When John Elway quarterbacked the Broncos from 1983 to 1998, Denver and Seattle were AFC West Division rivals. (Barry Sweet/AP)

As Denver’s quarterback from 1983 to 1998, John Elway (7) faced Seattle twice a year in the AFC West. The Seahawks moved to the NFC in 2002. (Barry Sweet/AP)

Until this week, the Broncos and Seahawks hadn’t seen much of each other lately. The NFL moved Seattle from the AFC to the NFC in 2002. But for nearly a quarter century, they played twice a year as members of the AFC West.

Strange things happen when rivals meet, and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg saw a lot of them. Mecklenburg played for Denver from 1983 to 1994. Today he’s a motivational speaker. The six-time Pro Bowler’s favorite story starts with a fumble and a stampede of players headed straight for a ball boy on the sideline.

“As he turned around to run away, he dropped the ball he had just been polishing. And it rolled out on the field about 10 feet from the other football. So there’s two balls out on the field now,” Mecklenburg said. “[Denver linebacker] Tom Jackson recovers the real fumble and [Seattle's] Steve Largent recovers the other fumble. And the ref runs up next to both piles and yells, ‘Broncos’ ball!’”

Former Seahawk Ahman Green carries the ball during a 1999 matchup between the teams played in Seattle's Kingdome. (Otto Greule Jr./Getty)

Ahman Green carries the ball against Denver in Seattle’s Kingdome in 1999. (Otto Greule Jr./Getty)

Largent, a future Hall of Famer, was still holding the ball boy’s football. Mecklenburg says the normally mild-mannered Seahawks wide receiver was not happy.

“Largent is a Christian guy, a wonderful person, but he came out of that pile cussin’ and screamin’. ‘How could it be the Broncos’ ball?! I have the ball!’”

That game never would have happened if the NFL had stuck to its original plan. In 1976, the league expanded. Defying the conventions of geography, Tampa Bay joined the AFC West. Seattle landed in the NFC West. After one season, the teams switched conferences and Seattle joined the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, and Raiders in the AFC West. Seattle and Denver quickly got to know each other very well.

“I think it was a rivalry of mutual respect. There wasn’t that built-up hatred like we had with the Raiders,” Mecklenburg said.

One of those Raiders was Hall-of-Fame cornerback Michael Haynes, who is a cancer survivor and now serves as a spokesman for an NFL-sponsored prostate-cancer awareness campaign. Haynes spent half of his 14-year career in the AFC West with the silver and black in the 1980s.

It was a rivalry of mutual respect. There wasn’t that built-up hatred like we had with the Raiders.
– Karl Mecklenburg, former Broncos linebacker
“It was tough to play in Seattle, and it was tough to play in Denver. They have great fans and people who really understand the game and love the game. They started their own fan club of ‘Raider Haters,’” Haynes said. “And so, playing against them was always fun because I always played my best game when there was a lot of controversy or a lot of energy in the game.”

Curt Woodward grew up in Cle Elum, Wash. Today he lives in Cambridge, Mass. and is married to one of our colleagues at WBUR. Woodward says until recent years, the best time for Seattle fans was the ’80s, when the team’s stars included Largent, quarterback Dave Krieg, and running back Curt Warner.

“Rooting for the Seahawks is one of my earliest memories really. Hanging out with my dad, watching the games on TV,” Woodward said. “I think of the Broncobusters and Raiderbusters t-shirts that people would have made, probably bootleg. ‘Ghostbusters’ was the big movie phenomenon of the time. And when the AFC West rivals would come to town, everybody would be wearing those kind of goofy shirts.”

In 1983, the Seahawks made the playoffs for the first time. Their opponent? The Broncos and rookie quarterback John Elway, who is now Denver’s executive vice president of football operations. Seattle won, but Denver holds a 34-19 advantage in the all-time series.

Seahawks fans suffered as Elway guided Denver to five Super Bowls in the ’80s and ’90s. Then the NFL announced Seattle’s move to the NFC. Haynes, the former Raider, was disappointed by the news.

In 1995, Seattle running back Chris Warren scored the game-winning touchdown in the Seahawks 31-27 victory in Denver. (Al Bello/Getty)

In 1995, Chris Warren’s touchdown gave the Seahawks a 31-27 victory in Denver, but the ’90s were a tough decade for Seattle. (Al Bello/Getty)

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing now to see Seattle and Denver playing in the Super Bowl. That’s just for me,” Haynes said. “I think they’ve been out of the AFC for so long that most of the new fans don’t have that thought, never even enters their mind.”

Woodward says he and his fellow fans were upset, too, but with a Super Bowl appearance in the 2005 season and another one this year, they’re getting over it.

“The fact that they started being so good in the NFC West relatively soon after getting in there, well, yeah, that covers up any kind of pain or angst about getting jerked around by the commissioner,” Woodward said. “It’s a really interesting set of rivalries now, but those old AFC West rivalries were really something, though.”

The Broncos are trying for their third Super Bowl title. The Seahawks their first. AFC, NFC … whoever comes out on top, the Lombardi Trophy’s heading west.