DENVER • It took a while for Mitch Unrein to deliver the list, the perfect list, for his Mount Rushmore of Colorado sports. This topic deserved more than a cursory thought.
He’s from here. It means something.
“I’ll need a minute,” Unrein said, nodding his head and squinting his eyes, in a back corner of the Broncos locker room.
Why choose Unrein to name the four sports figures who would have their mug etched on the side of a Colorado 14-er, the four men or women who best represent our state?
Like Ben Garland, he’s from here: Unrein was born and raised in Eaton, a farming town of 5,000 proudly going about its business on the northern plains; Garland grew up on the western slope, in Grand Junction, and later graduated from the Air Force Academy.
“There’s a lot of names to pick from,” Garland said.
Unrein and Garland also are Broncos. If there’s an entity that bonds Colorado residents unlike any other — sports-related or otherwise — it’s the NFL franchise that clears the roads on Sunday afternoons and dominates conversation in Safeway checkout lines.
A press box survey of a dozen Colorado media types revealed a common thread: each Mount Rushmore included two Broncos, at the least. Several lists had three.
“It’s a Broncos state, for sure,” Garland said.
Unrein and Garland are also big Broncos. Trimming a list to four names is destined for spirited debate. The smart move is to have a pair of 300-pound linemen on your side.
“I should probably pick a lineman,” Garland said.
Garland’s Mount Rushmore: John Elway, Todd Helton, Terrell Davis and Broncos offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman, the Hall of Famer who served as a cornerstone on the two teams to bring Super Bowl championships to Colorado.
“Us linemen, we’ve got to stick together,” Garland said.
Unrein’s Mount Rushmore: Elway, Helton, Joe Sakic and Tom Nalen, another lineman from the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl teams and a Ring of Fame honoree this year.
“He’s a lineman. We need a lineman on there,” Unrein said. “And he’s on the radio now (with 102.3 ESPN). So he’s still around the community.”
Are these guys simply being contrarians?
Not entirely. Their fourth and final selections — a pair of football linemen — showed the universal tie between all Mount Rushmores of sports. It’s a personal preference, usually stemming from a time or a team you best identify with.
In Colorado, there’s only one sensible option for a unanimous choice.
“Elway, of course,” Unrein said of the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, now the top decision-maker for the Broncos.
All candidates, aside from Elway, are debatable. Your four is a matter of personal choice; like snowboarding regular or goofy, there’s no wrong way to ride.
It could be Pat Bowlen, the devoted owner of the Broncos, who one day will argue his own entry into the team’s Ring of Fame. It could be Sakic or Patrick Roy, who guided the Avalanche to a pair of Stanley Cup titles and now run the front office.
It could be others, like Goose Gossage, the Springs product enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
It could be Jack Dempsey, the boxing great from Manassa, Nuggets stars Alex English or Carmelo Anthony, Buffs football alum and three-time U.S Open golf champion Hale Irwin, or gold medal-winning swimmer Amy Van Dyken.
It could be Helton. After 17 seasons with the Rockies, his absence on Opening Day will be conspicuous. His exclusion from Colorado’s Mount Rushmore would be, too.
“I would pick Helton. I remember watching him when I was in second grade,” Garland said. “I remember the girl that I had a crush on, she had a crush on him. Now I get here with the Broncos and Peyton (Manning) takes us to a Rockies game, and Todd Helton’s still playing.”
Here’s mine: Elway, Sakic, Bill McCartney and Missy Franklin.
Elway, for obvious reasons. Sakic, over Roy, because he won big, with class, and never left. McCartney, the college rep, for the 1990 football national title and a spirit of activism in a state with a deep history of it. Franklin, the amateur, for her charm and Olympic medal haul from the past (five, including four golds) and in the future (in Rio 2016, how big can she go?).
Those are my four.
“Not bad,” Garland said.
We asked six members of The Gazette sports staff to name their Mount Rushmore of Colorado sports.
Jim O’Connell, sports editor — John Elway, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Goose Gossage, Dutch Clark
Matt Wiley, assistant sports editor — Elway, Goose Gossage, Chauncey Billups, Missy Franklin
Scott Kaniewski, prep sports editor — Elway, Joe Sakic, Bill McCartney, Chauncey Billups
David Ramsey, columnist — Elway, Glenn Morris, David Thompson, Floyd Little
Paul Klee, columnist — Elway, Sakic, McCartney, Franklin
Brent Briggeman, Air Force beat writer — Elway, Hale Irwin, Billups, Franklin