ENGLEWOOD — This is about football, but also life. It's about death, or a terrible illness that sure felt like it.
"I wasn't sure if I was dying," longtime Denver media personality Les Shapiro said at Broncos training camp Saturday, a few feet from the practice fields, miles removed from a serious health issue. "But if you don't know, it's very scary."
And you know who was there for him? When my friend Les was battling Stage 4 lung cancer, coughing nonstop, losing a voice that sports fans in Colorado can recognize anywhere, uncertain which direction the cancer treatments would go ... you know who lifted him up?
Mike Shanahan did. The Mastermind, whose steely gaze put the fear of God in more than one NFL player, rang his buddy and offered one sweet pick-me-up: private jet, weekend of your choice, destination of your choice, dinner of your choice. Chicago, San Francisco, Cabo, Las Vegas — you pick, brother. I'm here for you, Shanahan told Shapiro, now and forever.
“It’s hard to explain what that meant to me at that time. I wasn't sure what was going to happen (to me),” Shapiro said. “But that’s what friends do. And Mike is a great, great friend.”
So here’s where we are with the Mike Shanahan reintroduction tour: Saturday, he returned to Broncos training camp (“Haven’t been here in 10 years,” he said) and observed firsthand his massive influence on two of the most storied and successful franchises in professional sports. The Broncos and 49ers share 14 Super Bowl appearances, eight Super Bowl championships and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks named Elway, Manning, Montana and Young.
These days they share dueling rebuilding projects — and both, in different ways, are basing theirs around Shanahan. Seriously, just look. Kyle Shanahan’s the 49ers coach. The respective general managers — Elway and John Lynch — played for Shanahan. And because Shanahan assured the Broncos that Rich Scangarello is the right man for the job, they hired and charged Scangarello with coordinating an offense that’s been down in the dumps.
“I really like him,” Shanahan said of 'Scang.' "I like him as a guy. I like him as a football coach.”
Mike Shanahan is worthy of induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame not solely because of his coaching record (170-138) or Super Bowl parades here in 1998 and '99. Those are just the numbers. It’s also because of the way he’s shaped the modern game and the influence he’s had on coaching styles that are evolving and advancing from L.A. to Green Bay. His fingerprints were all over the place this weekend at UCHealth Training Center, and now they’re all over the NFL. His 2012 Redskins staff, for one example, had three assistant coaches who are now coaches: Sean McVay (with the runner-up Rams), Matt LaFleur (Packers) and Kyle Shanahan, the Cherry Creek grad and his son.
(Plus, Shanahan and Peyton Manning chatted each other’s ears off for 2 hours at practice Friday. Can we get them mic'ed up, please? It was Shanahan who loaned Manning a place to live when the quarterback moved to Colorado in 2013. Between their financial investments in pizza (Manning) and tequila (Shanahan), the duo also could throw one helluva party.)
Then, after the final practice of Broncos training camp, Elway hit us with a nugget that brought the room together like a good rug: "There’s a lot of similarities with Mike and Vic (Fangio). Mike was great on the offensive side, and Vic is great on the defensive side. That's mainly what I was looking for in the new coach," Elway said.
When the Broncos find trouble, losses and a slog, they invariably turn to what worked in the past. Then, in the '90s, it was Shanahan. Now, in the abyss of back-to-back losing seasons, it’s Fangio.
And Shanahan jibes with Fangio, against whom he waged offense-defense battles for decades in the NFL: “Great football coach. No-nonsense guy that understands the game — being around him, trying to game-plan him, for a number of years. And I just like the way he handles himself. He’s kind of a man’s man. There’s no 'BS.' He gets to the point. I think players will follow him very quickly.”
If Saturday afternoon is any indication, the line for Mike Shanahan’s induction to the Broncos’ Ring of Fame — and perhaps the Pro Football Hall of Fame — will be a long one. Shanahan would be eligible for the Ring of Fame this season, in 2019. But with Pat Bowlen and Champ Bailey being inducted to the Ring of Fame on Oct. 13 when the Tennessee Titans visit Broncos Stadium at Mile High, expect the Broncos to induct Shanahan in the 2020 season.
“Watched a lot of Bronco football growing up,” Broncos lifer Dalton Risner told Shanahan on Saturday. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”
“Looking good, Coach!” future Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater said.
“It was a point in my life he taught me a lot of football,” defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said.
Shanahan's influence is seen almost everywhere football is played. It's also evident behind the scenes, with a close friend wondering if a great life was near the end. Shapiro is "doing great," looks and sounds even better, and is covering his 35th Broncos camp, his cancer in remission.
“I’ll never be able to thank him enough for what he meant to me,” Shapiro said.
With their actions, coaching hires and direction, two all-time great NFL franchises say the same.