A Christmas love story:
The middle-aged couple sipped wine, dined, held hands, smiled at each other and talked casually in a dimly-lit back booth at an upscale Denver south suburban restaurant this week. They sought no attention, and received none - except from the waiter - even though the handsome husband with the firm chin and his lovely wife of 35 years had been prominent in the state for almost as long, and were paraded and celebrated in front of hundreds of thousands of well-worshipers downtown less than two years ago.
The Kubiaks, Gary and Rhonda, are happy to be out of the spotlight and together for the holidays.
"Gary and I can relax at home (their ranch outside Houston) on Christmas for the first time really since we got married," Mrs. Kubiak said.
His presence will be his present to her on Christmas Day.
If Kubiak's professional situation hadn't been altered so radically a year ago at this time, he'd be coaching the Broncos on Sunday. This is the anniversary of his resignation.
Mr. Kubiak has been a football lifer - a player since he was a little kid, in high school and college in Texas and in the NFL with the Broncos for nine seasons (1983-1991). Then, he was a college assistant at his alma mater (Texas A&M) for two years, with the 49ers for a season and back with the Broncos as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 1995-2005. He was named head coach of his hometown Texans in 2006. In 2013, soon after suffering a "mini-stroke" on the sideline at halftime of a game, Kubiak was fired for the first, and only time, of his career. He spent the next season as the Ravens' offensive coordinator.
And, in 2015, Kubiak returned to Denver as head coach - reuniting with the Broncos, his former roommate John Elway and many of his ex-assistants, including defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He would be coaching his third future Hall of Fame quarterback - Peyton Manning. The other two were Steve Young and John Elway. Nice trifecta.
"Coming to Denver (in 1983 shortly after they married) the first time was the greatest thing that could have happened to us," Rhonda says while relaxing after dinner. "It changed our lives forever." Gary nods.
The two meeting each other at St. Pius X High School in Houston was so meaningful to their future. As freshmen, seated in home room in alphabetical order, Gary Kubiak and Rhonda Kaminiski, from Polish-American families, were immediately attracted to each other. Gary - all-state in football, basketball, baseball and track - nevertheless was a shy young man, while Rhonda, a cheerleader, was more extroverted. He did invite her to the Homecoming Dance, and the sweethearts have never been apart - except for one week at A&M when they broke up, and despite football, which has consumed Gary's existence.
Gary's great grandfather Michal Kubiak and his family left the Poznan area of Poland in 1885, and became strangers in a small town in a strange land. With other immigrants who settled in the "Polish Capital of Texas", Michal picked cotton. Gary's grandfather was one of 13 Kubiak kids. He moved to Houston, married and worked as a baker, a waiter and a packer for Ford. Rhonda also is a descendant of Polish people who immigrated to Texas.
Gary, born in 1961, as was Rhonda, was voted the All-Southwest Conference quarterback. This year he was elected to the American-Polish Sports Hall of Fame, and Kubiak's high school football stadium was renamed in his, and her, honor.
The 1983 NFL draft quarterback class was considered the greatest ever. Six were chosen in the first round. Kubiak wasn't among them. He became the ninth quarterback selected - with the first choice in the eighth round.
Steve DeBerg was the Broncos' starting quarterback, and Mark Herrmann had been a third-round pick in 1981. Kubiak believed he could make the team and eventually contribute or start. "A month later I thought, Uh-oh." The Broncos had traded for the No. 1 draft choice - Elway.
On the first day of training camp in July of 1983, the media swamped Elway. I talked to Kubiak. "Why, me?" he asked then. "Why not?" I said. We had a good conversation.
"You took me to (Catholic) church," Kubiak says now. "Never forgot that. I didn't even know who you offered to help find a church."
Kubiak did survive camp. Herrmann was included in the Elway trade, and DeBerg would be sent away a year later. All three Broncos quarterbacks started games that season. Because of injuries to both Elway and DeBerg, Kubiak was the starter on Nov. 25, and the Broncos beat the Seahawks 38-27. In the rematch in a playoff game in Seattle, Kubiak watched as the other two played, and the Broncos lost.
Kubiak started one game in '84 (another victory, over the Raiders), but didn't start again until '88 in a defeat to the Steelers. He started once more (a victory in Washington, where the Broncos will be Sunday) and finished his career by taking over for an injured Elway in the 1991 AFC Championship in Buffalo. He almost pulled out the victory, completing 11 of 12 passes, but the Broncos kicker missed three field goals in a 10-7 loss. Kubiak retired shortly afterward, even though Elway begged him to return.
Gary would win three Super Bowl rings as an assistant with San Francisco and Denver, and a fourth, his most prized, as head coach of the Broncos two seasons ago.
Last year Kubiak had to be placed in an ambulance at the end of the Falcons game with "flu-like symptoms" and missed the next game. On Christmas Day, Kubiak and the Broncos fell at Kansas City, 33-10, and the next week Kubiak announced he was quitting. Health issues were cited by the Broncos, but other reliable sources claimed Kubiak departed because Elway had asked him to fire his offensive coaching staff.
Kubiak never discussed the reasons he resigned, but seven months later, he rejoined the Broncos as a super scout - with his primary duties looking at the college quarterback prospects and veteran free-agent quarterbacks. Kubiak acknowledged he'll attend bowls featuring Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and other potential quarterbacks the Broncos could draft.
Kubiak always was The Reluctant Head Coach, preferring to stay in the background and "coach" rather than deal with myriad duties of the head man. He likely will return next season as an offensive coordinator somewhere in the league - possibly with the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan, who had served as Kubiak's young offensive coordinator.
Annually, through the holidays, Gary always has been at games, practices, on the road or in the office from 5 a.m. to midnight.
But, on this Dec. 25, the Kubiaks - who have three sons in football (two with the Broncos) and two young grandchildren - will be down home in Texas by the fire on the ranch, side-by-side, where they deserve to be after all those Christmases separated.
"Happy holiday," Gary Kubiak says to you. And happy holiday from us to the loving Christmas couple.