DENVER — This is only the courtship. It’s the getting-to-know-you stage between Broncos Country and Dalton Risner, a rookie in the NFL.
The love affair? That’s coming soon.
Saturday afternoon below bluebird skies and the South Stands at Mile High Stadium, Broncos diehard Chuck Cisneros gave a preview. Chuck’s family’s had season tickets here or at the old Mile High for 38 years, over in Section 113.
“This man,” Cisneros says to me, pointing at Risner, “is the real deal. He’s bringing us back.”
You know what? Chuck's exactly right. Risner’s not Drew Lock, the quarterback of the future who stole the show at Saturday's open practice (before throwing a pick-6 to Adam Gotsis, a defensive lineman, on the final snap. Ugh.). He’s not Bradley Chubb, the heir to Von Miller’s throne.
Risner's an offensive lineman, and we don't talk about those guys unless they do something wrong or win a couple Super Bowls, like the Nalen-Zimmerman-Schlereth bulldozers of the '90s. But he’s built of the intangible stuff the Broncos have sorely missed — most specifically, an emotional and poignant investment in the franchise itself.
Everyone has dreams, and Risner's living his. It was to wear a Broncos jersey. He’s Chuck. Maybe he's you. A dozen years ago he was one of the kids hanging their arms over the wall for an autograph.
“I’m at Mile High Stadium,” says Risner, a Broncos lifer, as he hustles into the tunnel after a 2-hour practice brought 21,234 diehards to the stadium. “I mean, like, look at this thing.”
See what I mean? It’s a love affair, and just wait till it gets serious. Wait till Broncos Country finds out for real what it has in Risner, a 6-foot-6, 312 MAN from tiny Wiggins (pop. 887) born and raised for this job — Broncos offensive lineman. And when I found the love of his life — his own family — up in Section 309, Mom and Dad were still partly in disbelief their (big) baby boy is in orange and blue.
This one time, his dad Mitch says, they hung a couple of 500-watt floodlights in the front yard of their home in Wiggins. The five brothers would tackle, smash and crush each other until 2 in the morning on summer nights. Three of the five boys went on to play Division I football, a wild fact when you consider Wiggins, a Class A program, never had a Division I player till the rowdy Risners rolled in. Mitch Risner is the football coach in Wiggins, up by Fort Morgan in the northeast plains. He’s coached in Wiggins for 20 years. Melinda, the mom of five boys and God bless her for that, is an assistant volleyball coach at Wiggins.
“Still don’t know how we ended up in Wiggins,” Mitch Risner says.
Thank goodness they did. The personal investment Dalton Risner has in the Broncos didn’t show up in his measurables at the scouting combine, didn’t lead him to be a second-round pick out of Kansas State. But I know that stuff matters because we all saw what happened when they didn’t have enough of those guys. 5-11 happened. 6-10 happened. Fired coaches happened. The Broncos had too many business decisions in the locker room, and Risner’s investment can help flip that culture.
Some teams didn't get it. During a one-on-one interview in the predraft process, one NFL scout asked Risner to list his priorities in life. His Christian faith was No. 1 (Dalton considers the platform that football allows to be his greatest gift in life), his family was No. 2. He didn't list football till later, and the scout soon ended the interview.
Now? After seeing how he's attacked this training camp with zest and sweat, I see Risner as a team captain by Year 2 and, soon after that, the anchor of the O-line for the next dozen years. Maybe at guard. Maybe at center. Somewhere somebody must be blocked and reminded who's in charge.
“When Dalton was 10 or 11 he wanted to be a running back,” his dad says. “But you’ve seen him. He’s not a running back.”
Nope. Definitely not a running back.
“When I told him he wasn’t going to be a running back... oh, boy," Mitch Risner says. "He was so pissed he took a football outside and started running full-speed into a tackling dummy. Thud. Thud. THUD.”
Risner lives in ALL-CAPS. Drenched in tattoos. Deer hunts up by Kremmling, God’s country. Wears his heart on his sleeve, like when he slow-walked onto the field at Mile High and flashed a look that said: I can’t believe this is happening. He wasn’t wearing a jersey yet, either, so fans shouldn’t have known who this rookie was. But they knew. They saw the “Wiggins kid” and chanted Risner's name.
“Honestly, it was surreal. I walk out and I’m in the stadium and part of the Denver Broncos,” he says.
And when practice was over — again, this was just a practice, one of 18 in an extra-long training camp for new coach Vic Fangio and the Broncos — he's still overcome with a child’s joy: “I can’t help but smile about it.”
Saturday was the first time Risner’s been “padded up” at Mile High. They’ve attended games before — the 2015 AFC championship game with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, an all-timer — but you can imagine the cost of taking five boys to an NFL game. Not cheap. But Dalton had something else on his mind on Saturday, too. His oldest brother left for Iraq on Friday. Austin Risner was Special Forces Army Airborne. These days he’s in drone technology, so we’re not dealing with slackers here.
“Proud of him,” dad says. “Proud of all of them.”
And Broncos Country will be proud of Dalton Risner.
“Thank you guys so much for coming out,” Risner yells to Chuck Cisneros, the longtime season ticket-holder up in the South Stands. “It means the world to us to have you here, seriously.”
Telling you, a love affair. Dalton Risner and Broncos Country, a match made for Mile High.