Austin Fort

Former Campbell County High School quarterback and University of Wyoming standout Austin Fort catches a ball during a training camp practice with the Denver Broncos last summer.

George Dunlap, a long-time Gillette native, has been in the Mile High City to watch some of the best of the Denver Broncos.

He became a season ticket holder before the 1981-82 season, not knowing that the franchise would be forever changed the next offseason. That was when the Indianapolis Colts traded to Denver the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft, some California kid named John Elway.

Dunlap changed from being a big fan of pro football into a die-hard Broncos supporter during Elway’s career. After The Duke retired with two Super Bowl wins in 1998, Dunlap also was there through the Brian Griese days, the one good Jake Plummer year, and for brief fireworks show that was Tim Tebow.

Then he got to watch Peyton Manning return his beloved team to the ranks of Super Bowl champs.

Dunlap still drives the 350 miles each way about six times a year to watch Denver and never misses a playoff game. He already has paid for the upcoming season, which is scheduled to start on time — at least for now.

With COVID-19 threatening to affect the upcoming season, the NFL has already put in place a plan that would refund season ticket holders like Dunlap if he chooses.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to all 32 teams that “all clubs will have in place a policy under which, if a game is cancelled, or is played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending, anyone purchasing a ticket directly from the club (i.e., season tickets, group sales and/or partial season plans) will have the option of either receiving a full refund or applying the amount paid toward a future ticket purchase directly from the club.”

Dunlap said he planned to take the option of paying it forward toward future games.

“I would just leave mine in,” he said of his season ticket money. “They got it, I’d just as soon have them keep it. Hopefully this year, they’ll have football.”

Dunlap would be surprised if the NFL season didn’t happen, even if it were shortened. But he said if there’s no football this year, he expects it to be back in 2021, and so will he sitting in his usual seats.

Other local season ticket holders like Patrick and Paul Hladky hadn’t even thought about the upcoming season until Wednesday. With the oil field taking a big hit in the midst of the pandemic, the NFL has been the least of their worries.

The Cyclone Drilling owners have been focused on maintaining business and keeping employees on the payroll, Patrick Hladky said.

“As far as Paul and I go, we’ve got our own issues here that we’re dealing with,” he said. “Our employees and their families are our No. 1 priority right now and the the Broncos and their season is on the back burner for us.”

The brothers aren’t the avid fans that Dunlap has been for the past three decades, but they actually became season ticket holders before that same 1981 season.

While Dunlap goes to almost every regular season game, the Hladkys have only gone to a game or two each in the past couple of years. They give most of their tickets away to nonprofits, employees and friends.

Patrick Hladky said he’s not the kind of guy who impatiently waits for the schedule to come out. When it does, he and Paul will look at it and decide if there are any games worth going to. If it comes down to it, Patrick Hladky said they would take the same option as Dunlap rather than seeking refunds.

No decision on the upcoming NFL season has been made, but the time for making that call is drawing closer. Training camp is scheduled to start in the middle of July before the preseason starts at the beginning of August.

Last year was one of the few times Dunlap made the long drive to Denver for a preseason game, but there was special reason for that.

Austin Fort, a former standout at Campbell County High School and a family friend, was a free-agent rookie making a name for himself throughout last year’s training camp and preseason before a knee injury ended his season.

“It was pretty exciting to go down and watch him play. Pretty proud of him,” Dunlap said.

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