DENVER — A man in an orange Broncos sweatshirt cuts through the frozen air with a steel shovel, hacking away at the ice others missed. He works diligently at the mouth of the tunnel from which the Patriots will emerge in a half hour, making sure every cluster of ice is broken up and cast aside. On another part of the field, another man in orange, the first man’s boss, scours yards upon yards of turf for a loose screw or chunk of plastic. A Patriots training staff member notices the man with a shovel and hollers “Thanks!” on his way to the field, assuming the scrupulous gesture of preparation is intended to save the million-dollar athletes from a slippery spill. The man nods and laughs to himself: “If he only knew.”
If they only knew this was all for a horse.
The horse’s birth name is Me N Myshadow, but his better-known moniker is Thunder III. He’s the third of Sharon Magness Blake’s horses to serve as the Broncos’ mascot since the team picked the original Thunder 25 years ago out of five candidates, all owned by Sharon. Thunder III is 16, Arabian, son of Monarch AH, the legendary Arabian racehorse of the early 90s. His glossy white tail brushes the ground as he walks, and when he’s sprinting from goal line to goal line, it soars behind him. He hates pom-poms and flying AA batteries (more on that later). He tends to poop when he gets excited, and that can be an issue for the team of six people who manage him.
He is one of two horses who roam NFL stadiums, the other being Warpaint, mascot of the Chiefs. And Thunder III’s first game on the job just happened to be a Super Bowl.
Thunder II was 20 and nearing retirement when the Broncos reached the Super Bowl in early 2014. He had become less patient with children during pregame meet and greets. His rider, Ann Judge, says it was his way of saying he was just about through being the Broncos’ mascot. Plus the Super Bowl would be in New York, and the Broncos had lined up opportunities for the mascot to trot across Manhattan from the set of The Today Show to the set of Fox & Friends 15 blocks away during the lead-up to the game. Sharon and her husband, Ernie Blake, tried to imagine Thunder II ignoring the towering skyscrapers and unfamiliar chaos of Rockefeller Plaza. Impossible. So Me N Myshadow got the promotion for Super Bowl Week, the equivalent of the Chicago Cubs calling up a starting pitcher from Triple-A Des Moines for Game 1 of the World Series.
Ernie, a 75-year-old former environmental attorney and one-time mayor of Breckenridge, talks about Thunder III as if he were his own son: “This guy had the attitude of bring it on,” Ernie beams. They put him in a FedEx crate in the bottom of an airplane cargo hold, with a layover in Tennessee. He didn’t blink. They walked him through the icy streets of Manhattan. Easy money. “He’s looking around like, Whoa, this is cool!” Ernie says.
Two years later, a seasoned Thunder III took a cross-country drive to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif. After a stay at Stanford University’s luxurious equestrian stables, Thunder III and his team traveled to the stadium for an essential run-through on the painted turf (Horses, you see, have poor depth perception. They see numbers and logos painted into grass and believe them to be sunken holes, so they have to get accustomed to new paint designs on the field.) Not so fast—the staff at Levi’s Stadium said the musical performers had roughed up the grass enough, and Thunder III could not practice for his debut. “So the day of the Super Bowl was his first view of the field,” remembers Sharon. “And he just said, Fine, let’s go.”
Home games are more controlled. This is Thunder III’s wheelhouse. After a couple hundred youth cheerleaders perform on the field during pregame, Thunder trots on to the tune of Young Jeezy’s braggadocious single “All There”. With two layers of fabric keeping him warm—a waterproof, custom Broncos coat and a custom, hand-crafted, silver-plated leather saddle costing an estimated $20,000—Thunder is rocking the equivalent of a Trevor Siemian game check on his back.
Pull up if you wanna buy a half it’s all there
900 in my pocket, big faces all there
As soon as the last cheerleader clears the sideline, Thunder trots through the end zone and onto the field, soon breaking into a full sprint. He has exactly seven minutes to shake the cobwebs out before returning to his spot behind the end zone to wait for his cue to deliver a hand-painted game ball to a distinguished season ticket holder on field. His rider, Ann, and Sharon keep him occupied in the meantime, telling jokes to one another and letting him nibble on his own reins. Soon enough, it’s showtime. Thunder is first into the big, blue inflated tunnel from which the players emerge. In tow are Ann, Sharon and Ernie’s son, David, who has the unique honor of shoveling Thunder’s droppings on the go.
He carries a shovel and waits for the lifted tail, a tell-tale sign that Thunder is about to drop some bricks. David’s been known to catch a load in mid-air, before it can stink up the tunnel and ruin the mood of the hyped-up Broncos players waiting behind the horse.
“In terms of weird NFL jobs,” David says, “I’d put mine up against anybody’s.”
David’s day job might surprise you: He’s the Chief Deputy Attorney General for Colorado, No. 2 to Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman. He manages 300 lawyers across the Centennial State from Monday to Friday and sporadically on weekends. On Sundays, he scoops up Thunder’s poop.
“I know the two jobs don’t really mesh,” David says.
David, 42, is Ernie’s son from his previous marriage, and he’s been working with the horse ever since David and Sharon married in 2003 (Sharon was formerly married to Bob Magness, the late billionaire founder of Tele-Communications Inc.). David’s current duties took shape in 2009, when new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was looking for ways to electrify the game day experience. Before then, Thunder’s job consisted of sprinting the length of the field after a score. McDaniels wanted to see the horse lead the team onto the field before the anthem, too. One problem: Thunder II, like his successor, will defecate when emotions are high. Prior to one early regular season game—the team can’t recall which—Thunder II let loose in the middle of the tunnel, sending an unmistakable stench through the Broncos. The players had been swaying back and forth with stone faces in anticipation of kickoff. Now they covered their noses and squealed.
“The players freaked out!” Ann says.
“We didn’t have a shovel,” Sharon says. “Dave ran and got a shovel but the players were like, Are you kidding me? Hey, McDaniels wanted more hoopla.”
Ann chimes in: “That was the only hoopla he brought.”
McDaniels was fired after two seasons, but Thunder’s new role held.
This time, Thunder III spares Dave and the players before Week 15’s game against the Patriots. The cheerleaders file past the horse carefully on their way out of the tunnel, keeping their pom-poms behind their backs as they approach, then quickly moving them to their laps as they pass. It’s one of the first lessons learned by new Broncos cheerleaders: Don’t let the horse see the glossy, glittering ornaments under any circumstances.
“All three horses hated the pom-poms,” Ernie says. “So the cheerleaders are very good about it. The horses don’t miss anything. They hate pom-poms and they hate when fans do The Wave. When it was popular, he’d watch it till it came around, and then he jerks his head and watches to make sure it keeps going.”
Sharon and the rest of the Thunder crew have perfected the methods for managing these quirks and obstacles over the 25 years one of her horses has been the mascot, but new challenges constantly emerge. Ernie routinely brings pregame gifts to the operator of the mobile tower camera which tracks across the sidelines for the TV broadcast. Gift-wrapped chocolates come with a request to stay away from the narrow part of the sideline when the horse completes his post-score sprint. Occasionally, young referees will step into path of Thunder’s sprint, nearly colliding with a 900-pound horse. Once, David had to intercept a speeding wide receiver who scored a touchdown and would’ve crashed into Thunder at his resting spot beyond the end zone.
And then there are the intentional and malicious distractions. Opposing punters have timed their practice kicks into a sideline net for the moment Thunder trots the perimeter of the field after a sprint. Dave says that years ago, Oakland fans chucked batteries at the horse from the bleachers. “You look at the risk assessment and liability, and there’s so much here,” David says. “Photographers don’t pay attention, there’s ice on the sidelines, pom-poms, pyrotechnics, smoke, spilled beers, batteries. I’ll have to catch a ball periodically that would have hit him. It’s a little ridiculous.
“If he runs over Tom Brady, that’s a bad day. If he breaks his own leg on the field, how do you get him off? The risks involved are staggering.”
Considering those risks, the six-man team managing Thunder seems like a skeleton crew. There’s Sharon, who once owned 900 horses before scaling down the family horse-racing operation. There’s Ann Judge, who has ridden Thunder since 1998. There’s Ernie and his son, David. Then there’s Rudy Mendiola, manager of the family’s sprawling 254-acre ranch north of Silverthorne, Co., which has hosted numerous Broncos, including Peyton Manning in August. Finally, there’s Rick Holman, who was chief of police in Breckenridge when Ernie was mayor.
Non-game-day appearances require less maintenance. Sharon and Ernie host a yearly party for 300 children from local boys and girls clubs dubbed Thunder’s Party, where underprivileged kids have the opportunity to meet the horse and Santa, eat a meal prepared by Sharon’s catering company (Epicurean Catering) and go home with a bagful of Christmas gifts. The hardest part of that day is coaxing a wobbling horse up a freight elevator.
Thunder lives on Ann’s ranch in Bennett, Co., training on Ann’s obstacle course that features various surfaces from sand to concrete, and eating three square meals a day, plus grazing. Often they’ll visit the local high school and practice their routine on the football field, with students cheering him on. On Sundays Ann drives the 45 minutes from Bennett to Denver, delivering Thunder to his spacious stall just around the corner from the Patriots’ locker room.
Mendiola scoops up poop in the stall and saddles the horse. Holman runs security for Thunder, who is normally posted behind the end zone during games. Holman’s job in his words: “Make sure nobody hurts Thunder, and Thunder doesn’t hurt anybody.” On Sunday, however, the outdoor temperatures kept Thunder indoors and under wraps until whenever the Broncos’ offense reached the 50-yard line. Against New England, those occasions were few and far between, with the Broncos converting just 2 of 12 third downs and scoring only on a first-quarter field goal in a 16–3 loss. Patriots fans sitting near the tunnel watched Thunder and the crew return to his stall after Siemian tossed a goal-line interception in the first half. One fan took the opportunity to heave an insult: “Yeah, get that horse out of here!”
Thunder, ever the sportsman, buried his face in a pile of alfalfa and didn’t sweat it.