Published: September 18, 2013
Editor's note: The "Broncos Roots" series takes you off the field and into the lives of the Broncos. Denver columnist Paul Klee will profile one individual every Thursday until the Broncos' bye in Week 8.
DENVER - Rocking camo pants and red New Balance sneakers, Duke Ihenacho strolled into the batting cage at Coors Field on Wednesday.
The result? Let's just say there's a reason God made Duke a football player.
"That's harder than it looks," Ihenacho told the Rockies' Vinny Castilla after a few humbling swings.
It was another change of sports, way back in high school, that altered his life path. And, just maybe, the path of this Broncos season.
"When Duke came to us and said he wanted to play football, he didn't know anything about football," Junipero Serra High School coach Scott Altenberg told me Wednesday.
See, Duke didn't play organized, tackle football until his junior year of high school in Gardena, Calif. His mother wouldn't allow it.
"We were big on school, academics," Ihenacho said. "So I just played basketball."
"All he knew was playground football and what he had learned in P.E.," Altenberg said. "He had no concept of football."
Duke is a starting safety in the NFL. Now, I argue he's the most important player on the Broncos defense. He's a 24-year-old who prefers to thump ballcarriers rather than tackle them. This Broncos 'D' needed a dose of nasty.
And have you seen them hit lately?
"I really didn't have a football idol growing up. I played basketball. All my sports guys were basketball players," Ihenacho said. "I guess I used to watch guys like Brian Dawkins. Played with him in video games and all that.
"But honestly, I used to dream of playing in the NBA. Then I was too short for that."
Duke is 6-foot and 213 pounds of thump. He's another one of those underdog, nobody-wanted-him, defying-the-odds stories that line the Broncos locker room.
After a delayed start in football, Ihenacho had a single Division I scholarship offer: San Jose State. Arizona moved on him late but didn't extend an offer.
"I think you always carry that stuff with you," he said.
Duke followed his brother to San Jose State, joining Carl Ihenacho and playing for current Colorado football coach Mike McIntyre in the Western Athletic Conference.
After his senior year, he didn't watch the first two rounds of the NFL draft. He tuned in to the later rounds, only to see heartbreak. Duke went undrafted.
"It hurts. It really hurts when you don't get drafted," he said. "It makes you mad."
There's another Ihenacho about to hit the big time. Glen Ihenacho, a senior safety at Serra, already has 15 scholarship offers, his coach said. Baby bro is another defensive back.
"He's ridiculous," said Altenberg, who coached all three. "He's more athletic than Duke."
His high school coach said he believes two attributes allowed Duke to reach the NFL: Instincts and smarts.
"He takes what you coach and he puts it into action," Altenberg said.
Duke slammed onto the NFL scene. In his first game as a starter, against the Ravens in the season opener, he had a game-high 11 tackles. He leads the Broncos with 18 tackles and said, despite an ankle injury, he will play Monday against the Raiders.
"That first game, he was everywhere. And I was thinking, 'It's the same way he played for us,'" Altenberg said. "It's all instincts. He sits on it, then all of the sudden he's behind the line of scrimmage making a tackle.
"As a coach, it drives you crazy, because he'll be out of position the whole time. Then all the sudden he's in the play. It's bizarre."
The whole story is, really.