ENGLEWOOD — One of the newest Broncos had 13 different workouts for NFL teams just last year.
Thirteen job interviews, 13 chances to crack the code and a roster. And more often (11 times) than not (twice) a team told him he’s not what they’re looking for, or the fit just isn't right. But best of luck, dude, except if you’re playing us.
“There was times when I was going to give up football,” new Denver linebacker Corey Nelson tells me in the locker room at UCHealth Training Center. “I don’t think anybody knows that.”
He also has a Super Bowl ring, the one with 212 diamonds, the one from Super Bowl 50. Stores it in a safe at home, hidden away unless a family member wants to try to it on. It’s a good memory, right down to the tackle next to his name in the box score: first quarter, Brandon McManus kickoff, Nelson tackles Panthers return man Joe Webb. Drops him at the 21-yard-line.
“If they give me the opportunity to do (special teams) I’m willing to do that,” Nelson says.
Survive the NFL car wash like he did — like a whole bunch of Broncos did — and you’ll do anything to make the football dream come true.
This guy is not Von Miller. He’s not Joe Flacco, Emmanuel Sanders, Bradley Chubb, any of the big-money household names who will lead the Broncos into Oakland on "Monday Night Football."
This guy’s hanging on by the cleats tied to his feet, and there’s a herd of those guys on the back end of this Broncos roster — more than we’ve seen here in John Elway’s eight previous seasons as general manager. The Broncos went nuts on the waiver wire and added seven players from other teams, a sure sign Elway and Vic Fangio won’t stop there, either.
After wild, winding roads, their next big shot is here.
“The path’s been hard, but everyone has a different path,” says defensive tackle Mike Purcell, a born-and-raised Coloradan, who’s on a 53-man roster after practice-squad stints in San Francisco, Chicago, Kansas City, New England and Carolina. “Some guys are first-round picks. Some guys are undrafted, like me. Now we’re all on the same playing field. Now it’s all even.”
They’re short-timers praying and believing they become long-timers. Here are three to root for:
Corey Nelson, linebacker
Full disclosure: Nelson’s one of my favorite guys to roll through Dove Valley. Joyful. Faithful. Smile-ful. Five-star husband and dad (to a 3-year-old and 9-month-old, bless it). And last year when he was cut by the Atlanta Falcons — after another injury and 12 days with the team?
“Depression, honestly,” he says. “I was down.”
His response was relentlessness.
“Then I went and had seven more workouts,” he says.
Sure, playing football isn’t roofing. But for most of these dreamers the grind is real and heavy.
“About workout No. 8 I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.’ It was hard,” he says. “But my wife told me to keep pushing. Her mom told me to keep pushing. They told me to trust in God’s plan. I was big on my faith. I just stayed with God. There was times I’d be mad at him. But I always came back to him. If I don’t go with him, it’s going to be a lose-lose situation. With God, you win.”
It spoke to Nelson’s reputation that his return to the Broncos locker room sounded like Peyton Manning was handing out free Papa John’s. Todd Davis invited him to dinner. Von Miller poked fun at his expense (“Same ol’ Von,” Nelson says). Chris Harris Jr. embraced him in a bear hug.
The Broncos need help at linebacker.
“We’re throwing (Nelson) right in there,” Fangio said.
Fingers crossed this time he sticks around.
Diontae Spencer, punt and kick returner
This guy. What a sports story — heartbreaking, yet somehow brimming with hope.
Beloved father murdered in his own barbershop when Diontae was 20. Undrafted out of off-the-NFL-grid McNeese State. Two months with the Los Angeles Rams, then to the Canadian Football League. Signed by the Steelers — the cradle of wide receivers gifted with turbo jets — and cut last week. Boom, the Broncos called.
“I feel like right now is just the perfect time,” says Spencer, a soft-spoken man.
It’s the perfect team for a return man. Not since Trindon Holliday has Denver fielded a punt returner who made you delay a potty break. Spencer had a 113-yard missed field goal return in the CFL. Stranded on struggle island, the Broncos' special teams simply hope he can catch.
“I never thought it would take four years (to make a 53-man NFL roster),” he says.
His next shot comes on "Monday Night Football."
Mike Purcell, defensive lineman
A native knows how to win over Colorado: “What bigger stage than 'Monday Night Football' playing for your hometown team? And it’s the Raiders. I never liked them growing up. Nobody did,” Purcell tells me Wednesday.
Purcell’s route to this roster weaved through Highlands Ranch High, the University of Wyoming, five NFL practice squads, the defunct Alliance of American Football. That’s right: Purcell’s already played 13 games in 2019 (eight in the AAF, all five in the Broncos’ preseason).
“The AAF helped me get here,” Purcell says.
Now it’s on him — and them. The Broncos’ ruthless, open-minded approach to every spot on the roster, down to the 53rd man, shows they will search high and low for the right guys.
"Reality of this business is, some guys get paid, some guys don't get paid," says veteran Shelby Harris, who was cut six times (four by the Raiders) before buying, not renting, in Colorado.
Reality is, these guys don't have contract years.
They have contract days.