One of the things that fascinates me in sport, as well as in life, is the vast number of fans and followers who know everything.
But a lot of that knowledge is gleaned after the fact. There is no limit to the wealth of knowledge we all have using past vision. But keeping our focus on present vision gives us the best peek into the future.
The Denver Broncos Sunday completed their rookie mini-camp, and the players now have a few days off to attend to personal items, finishing school, graduations, and they can begin to come to Denver on a more permanent basis on Wednesday, May 16.
At that time the rookies will begin to assimilate entirely into the Broncos’ off-season program. They go from being a completely new player to being part of a team.
Most of them remain unknown to most fans and media, however. That is completely logical and how it is expected to be, but future success is in no way predicated on how well known someone is now.
When training camp begins so too will speculation as to who will start, who might make the team, and who might be worthwhile of a spot on the practice squad for the start of the season.
The practice squad is the most anonymous roster role that a young National Football League hopeful can have. This is a player virtually unknown to the general public and ignored completely by the media.
However, since the NFL began having official practice squads in 1989, 34 Bronco practice squad members have gone on to become starters here in Denver.
Three of them went on to achieve Pro Bowl status and be vital contributors to world championship teams with victories in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.
Rod Smith, the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, reception yards and reception touchdowns among undrafted free agents, is the poster boy for what an undrafted unknown might accomplish, proof positive that coaches make their field decisions based on what happens on the field, not on who has the thickest set of press clippings or the fanciest wardrobe.
Tom Nalen was not drafted until the seventh round by the Broncos, and in fact they had three seventh round choices back in 1994 and did not choose Nalen until the third of those selections, the 218th overall player selected in the draft. But when he entered the Broncos’ lineup later in 1994, he did not leave it for 15 years.
Fifteen years is a long time anchoring an NFL line at a Pro Bowl level of play, long enough to become so famous that fans and press feel like they always knew his name.
Except they didn’t. Nalen made his first start against the Los Angeles Rams, and I can remember press members laughing to themselves about how he was going to get manhandled by the Los Angeles defense. There was manhandling, all right, but it was Nalen who did it—for 15 years and two big rings.
Dwayne Carswell was a tight end from Liberty University back when nobody had heard of Liberty yet, 1994, but he too made the practice squad—then he made the roster, then he made the starting lineup, and the tight end that players called “House” because he seemed as big as one was a fixture in Denver for 11 years, and he too lifted the Lombardi Trophy twice, along with Smith and Nalen.
Two of those players were completely unknown, with Nalen only having some degree of name recognition because he had gone to a big school, Boston College—but as I said, even he was laughed at once—always a bad action, to say nothing of being downright rude toward a guy who is giving his all.
So now the Broncos move forward as a team, including on that team 30 rookie and first year players who just concluded the mini camp.
Are they well known to Bronco fans? Hardly, aside from the highest drafted members of this year’s class.
But making a name for oneself is tied to making a contribution to a team. The two go together and cannot ever be separated.
For eight straight years an undrafted played has made the final roster in Denver. And as explained above, sometimes they go on to truly great things.
The fame of the name is tied to a future yet to be seen but certain to take place.