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.

August 2013

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.