For fans, attending an NFL training camp means unique opportunities to see their favorite players up close and to interact with them after practice.
And for Denver tight end Joel Dreessen and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, every interaction with the fans at Broncos training camp means taking a long stroll down memory lane.
Long before Dreessen was catching passes from Peyton Manning. Long before Unrein was corralling NFL running backs in the backfield.
Both players grew up in Colorado – Dreessen graduated from Fort Morgan High School and Unrein was born and raised in Eaton – and both players once sat in the crowd at Broncos training camp as kids with wide eyes, cheering on their favorite players.
“I (went to training camp) all the time,” Dreessen recalled on Thursday after the first day of training camp. “I was one of those people standing at the rope pleading, ‘Come sign this, come sign this!’ I remember (DE) Neil Smith, his first year as a Bronco, he came up and signed for me. I was like, ‘I play defensive end at my school, too.’ He was like, ‘Good luck!’ (laughing).”
Unrein noted that players from the Broncos Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII teams appeared – literally – larger than life for a star-struck youngster who grew up bleeding orange and blue.
“I think the coolest thing was just seeing them in real life: (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) John Elway, (WR Ed) McCaffrey, (TE Shannon) Sharpe, (RB Terrell) Davis, all those guys,” Unrein said. “You see them on TV, but then when you get up close and personal with them when you’re a little kid, you’re like, ‘Man, these guys are massive.’”
Dreessen noted that he first put his driver’s license to use while driving from Fort Morgan to Greeley, Colo. – where the Broncos held training camp until 2002 – which caused no shortage of apprehension from his father.
“My dad was so mad at (my mom) because I had just gotten my license and here she was, letting me drive 60 miles,” he recalled fondly. “So yeah, I definitely went to a lot of training camp practices.”
Indeed, before they were NFL players, they were fans, too.
And for Unrein, each cheer from the crowd, each excited face and each autograph signed is a gratifying reminder of his days looking up to Broncos players – and how far he’s come.
“It’s really cool to just be on the other side of the rope and have little kids looking up to me now,” Unrein said.