In 1988 an unknown 30-year-old linebackers coach, who had not played college or pro football, was assigned the task of shutting down a renowned college and professional quarterback who, at 28, had started in the past two Super Bowls.
On that Nov. 20 Sunday afternoon at the Superdome, the Saints, including defensive assistant Vic Fangio, shut down John Elway and shut out the Broncos, 42-0.
It was the highest point-differential regular-season loss of Elway’s 16-season Hall of Fame career, and it would be the highest-scoring margin in a shutout victory for Fangio in 33 years in the NFL.
Elway returned to New Orleans the next season for his third Super Bowl and suffered his most devastating defeat — 55-10 to the 49ers.
Elway never played in New Orleans again.
In 2012 the Broncos, with Elway as the executive vice president of football operations, the Broncos were AFC favorites to reach Super Bowl XLVII ... in New Orleans. However, in a playoff game, the Broncos were upset by the Ravens in overtime after a last moment-Hail Mary touchdown near the end of regulation.
That day lives in infamy in Colorado.
So, instead, the Bros. Harbaugh — John of Baltimore and Jim of San Francisco — were matched in New Orleans.
Assuming Elway would represent the Broncos in New Orleans, I left a message asking him to meet and revisit his five Super Bowls. He soon called back. I was in a restaurant in the French Quarter. Elway was in a hammock in Hawaii.
“I thought you’d be here,’’ I said.
“Well, yes, there was the game against Joe Montana here.’’
“And we got killed by the Saints one year,’’ Elway said.
“I want to forget.’’
At that Ravens-49ers Super Bowl I interviewed the San Francisco coordinator because he worked under both Harbaughs, and each possessed a premier defense. He was friendly, unassuming, direct, a football lifer and not very quotable. He was Fangio.
But he did say: “My older brother lives in Colorado Springs.’’ Tony Fangio still does.
In his only trip to the championship game, Vic was on the losing side, 34-31, on the night the lights went out in New Orleans and delayed the Super Bowl for 34 minutes.
Despite never meeting over the past 30 years, Elway and Fangio have been in the same stadium on opposite sides since that first confrontation when Fangio was developing four Pro Bowl linebackers with the Saints. He had several others in Carolina, San Francisco and Chicago. No wonder The Linebacker Whisperer eventually would join the Broncos with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.
In 1996 Elway was a quarterback on the AFC team at the Pro Bowl, and Fangio was on the NFC staff of Panthers coach Dom Capers (who had been the secondary coach with Fangio with the Saints, where Steve Sidwell, a former University of Colorado player and assistant coach, was the defensive coordinator).
Fangio first coached in Mile High Stadium in the old USFL (Philadelphia Stars) and against the Broncos in 1994 — a 30-28 Saints’ victory. He was with the Panthers in ’94 when Elway got some measure of revenge — a 34-0 shutout. Fangio served as defensive coordinator of the Colts when they, led by Peyton Manning, beat the Broncos, without a retired Elway, in 2001, 29-10. Fangio next appeared in Denver in 2004 with the Texans, who were thrashed 31-13. In 2006 the Ravens, and Fangio, nudged the Broncos 13-3.
Fangio and Elway were reunited, without knowing it, in 2014 as the Broncos beat the 49ers at new Mile High, 42-17.
And the last time — with Elway the chief executive of the Broncos and Fangio the coordinator of the Bears — the Broncos prevailed in Chicago with Brock Osweiler outdueling Jay Cutler 17-15.
One degree of separation. Both spent time with John Fox as their coach.
Elway played at Stanford, and Fangio coached at Stanford. Now they are joined, somewhat, at the hip in Denver, and “Forever and Forever Stanford Red’’ has turned into Broncos’ Orange.
Could John Elway and Vic Fangio become Rick Blaine and Captain Renault?
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.’’
They’ll always have New Orleans ’88, and Denver ’19.