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In Defense of Big Dreams

Colorado native Mitch Unrein finally got the chance to be a Bronco—now all he has to do is keep the job.

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You know the type: They’re the “big uglies,” the human tanks, the kind of men who can carry three bills but make it look like two and a quarter. Guys with bear-paw hands and square heads and arms the size of grown men’s thighs. On any given Sunday, the indentations of their belly buttons show through jerseys that look as if they’re two sizes too small. These are men whose names you don’t know but whose physiques give them away. They are linemen. Offensive, defensive—it doesn’t matter. They’re the muscle, the labor, the ignored-by-fans-but-loved-by-coaches supersized humans who don’t get their jockstraps in a twist about the fact that glory rarely comes to those who do not play a skill position.

It would be easy to think physical makeup—genetics that engineer outrageous height, weight, speed, and strength—is the most critical factor in determining who will play the line in the National Football League. And maybe it is. A guy might be the most intuitive defensive tackle who ever stood the line of scrimmage, but if he’s not 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds and can’t run a 4.8 in the 40, he’s not NFL material. So, yeah, DNA matters.

But there’s something else. Lost in the mix of haughty wideouts sporting gold grillz and pretty-boy quarterbacks with supermodel girlfriends is the honest-to-goodness truth that playing in the NFL is a job. A go-to-meetings, show-up-on-time, study-the-playbook, understand-the-competition job. Players who don’t treat it that way, who rely on their prototypical NFL builds or freak-of-nature athletic talents, aren’t going to be employed for very long.

In short, work ethic is nearly as important as genetics. At least, that’s what Mitch Unrein says as he looks out over Grasmere Lake in Washington Park. His 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pound frame makes the green bench he’s sitting on look as if it had been made for a child. His sheer size would be intimidating if the 26-year-old, third-year defensive tackle for the Denver Broncos weren’t so soft-spoken, if he didn’t laugh so easily, if his hazel eyes didn’t give away his earnestness. His pale skin begins to turn pink under the piercing sun, but he hasn’t noticed. He’s too busy talking: about college ball and the pro game. About his hometown of Eaton. About being a second-generation Coloradan. About the industrious parents who taught him the importance of hard work. Football players are notoriously ineloquent, but Unrein has an easy cadence. In 30 minutes, not one sports cliché has slipped past his lips.

What he does disclose is refreshingly candid: “I guess I’m what they call a lunch-pail guy,” he says with a shrug. “I’m tough and competitive, but mostly I show up to work, I work hard, I’m consistent, and I get it done without too much complaint.” He says this in a tone that suggests he’s simultaneously proud of and frustrated by the blue-collar moniker.

By all accounts, Unrein had a solid sophomore season in 2012 with two starts, 20 tackles, and at least two highlight-reel-worthy plays. But playing behind Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson, two of the better defensive tackles in the league, Unrein only saw 280 snaps (most NFL teams average 60 to 65 offensive plays a game). It was enough to show great potential but may have been insufficient to earn him a starting job in 2013. Not that he’s complaining. Unrein is incredibly self-aware: He knows he’s of average athletic talent compared to other NFL players, he’s a bit undersized, and there are few people he could beat in a footrace. He has to put in more hours at the gym than the next guy—maybe even more than newly drafted rookie tackle Sylvester Williams—and, even then, he still may not be first on the depth chart. Unrein is used to that, at ease with being disregarded and underestimated. It’s happened time and again—and not just in the league. Until now, he’s been OK with it because, well, it’s always worked out for him in the end. But with a one-year, $555,000 contract with the Broncos set to expire at the end of this season, Unrein would be being dishonest if he said he didn’t want to give the organization he rooted for as a child every reason to keep him.

Life is different growing up in a house only accessible by dirt road. Long stretches of mud-caked gravel denote a degree of isolation, of self-sufficiency, of a lack of need for creature comforts. Dirt roads separate those who don’t mind being able to see into their neighbor’s kitchen window from those who feel claustrophobic without acres of rolling farmland for a backyard. Mike and Kay Unrein fall into the latter group.

The modest red brick ranch house hugs one corner of three acres of undulating land the Unreins purchased in 1990, when they escaped the too-crowded neighborhood where they had lived in downtown Eaton, population 4,467. Their fondness for wide-open spaces comes honestly. Mike was born and raised by a construction worker dad and a homemaker mom in the Eastern Plains town of Sterling. He had seven siblings. Kay was born in Burlington and reared in Stratton, 150 miles east of Denver. She also was one of eight kids.

So it’s hardly surprising that after meeting in a bar in Sterling and marrying five years later, in 1977, the Unreins remained on the Plains (first in Sterling and then in Eaton) and had six kids: Nicole, Natalie, Michael, Marty, Mark, and finally Mitch, the baby of the family, who as a youngster liked to dress up as either John Elway or a cowboy every day and was somehow saddled with the nickname Pig. “I really don’t remember how it started,” Mark says. “I just know we kept calling him Pig mostly because he hated it so much.”

That’s the way the Unrein house was. No one got a free pass on anything. Don’t like your nickname? Too bad. Got roughed up playing football in the front yard? Shake it off. Not thrilled about having to slaughter a chicken? Suck it up. It wasn’t an unloving home—quite the opposite—and the Unrein kids never wanted for much, but there was precious little coddling. And that was by design. Mike and Kay wanted their kids to be self-reliant, to understand no one owed them anything, and to know they shouldn’t depend on anyone but themselves. Above all, their kids would know the meaning of hard work.

Mike and Kay didn’t just preach; they taught by example. Right out of high school, Mike went to work roughnecking on oil rigs in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, working nearly every week, often for six or seven days straight. He would labor 24 hours a day, sometimes in 50-below temps. Even when the kids were young, the schedule remained the same. Mike didn’t have a choice: The money was good. He had to go where the work was.

That meant Kay took care of the kids by herself much of the time. It was a job no less grueling than being on the rig, but Kay—who was gentle and kind but could still drop the hammer on her ornery boys if necessary—didn’t mind the responsibility. She handled the laundry, the cooking, the shopping, trips to the doctor, visits to the dentist, haircuts, school plays, homework, PTA meetings, birthday parties, sleepovers, boyfriends, girlfriends, and, especially, sports practices. Mike and Kay never pushed athletics on their kids; in fact, they were never allowed to play on expensive and time-consuming traveling or club teams, although they could have. The Unrein kids were all gifted—and extremely competitive—athletes. The girls were swimmers. The boys were wrestlers and football players. None of them would have admitted it back then—Mark will only begrudgingly acknowledge it now—but as Mitch progressed through high school, it became obvious to everyone that he was not only the most adept competitor in his family, but he was also one of the most capable athletes among his peers.

Capable, yes…but impressive? The football coaches at University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University, where Mitch had dreamed of playing on a scholarship, weren’t convinced. Perhaps they were unenthused by his play at linebacker, or maybe they thought he was too small at 215 pounds. More likely they simply overlooked him because he played for a tiny rural high school. Whatever the reason, the youngest Unrein got his first unsavory taste of being unwanted as a high school senior when the state’s two big-time programs failed to offer him a place to play. It was disheartening not just because Mitch loved the game of football, but also because, like his sisters and brothers before him, Mitch was responsible for putting himself through college. A scholarship would’ve meant carrying a significantly lighter debt load after graduating with a criminal justice degree.

Mitch’s sister had swam and two of his brothers had played football at the University of Northern Colorado on small scholarships. Mitch could have followed suit; coaches at UNC were begging him to play there. But he felt he owed it to himself to at least try to play at a Division I school. When the University of Wyoming nudged him to accept preferred walk-on status, a designation that meant he’d play but wouldn’t receive any financial aid, he took it. Just weeks after arriving in Laramie to play for head coach Joe Glenn, the program realized what it had in Unrein and promised to scrounge up scholarship money for the Colorado kid’s red-shirt freshman season.

Unrein played brilliantly—mostly at defensive end—for a subpar Wyoming program that went 22-27 during his tenure. As his father Mike says: “Mitch became very familiar with the agony of defeat—and it wore on him a bit.” His senior year, however, was less of a downer. Although Unrein’s tackles total was significantly lower than in his junior and sophomore seasons—probably because of a nagging injury Unrein didn’t disclose to anyone but his defensive line coach—the Cowboys earned a trip to the New Mexico Bowl, where Unrein was named defensive MVP in a 35-28 double-overtime win. It was an unexpected exclamation point on a college career that wasn’t often flashy or victorious, but that was successful enough to make Unrein believe he might have a shot at playing on Sundays.

Of course, less than two percent of NCAA football players go on to the NFL. For a guy who was underrecruited out of high school and played defensive line in a midmajor college conference, the percentages were probably even worse. But people were talking about him. There was chatter around the sports agent water cooler that there was a sleeper in Wyoming—a kid who loved the game, who could flip the switch on game day, who was a relentless worker, and who had a remarkable capacity for enduring pain.

Unrein didn’t talk with his family much about his aspirations to play pro ball, but he discussed them at length with his Wyoming teammate and roommate Danny Dutmer, a one-time NFL hopeful himself. “Mitch was a humble guy,” Dutmer says, “but he wanted it. I knew he wouldn’t just give it up.” Unrein did want it—but he also knew what he didn’t want: to end up in the oil business like all three of his brothers had after college. And he really didn’t want to end up busting his ass on an oil rig—a job his then 60-year-old father couldn’t seem to shake. “Mitch came with me out to the rig one year over his spring break,” Mike Unrein says, chuckling at the memory. “I remember him saying he needed to practice harder so that he wouldn’t have to roughneck.”

Working a rig became a more realistic possibility, however, when Unrein went unselected in the 2010 NFL draft. Although he had interviewed with teams such as the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears leading up to the draft and taken dozens of calls from seemingly interested organizations during the latter rounds, Unrein found himself a rookie free agent on April 25, 2010. Unrein’s agent, Sunwest Sports’ Frank Bauer, told his young client not to worry, that being a free agent was not a catastrophe. Big names like John Randle, Kurt Warner, Arian Foster, Tony Siragusa, James Harrison, Tony Romo, Victor Cruz—all those guys were at one time undrafted rooks. Days later, it looked like Bauer had been right. On May 7, Unrein became a Houston Texan with a $7,500 signing bonus. But the contract was short-lived: Unrein didn’t make the 53-man roster or the eight-man practice squad. By mid-August, he was living back at his parents’ house in Eaton.

Mike and Kay say they would’ve given him a week or two to lie on the coach and wallow, but within days their 23-year-old son had gotten a job—cleaning residential sewer lines—that would pay the bills but still allow him enough time for training, which his agent told him was critically important. Unrein also began assisting his old high school football coach, Kevin Ross, with Eaton’s 2010 squad. It was a productive and feel-good way to pass the time until Bauer could find an NFL team that needed a practice-squad guy, something the agent was certain would happen at some point that fall. Unrein was less confident: He had begun to entertain the idea that the dream was over. He was disappointed but pragmatic. Football was the career he had always wanted, but he knew he could find another line of work.

On the morning of October 19, 2010, Unrein was getting ready to hit the gym when his cell phone rang. He missed the call. When he had time to listen to the message a few minutes later, he realized how critical the call had been. The message was from Bauer: The Denver Broncos wanted Unrein in the Mile High City for a physical in just under two hours. He packed an overnight bag, called his sister, Natalie, who was living in Denver at the time, and pointed his old Pontiac Grand Prix south on I-25. Less than 24 hours later, Unrein had gone from cleaning sewers and volunteer coaching high school kids to being a practice-squad signee, donning number 96, and lining up against guys like Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Knowshon Moreno, Chris Kuper, J.D. Walton, and Zane Beadles at Dove Valley. The kid who grew up in Colorado and pretended to be ol’ No. 7 had lived up to his own expectations. He was a Denver Bronco.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Rudy, you have an idea of what it’s like to be on a football practice squad. You also probably know that, unlike the Hollywood version, it’s a punishing existence that rarely, if ever, ends with a Rudy Ruettiger–style, carry-him-off-the field celebration. For Mitch Unrein, however, it was the chance he’d coveted. In the second half of the Broncos’ 2010 campaign, Unrein played the line, endured brutal hits, and got back up in the name of getting Kyle Orton and the rest of the active roster guys ready for opposing defenses. Practice squad players go to every organized team activity (OTA), watch all of the film, run all of the special teams reps, and participate in all of the lifting sessions, but their pay is considerably lower (in 2010, the minimum pay was $5,200 per week), they don’t accrue credited seasons that count toward retirement, and they aren’t allowed to play in games. Still, there are upsides: As a rookie, time on the practice squad allowed Unrein to learn the defensive tackle position, fine-tune his technique, and begin catching up with the accelerated speed of the pro game.

Practice squad players don’t experience the pressure of Sundays—but they deal with a different kind of stress. These men are playing to win a livelihood. Their sole goal is to make the following year’s 53-man active roster, and they know they’re being evaluated every day. The game of football takes an obvious physical toll, but the uncertainty of the career path can exact an emotional toll that’s equally taxing. Fortunately for Unrein, the improvement and consistency he displayed as a practice squad signee and during OTAs and summer camp before the 2011 season compelled head coach John Fox and company to put him on the active roster for a team that would ultimately go into the second round of the playoffs with Tim Tebow under center.

Unrein played in 14 games and made eight tackles during the 2011 season, but he rarely saw more than 10 plays per game. Still, he was improving. And after having experienced the sensation of running out of the tunnel at Sports Authority Field at Mile High dressed in home orange, Unrein was determined to increase his on-field presence. So when the defensive staff asked Unrein to put on 15 pounds of lean mass in the offseason, he did exactly that.

The added bulk worked. Going into the 2012 season, his second full year on the active roster, Unrein felt stronger and more capable—and it showed. Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers regularly rotated him in on the defensive line in the first weeks of the season. And other coaches—offensive coaches—began to take notice of Unrein’s abilities as well.

It started out simply enough: The O-line coaches wanted number 96 to line up for an extra push on goal-line plays. Maybe give Peyton Manning some extra space and help Willis McGahee find the end zone. Plus, coach Rodgers, who says he’s pretty sure Unrein would go in at wide receiver if someone asked him to, didn’t mind his tackle playing both ways. He knew it was important to Unrein to contribute to the team—and that’s difficult for any coach to refuse. But then tight ends coach Clancy Barone asked a question the young defensive tackle wasn’t expecting: “Can you catch, kid?”

“I just said, ‘Yes,’ ” Unrein says. “But, really, I had no idea if I could catch.” His hands didn’t fail him when the team rehearsed what became known as the Cowboy Package, in which Unrein lined up as a fullback and slipped through the unsuspecting defense to catch a short-yardage pass. “I made sure to catch everything Peyton threw at me in practice,” he says. “Then I’d take more throws from Brock Osweiler and Caleb Hanie after that.”

It was never really clear to Unrein whether head coach John Fox would call the play in an actual game—until there was 8:56 left in the first quarter of the December 2, 2012, contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “They called the play,” Unrein says, “and I just kinda looked around like, Really? The one where I go out and catch the ball?” No one had time to answer his quizzical look. Unrein says the play happened so quickly he didn’t have time to get nervous before the ball was snapped.

The Fox Sports announcers immediately noticed Unrein had lined up as “an extra lineman for blocking” for first and goal from the one-yard line. The Bucs’ defensive end and linebacker also clearly thought Unrein had been brought in as a fullback to block for a running play. The two defenders bit hard on the run, allowing the 305-pound fullback to bounce off the DE, rumble out to the left, and find the front corner of the end zone at Sports Authority Field. An uncharacteristic duck of a spiral from quarterback Peyton Manning hit Unrein in the hands, and after taking four or five baby steps to make sure he was inbounds, the kid from Eaton spiked the ball. Joel Dreessen, Zane Beadles, Ryan Clady, and Virgil Green joined Unrein in the end zone as did Manning, who gave the second-year player a high five and a helmet bump before handing him the ball and telling him “nice job.”

In a moment that big men everywhere celebrated—and envied—Unrein captured a bit of the glory that so often escapes the hard-working boys in the trenches: He became the first defensive lineman in the history of the Denver Broncos to catch a touchdown pass. “I kinda wish I’d done a little dance,” Unrein says, laughing at the thought of it. “I was so excited I didn’t know what to do. It’s probably just good I didn’t embarrass myself.”

The AFC divisional playoff game on January 12, 2013, hadn’t gone exactly to plan. Despite the fact that more than 76,000 fans had withstood temperatures cold enough to freeze a beer, and despite the fact that late in the fourth quarter Denver appeared ready to send Ray Lewis into retirement, the Broncos let the fairy-tale season slip away. The air in the blue-and-orange-clad locker room after the final seconds ticked away in the 38-35 double-overtime loss was heavy with tension. The muted sounds of men showering and dressing, mostly without talking, were punctuated by sporadic outbursts of anger. Unrein was heartbroken by the loss—not because he had played poorly (he hadn’t) or because he didn’t know what it was like to lose (he certainly did), but because he had never before been part of a team with such chemistry and talent. He had truly believed they were going to the Super Bowl. When he finished dressing, he walked out into the hallway in the belly of the stadium. His sister and brother were there waiting for him, ready to console him with a hug—and a trip to La Loma, a Mexican restaurant near Sports Authority Field Unrein likes to visit after games.

Before they left the stadium area though, they made a stop at the family tailgate. Most players don’t visit the parking lot on Sundays, but Unrein makes his way there before and after most home games. Why? Because at every game held in Denver, including those played in subzero weather, number 96 has a huge contingent of tailgaters. With seven aunts and uncles from both sides of his family—and all of their spouses and kids and their kids’ kids—as well as his five siblings and their families, the parking lot cookout is a well-attended affair. In fact, Unrein has so much family in Colorado—he estimates the number could be in the hundreds stretching from Brighton to the Kansas line—that his jersey is one of the few, if not the only, nonstarters’ jerseys being sold in the Broncos team store at Sports Authority Field.

Although his jersey hangs next to Peyton Manning’s, he shares the field with Pro Bowl defenders like Champ Bailey and Von Miller, and Broncos defensive line coach Jay Rodgers says he would trust Unrein’s play in any situation, Unrein is mostly still in awe of his position. He sometimes can’t help but smile when John Elway sits down with him to have breakfast at Dove Valley and asks about Unrein’s girlfriend of more than two years, Corey Cogdell, an Olympic bronze medal–winning trapshooter who trains in Colorado Springs. Unrein has to pinch himself when he looks at the Tampa Bay game ball, signed by Manning, which sits atop his trophy case in the condo he rents in Englewood.

That’s probably because Unrein still just thinks of himself as a guy from Eaton. He still has dinner with his old high school football coach Kevin Ross. He likes to play golf but says he isn’t very good so he usually just plays at a little par 3 near his condo. He took his first-ever extended vacation during this past off-season, but he doesn’t like missing too many days of training. He sends gently used cleats and gloves from his teammates to Eaton High School’s football team, and last year he secured some old gym equipment the Broncos were going to donate for the school’s weight room. He does signings and appearances and shows up on a few local billboards for the Weld County Garage, a dealership in Greeley that gave him a new GMC pickup to drive in return—otherwise, Unrein says, he’d just be driving the old Pontiac he got right before leaving for college.
The humility Unrein projects is just who he was raised to be: an easygoing kid from a blue-collar family who never took anything for granted. But it would be a mistake to think Unrein doesn’t aspire to break free of that anonymous lunch-pail-player label someday. Not to change his workmanlike ways or to be someone he wasn’t taught to be, but to see that work pay off with a multiyear contract.

With the first of four preseason games on August 8 and 16 regular season games stretching out ahead of him, Unrein wants to live up to the team’s expectations. He knows he’ll need to produce in a big way—with consistency on the run, proficiency against the pass, and 30 or so tackles with a sack or two—to do that. If he doesn’t, Unrein understands his days with Denver—who would have to sign him to a multiyear contract or pay him more than $2 million for one year as a fourth-year player—could be numbered. Unrein says he would rather be here in Denver, live near his family, and play as a Bronco forever. It would hurt, he says, if that couldn’t happen. But if his contract runs out and Denver can’t keep him, Unrein will simply go where the work is. “It may not be in Denver,” he says. “But if I can make a living in this job—if you can even call it a job—I’ll go wherever I need to go to do that.”

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