DENVER • For the record, Shelby “Big Papa” Harris was right. His math checks out.
As he paraded through the Broncos locker room after a sensational 24-17 win over the Steelers, the 290-pound defensive tackle raised the game ball like it was Simba and shouted for all to hear: “It’s bigger than my baby!” The length of a football is 22 inches. Two days earlier, his daughter was born three weeks premature. Evelyn Rochelle measured 18 inches.
“Not a bad week, huh?” Harris said with tears welling up in his eyes.
He was right to get emotional, too. On several occasions during Sunday’s game, in which the Broncos forced their way back into the playoffs conversation, “Big Papa” thought he might cry. The ultimate test of his self-control came with 1:07 left on the game clock and the Steelers with the ball, just two yards (or four Evelyn Rochelles) from the goal line. A touchdown would’ve tied the game and probably forced overtime between the Broncos and Steelers — in the same end zone where Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas once beat ‘em in OT.
Instead, the Broncos rose up. Harris rose up. For reasons even he couldn’t explain, the big fella dropped into pass coverage (kinda, sorta) and Steelers ‘slinger Ben Roethlisberger flung the 22-inch football directly into Harris’ oversized mitts. The first interception of his career clinched the win, and the 73,654 not waving Terrible Towels inside Broncos Stadium at Mile High lost their mind.
“I actually didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” Harris said of the game-saving interception.
“He’s got a horseshoe up his butt,” linemate Derek Wolfe explained.
“I was like, ‘Should I try to return it?’” Harris said.
For almost everyone except for Harris, this was a muted celebration in the Broncos locker room. The loudest cheer came when Vance Joseph said they would not hold practice on “Victory Monday,” the first of the Joseph era. They were not surprised after beating the Chargers, who were on a six-game win streak, or after beating the Steelers, who were also on a six-game win streak. They expected this.
The Broncos are “on to Cincinnati,” Von Miller said five times during his press conference, channeling his inner Belichick, complete with a hoody draped over his head.
You could scribble down a list of 20 guys who deserved a game ball on Sunday and still miss the mark. Chris Harris Jr., who also picked off “Big Ben” and characterized his own leadership in a beautiful way: “You’ve got to serve the other players as a leader.” Phillip Lindsay, who’s too young to realize that being the first running back this year to rush for 100 yards against the Steelers is a big deal. Case Keenum, who didn’t throw a pick for the third straight game. Emmanuel Sanders, who torched his former team for 86 yards and a touchdown.
But this one’s for “Big Papa” Harris. He’s the only Bronco who raced from Mile High to a Castle Rock hospital to see his wife (“She’s a trooper,”) and Evelyn, who, as daddy proudly pointed out, is smaller than a football. “I can tell you exactly what I’m going to do (to celebrate),” Harris said. “After this, I’ll drink some water, maybe a Gatorade, drive to the hospital and sit there the rest of the night. There is no celebration. I’m just happy that I have a healthy baby, a healthy wife and a healthy family.”
Holding off tears when he didn’t need to, Harris added: “It made me almost cry. I looked in the stands and my wife was not there. I know she’s in the hospital and I can’t wait to go see them.”
Meanwhile, the Broncos are behaving like defiant children who don’t want to go to bed yet, and I mean that in the very best way possible. Two weeks ago they were 3-6 and living on a prayer. Now they’re smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt — one game back of a Wild Card spot with these quarterbacks to close the regular season: Andy Dalton (or his backup, Jeff Driskel), Nick Mullens, rookie Baker Mayfield, Derek Carr and Philip Rivers. The Broncos should be favored in five of their final six games. Simply by winning the games they should win, they will be right there at the end.
Their math checks out.
“How many turnovers was that?” said Broncos safety Will Parks, whose hustle forced the first one, knocking the ball loose from Pittsburgh tight end Xavier Grimble, also at the goal line.
Four Steelers turnovers, sir.
“We got tired of seeing everyone else having fun,” Chris Harris Jr. said.
Is it worth noting that three years ago Shelby Harris and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world, and a few days later he scored his first career sack?
“I’m literally just living my best life,” he said.
There is new life in this Broncos season.