. They still had a very strong team for the new year, and the contest was billed as the last two world champs going against each other.
But again, disaster struck, and this time, it would be even worse than the previous year.
Davis took nine carries for 34 yards when he left the game for what was later identified as a sprained ankle and foot. He would end up returning for five games, only to go out again for the rest of the year with a stress reaction in his left leg.
Again, Gary would fill in for one of the greatest and most popular players in Broncos history. He ran for 80 yards on 13 carries, which was very impressive, but the Broncos came up short, 41-36.
Alas, he sustained a torn ACL, and just like that, his season was over after a mere one contest.
Somehow, the Broncos regrouped and did well without Gary. Anderson, the rookie, had 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns, winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, while Griese made the Pro Bowl and led Denver to a 11-5 record and a return to the playoffs.
Denver would give their backfield setup another try in 2001, with the only difference being that Gary was now the third-string tailback behind Davis and Anderson.
Davis played just eight games, once again due to injury, and although he managed 701 yards in those contests, he scored zero touchdowns, and he clearly wasn’t his old self.
Neither was Gary.
When a pro athlete tears his ACL, it can rob him of his athleticism, particularly his lateral quickness. Back in those days, the technology and training regimens used to rehab from such an injury were well behind where they are today, and it was common for a torn ACL to essentially end an NFL player’s career.
Years later, running back Adrian Peterson would suffer the same injury, only to come back and post a 2,000-yard season a year later.
But in the early 2000s, such feats were still unheard of.
Gary played in nine games during the 2001 season, and in Week 2, he had 90 yards and a touchdown in a win versus the Arizona Cardinals. It was just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks had rocked the nation, and Gary’s strong game gave Broncos fans some much-needed hope and optimism.
But it would be the only game that year he would run for over 40 yards.
In Week 11 versus the Dallas Cowboys, Gary broke his leg, and yet again his season was ended prematurely.
With Davis retiring just before the 2002 campaign and Gary’s stock way down, Denver drafted running back Clinton Portis. In what was now becoming a pattern, he had a prodigious season in ’02, recording 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie.
Gary saw the field in nine contests that year, but he only had 147 yards and one touchdown all season. Yet again, he was unable to stay healthy, as he was hampered by a sprained ankle.
That was it for his days as a Bronco. He became a free agent in the spring of 2003, and he decided to try to give himself a clean slate by switching teams.
One Last Try
Gary signed with the Buffalo Bills, who planned on making him the backup behind Travis Henry. Gary scored three touchdowns in his first two preseason contests with them, but he wasn’t racking up the yards like he used to.
In the Bills’ fourth preseason contest, they played the Detroit Lions, who lost their starting running back, James Stewart, that day to a shoulder injury. Desperately needing help in the backfield, Detroit acquired Gary in a trade just a few days after playing against him.
Although he would have one more opportunity to prove himself, it wasn’t meant to be. Although he played in 13 games during the 2003 season, he started only one of them, and he ended the campaign with just 384 yards and two touchdowns.
After the season, Gary was cut, and with no interest in him anymore, his NFL career was over.
Post-NFL Life And Legacy
Gary’s NFL story is a bittersweet tale of someone who rose from obscurity and long odds to become a good college tailback, then turned some incredibly bad fortune for his NFL team into an opportunity to become a star.
But Gary wasn’t able to stay healthy for more than one season. Otherwise, it’s possible he would’ve had a long and productive pro career filled with multiple Pro Bowl appearances.
On the other hand, some may feel that he wasn’t much more than a product of Shanahan’s offensive system, which used zone blocking in order to create wide gaps for running backs using smaller but more athletic offensive linemen.
After all, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis had similar success as rookies.
But still, the majority of Gary’s dropoff after 1999 can be blamed on his many injuries and not on moving on from the Broncos.
After his pro career ended, Gary would eventually give back to the game, as he would become a member of the coaching staff at St. John’s College High School, a Catholic college prep school located in D.C.
Outside of the gridiron, Gary earned an MBA at Liberty University, a private Christian school in Virginia, and leveraged it to start 1st Millennium Mortgage LLC.
He then started RePax Inc., a company that provides reusable boxes for use by individuals as an environmentally friendly alternative to standard cardboard boxes.
Gary has become an example of someone who has used his experience as an NFL player, as well as the adversity he faced while in the league, to pay it forward and help others to help themselves.
Don Trock says
Wow! I always wanted to know what happened to Shanahan’s string of running backs. Really was in awe of how well they did. Anderson and Gary stories were great. Thanks. I’m a sucker for underdog stories. Again, thanks. Well done. Don