SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Four hours before Super Bowl 50, a sea of bright-colored jerseys, mostly orange and blue, flowed north along Great America Parkway to Levi’s Stadium.
An estimated 1 million people — about as many residents as there are in all of Montana — converged on this edge of the continent for the festivities surrounding one of the premier sporting events in the world. The game itself between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers drew 75,000 people who packed into the NFL’s newest stadium, a cutting-edge coliseum that would be the second largest city in Montana on any game day, including this sunburst Super Bowl Sunday.
Under the high blue sky, the crowds pressed toward the high-rise stadium in the skyline of the San Francisco Bay Area, past police officers and soldiers in combat gear, past one of the wildest wooden roller coasters in the world.
“Are you Brock Osweiler’s parents?” a man wearing a bright Broncos jersey said, pulling out his phone to take a selfie.
John and Kathy Osweiler paused, smiling but slightly caught off guard.
“Sure,” John said, huddling with the stranger for a moment alongside Kathy.
The Osweilers, both Great Falls natives who raised their family in Kalispell before moving to Arizona in recent years, have grown more accustomed to this sort of thing in the last three months. Anonymity quickly vanishes once your son becomes the starting quarterback for a prominent NFL franchise.
“He’s definitely gotten some recognition this year,” John said of his son, Brock.
Walking the route to Levi’s Stadium from the exclusive hotel where players and family members with the Denver Broncos were staying, the Osweilers reflected on the journey from Montana to the Super Bowl. The family was all together for the first time in years — Brock and his new wife, Erin, John and Kathy and their oldest son, Tanner, and his wife, and other extended family. In this bustling California cityscape, the group from Montana cherished it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even though it’s their second trip to The Big Game in three years.
“It’s surreal,” Kathy recalled. “The other day at the team walkthrough, we were inside (Levi’s Stadium) and Brock looks around and says, ‘It’s a little different than Legends Field (in Kalispell), isn’t it?’ I laughed and said, ‘Yeah, just a little bit.’”
On his Instagram feed, Brock posted photos of his family together inside the stadium, writing, “What an amazing road it’s been … to bring us all here today. I couldn’t have done it without these special people.”
It has been a wild, unpredictable ride for Brock and his family this season.
It’s about to get even more action-packed.
The former Flathead Brave is at a turning point. He is a Super Bowl champion.
Although the 6-foot-7 quarterback remained on the sidelines during Sunday’s game as Denver held off Carolina 24-10, he played a key role in this team’s ultimate success.
With Brock filling in as the Broncos’ starting quarterback on his 25th birthday in late November, Denver went 5-2, defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and secured a No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the playoffs. In the final game of the regular season, he returned to the sidelines after Peyton Manning resumed his pursuit of a second Super Bowl title.
Last weekend’s victory marked a (potentially) storybook ending for Manning, who, at 39, became the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and who is expected to ride off into the sunset after this, his last rodeo.
That means Osweiler’s four-year education as Denver’s backup quarterback and Peyton’s pupil is coming to an end. It’s Brock’s turn in the saddle.
Osweiler, who has prepared — and largely been groomed — as Manning’s heir apparent the last four years, becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 14. The Broncos have until then to either work out a new long-term contract or put the franchise tag on the young quarterback, meaning Osweiler would be bound to the team for one more year before hitting the free agency market. Numerous media outlets have reported that Denver’s front office hopes to tab linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP, with the franchise tag.
Osweiler’s fate in Denver remains uncertain. Some critics have said he lacks the abilities to be a long-term starting quarterback in the league. In eight games with Denver this season, he completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.
“It’s been tough on him, but he’s been a great pro,” Denver head coach Gary Kubiak told members of the media last week. “That’s why he’s going to be a great player, in my opinion. He got an opportunity, he played well. Obviously, we made the move. He’s learned from that. He’s continued to prepare. He’s a great soundboard for Peyton through the course of preparation and getting ready to play, so I think the way that Brock has handled himself this year tells you what kind of future he has. I think that’s the biggest compliment I can pay to him. He’s been a great team player.”
As Brock’s father, John bears the weight of having to see his son undergo intense scrutiny in public.
“Unfortunately we’ve heard a lot of comments in the stands that probably shouldn’t be heard by anyone, but you just block them out as a parent,” John said. “College is one thing but the professional level is a whole other level. No matter where you go there are die hard fans.”
His father believes Brock can take it. He knows his son possesses the strength and talent to play in this league.
Others believe in him, too. Students at Flathead High School signed dozens of cards last week that explained how Osweiler had inspired them; school administrators mailed them to Brock before the Super Bowl, along with a brick from the school’s renovation.
“Brock has really built a new foundation for Flathead High School as it enters a new era. He has really helped our programs and school grow,” Activities Director Bryce Wilson said.
Osweiler received the messages before Sunday’s game.
“He sent me pictures of the messages that the students had sent him. That was really neat,” Kathy said. “It does mean a lot to him. Flathead is such a great memory for him, some of the best years of his life. He really wants to see the programs succeed and do well.”
Inside Levi’s Stadium, another fan besides the Osweilers was there specifically because of Brock.
Carla Dillon served as the executive chef for the teams at Arizona State University years ago when Osweiler was a student-athlete.
“I watched him take his first snap as a starting quarterback at ASU,” she said. “I’ve told all my friends who are Denver fans, he’s a good guy. He treated my staff with respect and he didn’t have to but he did. He’s a fierce competitor but he’s a gentleman. We need more guys like him.”
She added, “I’m an Osweiler fan. I’m here because of him.”
Walking into the stadium, John and Kathy shared the advice they gave their son before the big game.
“I just told him to enjoy it,” Kathy said. “Live in the moment.”
Before disappearing into the crowded stands and the revelry of Denver’s upset victory, before taking the field to celebrate with their son under golden confetti and beaming spotlights, John shared something else: a glimpse of the 2014 AFC Championship ring. It was a Father’s Day gift from Brock.
“I asked him when he gave me this if I can trade it in for a Super Bowl ring,” John said. “Brock said, ‘No, that one I’m keeping.’”