Denver Broncos Ring of Fame quarterback Frank Tripucka passed away Thursday morning in New Jersey at the the age of 85.
“Frank Tripucka was an original Denver Bronco and Ring of Famer who was the first to quarterback the team. He laid the foundation for the Broncos’ future success as an American Football League All-Star, twice leading the league in passing yards and setting numerous single-game and career records, the Broncos said in a statement. “He is proudly remembered as one of professional football’s first great drop-back quarterbacks.
“Frank will always hold a very special place in Broncos history for what he meant to this organization and community. We are all deeply saddened by his passing this morning. Our hearts and prayers go out to Frank’s wife, Randy, his seven children and the rest of the Tripucka family.”
Tripucka, whose No. 18 is one of three jersey numbers retired by the Denver Broncos (although currently worn by quarterback Peyton Manning with his blessing), played for the team during its first four years of existence (1960-63).
A former quarterback who also played for the Detroit Lions (1949), Chicago Cardinals (1950-52) and Dallas Texans (1952), Tripucka was brought to Denver by General Manager Dean Griffing and Head Coach Frank Filchock to help coach the inaugural 1960 squad. Before the season, it became clear he was the team’s best option at quarterback.
He started the first game in franchise history and went on to serve as the team’s primary signal-caller for the next three-plus seasons.
Tripucka’s best statistical season came in 1960 when he completed 248-of-478 passes for an AFL-best 3,038 yards with 24 touchdowns. He holds the distinction of having thrown the first touchdown pass in AFL history (a 59-yarder to Al Carmichael at Boston, 9/9/60) in addition to becoming the first quarterback in professional football history to throw for 3,000 yards.
He connected for 12 touchdown passes with fellow Broncos Ring of Famer Lionel Taylor in 1960—a total that still ranks as the third-highest mark for a quarterback-wide receiver tandem in team history. In 1962, Tripucka was named to the AFL All-Star Game after leading the franchise to its first-ever .500 season (7-7).
His 51 touchdown passes from 1960-62 were surpassed in the AFL during that time only by Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback George Blanda.
Tripucka currently ranks seventh in Broncos history in passing yards (7,676), completions (662) and touchdown passes (51) as well as fifth in pass attempts (1,277). His five touchdown passes against Buffalo on Oct. 10, 1962, stood as a team record until Manning’s seven-touchdown effort last Thursday against Baltimore.
In 75 career games played, Tripucka completed 879-of-1,745 passes for 10,282 yards with 69 touchdowns.
He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles with the ninth overall selection in 1949 after starring for the University of Notre Dame. Induced into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1983, Tripucka was a member of the Denver Broncos’ Ring of Fame Class of 1986.
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Aaron Wilson covers the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun.