Although sometimes overlooked, special teams are an integral part of a successful NFL team.
Even more, a good return specialist can be just as valuable to a franchise as a star player on offense or defense.
That’s what Rick Upchurch was for the Denver Broncos.
— DenverBroncos QBClub (@BroncosQBClub) February 20, 2020
For nearly a decade, Upchurch was a dangerous kick and punt returner who could also scare opponents as a receiver.
His contributions to Denver helped the organization reach its first Super Bowl in 1977.
This is the story of Rick Upchurch.
Raised on a Farm
Rick Upchurch was born on May 20, 1952, in Toledo, Ohio.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) May 20, 2022
He was one of ten children born to parents who were not equipped to raise one child, let alone ten.
Upchurch’s grandparents, Louis and Beatrice, took in Ricky and two cousins to live with them on their farm outside of Holland, Ohio.
For the next several years, Upchurch’s life was filled with daily chores that included feeding chickens and pigs, cleaning the house, cooking, and going to church on Sundays.
In his youth, Upchurch didn’t really enjoy all the work, but it taught him an important life lesson shared by his grandmother.
“If you know how to do something, then you can take care of yourself, no matter what,” recalled Upchurch.
Life on the farm became second nature, and the love he received from his grandparents was unconditional.
That’s why it surprised Upchurch when he found out his grandparents weren’t actually his parents when he was seven years old.
The only exposure Upchurch had with his birth mother was when she would show up occasionally and discipline young Ricky if he needed it.
“I was really confused for a while,” Upchurch said. “I had only known my mom in the role of disciplinarian—it was always like, ‘Who the heck is this?’ After I found out who she was, I had more respect for her.”
After learning who his birth mother was, Upchurch would visit her at times.
However, he preferred life in Holland.
“It was the best life I could have asked for,” said Upchurch.
Upchurch Experiences Loss
When he was in sixth grade, Upchurch’s grandmother died.
He went into a depression so serious that Upchurch ended up repeating the grade.
Slowly, but surely, he overcame his grief and put all his efforts into school and sports.
Upchurch loved watching Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers on television and practiced his moves.
He then applied those moves to the football field, and the local Holland youth coaches didn’t think twice about letting Upchurch run with the pigskin.
By the time he reached Springfield High School in Holland, Upchurch was a burgeoning athlete, but his time at home was becoming more difficult.
— Angi McRobbie LMT (@ang_lmtcle) January 30, 2016
His cousins had moved away, and it was just Upchurch and his grandfather.
The two did all the chores around the farm, but Upchurch’s grandfather began experiencing health problems.
Eventually, Louis died of cancer while Upchurch was still in high school.
That left him alone at the farm, and Upchurch briefly considered returning to Toledo to live with his mother.
After pondering the decision, Upchurch decided to stay in Holland and raise himself.
He spent the next year playing prep sports, but he also maintained the house, did all the farm chores, worked a part-time job, and did his homework diligently.
Thankfully, several local families looked in on Upchurch to make sure he was well-fed and had everything he needed.
Life Changes for Upchurch
A year of self-support caught up with Upchurch. He was burnt out.
He asked a friend, Roddy Bolton, if he could live with the Bolton family. Roddy’s parents were happy to have him.
“The next day, he called and said his mom said yes, and I was so happy—I started packing all my stuff, my underwear and socks, in paper bags right away. I was ready to go,” said Upchurch.
Now that he didn’t have to support himself while attending school, Upchurch flourished.
He became a superstar in Holland as a halfback for the Blue Devils, displaying the slick moves of Sayers and the brute force of Dick Butkus.
During his junior year, Upchurch led the program to a league title.
Upchurch also played basketball and ran track for Springfield High. He became an All-State performer in the sprints and long jump.
In a normal life, Upchurch would have looked forward to his senior year and the opportunities that came with it.
Unfortunately, because he’d repeated the sixth grade, he was too old to compete in prep sports as a senior.
Thinking quickly, his teachers and coaches suggested that Upchurch take his GED, then attend junior college.
That way, he could finish high school early and not miss a year playing sports.
The idea worked out better than expected.
Indian Hills Community College
Upchurch passed the GED and was accepted into Indian Hills Community College in Centerville, Iowa (the school was later renamed Centerville Community College).
He took his first-ever airplane flight from Toledo to Des Moines, Iowa, and eventually made his way to Centerville.
The campus felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, and Upchurch became homesick
“I was pretty withdrawn as a young man,” Upchurch said. “To be isolated being in Centerville and being away from my family, I didn’t like it at first.”
He contacted the Bolton family and they encouraged Upchurch to stick it out.
Upchurch didn’t want to stay, but he also had no other options.
“… even if I wanted to leave, no one was going to buy me a plane ticket,” Upchurch joked. “If I wanted to get to a bus, I had to go all the way to Bloomfield. I was pretty well stuck.”
The Indian Hills coaching staff and teachers took Upchurch under their wings, and he acclimated to school and athletic life in Centerville.
During his first game for the Falcons, Upchurch started as a running back and rushed for 200 yards and three scores against number-one-ranked Northeastern Oklahoma.
That was just the start of a great season in which IHCC won its first conference title. Upchurch realized he had a gift.
“I really felt I could make an immediate impact,” Upchurch said. “I just kind of wanted the ball. I never thought I was better than anybody else. I knew I had some talent, it just depended on how I was going to use it.”
University of Minnesota
Upchurch thrived with the Falcons for two years and then began looking for bigger college opportunities.
Just a little more than five hours north of Centerville was the University of Minnesota and head coach Cal Stoll.
Stoll gave Upchurch an opportunity to play for the Golden Gophers and he ran with it, literally.
The All-Golden-Gopher-NFL Team:
Offense (SB Era)
QB: Mike Hohensee
RB1: Marion Barber
RB2: Lawrence Maroney
FB: Roger Hagberg
WR1: Eric Decker
WR2: Rick Upchurch
TE: Charlie Sanders
T: Keith Fahnhorst
T: John Williams
C: Ben Hamilton
G: Gale Gillingham
G: Milt Sunde
— Dustin Baker (@DustBaker) January 29, 2020
In 1973 and 1974, Upchurch was involved in nearly all aspects of the Minnesota offense.
He was used primarily as a running back, but Stoll also designed plays to use Upchurch as a receiver.
Upchurch took part in special teams as well and was a devastating kick returner.
During the ‘73 season, Upchurch became an All-American and All-Big Ten when he ran the ball 141 times for 841 yards and nine touchdowns along with four receptions for 33 yards.
For good measure, he also returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown.
In 1974, Upchurch toted the rock 153 times for 942 yards (a school record at the time) and caught 14 passes (team leader) for 209 yards and five more scores.
40 days until #Gophers football!
Greatest Minnesota No. 40?
*RB/WR/KR Rick Upchurch (1973-74)
Recorded 2,025 scrimmage yards and 18 total TDs in only two seasons with Minnesota. Drafted 95th overall by DEN in 1975 and made 4 Pro-Bowls as a KR. pic.twitter.com/DE0JiogifV
— Tony Liebert (@TonyLiebert) July 23, 2022
He was named an All-American and All-Big Ten for the second time as a rare shining light for the 4-7 Gophers.
He also set a program record with 305 return yards in a season.
In 2001, Upchurch was inducted into the University of Minnesota’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Denver Selects Upchurch
The months leading up to the NFL Draft can be chaotic for today’s pro hopefuls.
Back in Upchurch’s day, he had a different experience.
“When I was at the University of Minnesota, they (NFL scouts) came in and just timed me,” Upchurch said in 2015. “Everybody just came in and timed me.”
Upchurch’s timed runs showed off his incredible speed and the scouts informed him that he would be drafted.
Even with that information, it was shocking to Upchurch when the Denver Broncos selected him with the 95th overall pick in the fourth round of the 1975 draft.
“The Denver Broncos didn’t even show up,” said Upchurch. “I had no idea that they were even interested in me. When they (scouts) came and timed me, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.”
Upchurch Acclimates Quickly
The Broncos had only been a franchise since 1960 and didn’t post a winning season until 1973 and 1974 (winning seven games in each year).
New #Broncos ROFer Rick Upchurch on first seeing Denver: “I’m in heaven.”
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) September 13, 2014
When Upchurch reported for duty in 1975, head coach John Ralston informed him he would be listed as a receiver and return specialist, which was fine by Upchurch.
“I knew if I was going to survive at the next level, it would have to be as a wide receiver,” Upchurch said. “I knew I could play in the NFL, but I never tried to be in a position where I was lucky. I always had to work harder.”
In his very first game as a pro, the Broncos hosted the Chiefs in Week 1 of the 1975 season.
That’s when Upchurch got his first taste of life in the NFL.
“I remember walking out on the field at Mile High Stadium, not believing I was starting a career in the NFL,” Upchurch said. “On the very first kickoff, I got beat up. I just wanted to touch the ball. Then I got hammered—like a car accident. It was like I needed the ‘Jaws of Life’ to get me out of the pile. They cracked my helmet. I needed smelling salts, and my lip was swollen.”
He returned to the sidelines to clear his head when Ralston called his name to put him back into the contest.
“Haven Moses comes out of the game, holding his teeth in his hands, all busted up… and he’s a veteran! Now, I’m back in the game because I am his backup,” recalled Upchurch.
Thankfully, Upchurch got into the flow and did his job to the best of his ability.
Epic first game – rookie Rick Upchurch had 284 all purpose yards in the 1975 home opener vs Kansas City and was hit so hard on the opening kickoff that his helmet was cracked. Had to wear a spare with no decals the rest of the game. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/ec51XS4QYq
— DenverBroncos QBClub (@BroncosQBClub) January 15, 2023
By the end of the game, he had scored on a 90-yard reception (tops in team history at the time) and on a reverse.
Both touchdowns led to a 37-33 Denver win.
“I was running scared,” Upchurch said.
Upchurch’s introduction to pro football was memorable in the fact that his total yardage for the afternoon (including special teams duty) was 284.
It is still a Broncos rookie record to this day.
As a rookie, Upchurch caught 18 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns and rushed the ball 16 times for 97 yards and an additional score.
He also had 312 punt return yards and 1,084 kick return yards, placing Upchurch on the PFWA All-Rookie Team.
Upchurch’s first-year stats were no fluke.
In 1976, he scored as a receiver, running back, and punt returner.
As Denver won nine games for the first time in franchise history, Upchurch led the NFL in punt return scores (four, also an NFL record for a single season), the longest punt return for a touchdown (92), and yards per return (13.7).
For good measure, he also had 514 kick return yards.
In a Week 3 contest against Cleveland, Upchurch returned two punts for touchdowns, the first player to accomplish such a feat since the AFL-NFL merger.
— Timothy C. Kulla (@TCKooo) September 27, 2022
His stats brought Upchurch his first Pro Bowl nod and a spot on the first-team All-Pro list.
Then, in 1977, Upchurch was a member of a Broncos team that won a franchise-record 12 games and advanced to the postseason for the first time in history.
Once again, the speedy Upchurch scored as a receiver, runner, and returner. He led the league in punt return yards with 653.
During the 1977 playoffs, the Broncos eliminated Pittsburgh and Oakland for the right to face the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII.
Super Return in the Super Bowl
Shortly after Super Bowl XII began, it looked like Denver was severely overmatched as Dallas cruised to a 13-0 lead by halftime.
In the third quarter, Denver kicked a field goal, but the Cowboys added a touchdown to increase their lead to 23-3.
On the ensuing kickoff, Upchurch corralled the ball and snaked through the Cowboys’ kick return team for 67 yards (which set a Super Bowl record at the time).
Three plays later, the Broncos’ Rob Lytle punched in a touchdown to put the score at 20-10.
Cowboys beat Broncos in Super Bowl XII on this day in 1978. That's it. Back to what you were doing. pic.twitter.com/7mSzNjZ8Ay
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 15, 2020
Despite Upchurch’s inspiring play, the Broncos lost their first championship attempt, 27-10.
Upchurch Becomes a Deadly Receiver
Under new coach Red Miller, the Broncos turned into a consistent winner. They appeared in a Super Bowl in his first year and reached the playoffs in 1978 and 1979.
"Coach Red Miller was the best thing that happened to the Denver Broncos when he came in 1977." – Rick Upchurch
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 6, 2017
In 1978, Upchurch mainly played on special teams and caught only 17 passes and a touchdown.
His role as a punt returner continued to electrify crowds. He led the NFL in return touchdowns (1) and yards per return (13.7).
He earned his second Pro Bowl nod and was a first-team All-Pro for 10-6 Denver.
Then, in 1979, Miller inserted Upchurch into the starting lineup for all 16 games. This was the first time in Upchurch’s career that he started more than nine games.
His play resulted in career highs with 64 receptions for 937 yards and seven touchdowns.
— StraightFootballTalk (@FootballTalkSFT) July 29, 2017
Upchurch collected another 304 punt return yards to pass Emlen Tunnell as the NFL’s all-time punt return yardage leader.
His marks brought Upchurch more All-Pro and Pro Bowl accolades.
Upchurch Welcomes Elway
In 1981, new coach Dan Reeves came to town and helped Denver to 10 wins.
Reeves played Upchurch primarily as a receiver. He gained 550 yards and three touchdowns on 32 receptions.
Broncos' Rick Upchurch takes on The Tooz, Raiders' John Matuszak pic.twitter.com/ATeSgWkiY9
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 30, 2017
The following year, the Broncos cratered to only two wins during the strike-shortened season.
One of their two wins came courtesy of Upchurch who scored on a 67-yard punt return and a 37-yard touchdown catch.
Despite the team’s poor record, Upchurch returned to his fourth Pro Bowl after accumulating 407 receiving yards and three scores as well as leading the league in punt return touchdowns (two) and yards per return (16.1).
“There was nothing I didn’t like about the game,” he said. “Nothing.”
Before the 1983 season, the Broncos made a trade with the Baltimore Colts for the rights to Stanford quarterback John Elway.
The rookie showed up in the Mile High City ready to help the team return to the Super Bowl.
Upchurch did his part to get Elway started on the right foot by catching the quarterback’s first NFL pass.
Don and friend former Denver Bronco great Rick Upchurch. Rick caught the first NFL pass ever thrown by John Elway… http://t.co/aJsEso3oV3
— Don Bendell (@donbendell) September 29, 2013
As Elway led the Broncos to a 9-7 record and a 31-7 loss to Seattle in the Wild Card round, Upchurch caught 40 passes for 639 yards and two touchdowns.
He was limited by injuries to only four punt returns for 52 yards, the lowest punt return total in his career.
Upchurch Reluctantly Retires
After the 1983 season, Upchurch believed he was no longer in the Broncos’ future plans and reached out to the Cleveland Browns.
He worked out a deal in which Denver would trade him to Cleveland for a new three-year contract that would pay Upchurch $700,000 per year.
However, Broncos team doctors believed Upchurch’s injuries he had sustained to his neck in ‘83 were serious and that he should retire.
The bad news soured the Browns and the deal was never completed, leading Upchurch to retire.
“I had worked to go from that $35,000 of my first contract to get to that point, and then to watch it all disappear…?” he said. “I was in a depressed stage. I didn’t see anybody. I didn’t talk to anybody. I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
In his career, Upchurch had 267 catches for 4,369 yards, and 24 touchdowns and added 349 rushing yards and three rushing scores.
Random Football Card of the Day:
— Michael T. Adams (@michael_t_adams) January 9, 2022
On special teams, he had 2,355 kick return yards, 3,008 punt return yards, and eight punt return touchdowns.
Many of his totals still rank high on Denver’s all-time lists.
At the time of his retirement, Upchurch led the NFL all-time in punt return yards and was a co-leader in punt return average with 12.1.
He was a four-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro, and was named a member of the NFL’s 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams.
Upchurch has since been added to the Broncos Ring of Fame and Denver’s 50th Anniversary Team.
— Denver Post Broncos (@PostBroncos) May 6, 2014
In 2003, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame inducted Rick Upchurch into its ranks.
“I was fearless. The game didn’t scare me at all,” said Upchurch. “I wanted to be a game-breaker, and I think I was that. I could turn the game around quickly. And I was a team player. My teammates meant more to me than anything else—individual type of accomplishments—because it is a team game. We all work together to achieve the same goal.”
For the first few years of retirement, Upchurch didn’t really have a direction. He bounced from job to job trying to find a new career.
“I just kept remembering what my grandparents always told me: Keep your head up and focus on what you can do to make things right,” he said. “I’m a survivor. I survived.”
Just when he was at his lowest, Upchurch got a call from a friend who asked him if he was interested in being an assistant at Tabor College in Kansas.
He took the job and coached the Bluejays for five years before returning to Colorado.
At that point, Upchurch had been divorced twice (interestingly, he also briefly dated former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during his Broncos career).
When he returned to Denver, Upchurch reconnected with an old friend, Donna, and the two married.
— Michelle Tuckner (@MichelleTuckner) September 13, 2014
They would have four children and eventually move to Pueblo, Colorado where he coached high school football for two years.
The Upchurches also founded Rare Breed, an organization that conducted sports camps and engaged the local youth through various activities.
Now 70 years old, Upchurch and his wife currently live in Nevada.