Denver Broncos legend Karl Mecklenburg was kind enough to spend the better part of a spring morning talking with PSC about his career, the state of the Broncos past and present, and more. This article (the 700th article to grace these fine pages!) is the first of two. In this first installment, Karl talks about his career as a Bronco. In the second piece, he gives us his opinion on the Tebow drama, the Manning signing, and the future of the Broncos, as well as a bit about what he’s up to in Denver now. Click here to read the second part of our conversation with Karl.
There are some athletes whose careers begin with a bang – hype and promotion, pomp and circumstance. On a rare occasion, those same careers end with the same revelry with which they began. Most often, however, the career that starts with the most recognition fizzles out, slipping away into the darkness, devoured by the neverending churn of the sports news cycle.
But the stories we remember, the ones whose central figures leave an indelible impact on the game and the community, are the ones that start more inauspiciously. There are players who don’t get taken in the first round, who don’t get all the hype, who don’t even get a call from the head coach on draft day, instead getting the congratulations from the team secretary in the middle of the night long after the sports world has gone to bed.
Such is the case for Karl Mecklenburg. Drafted with the 310th pick overall, the Broncos waited until the 12th round to take a player who had been told by the Atlanta Falcons he was likely to be their mid-round choice. But draft days don’t always happen as planned, so when the Falcons took defensive end Mike Pitts from Alabama with their first pick (16th overall) and defensive back James Britt from Louisiana State with their second round pick, then followed that with a nose tackle and a linebacker, suddenly it becomes clear that the team’s defensive plans were going in another direction. In 1983, there was no draft day wall-to-wall coverage. There weren’t websites tracking every move, there weren’t even cell phones to receive texts– if you were waiting to be drafted, you were at home, waiting by the (corded) phone, your very future hanging on the balance of that vintage bell and coiled cord. For Mecklenburg, once midnight passed, the celebratory-turned-consolatory drinks long consumed, the anticipation gave way to sleep. It was then that the phone finally rang, but there was no general manager on the phone. No head coach. It was the Broncos team secretary, waking Mecklenburg from a restless sleep to give him his congratulations and informing him that his airline tickets would be sent overnight so he could make the next day’s press conference.
It was a long wait, but Mecklenburg knew he had the skills to make it at the NFL level. “I knew I could rush the passer,” says Mecklenburg. “One of my college coaches said that if you can rush the passer, there’s a place for you in the NFL.” When that place turned out to be the Mile High City, the course of his career was set.
The Broncos had Mecklenburg on their radar thanks to the sharp eyes of the scouting department. While reviewing tape of their eventual first round pick, Chris Hinton, they saw Mecklenburg, who happened to have a pretty good game against Hinton. So while the tape was of an offensive lineman, the man they really took notice of was a defensive lineman from Minnesota. Of course, Hinton was drafted in the first round with the fourth overall pick by the Broncos, who then traded him to Baltimore for a hotshot young quarterback named John Elway. The Broncos draft that year didn’t yield a ton of names that today’s Broncos fans remember (former backup QB and current Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak was taken in the 8th round), but it was a draft that would change the course of history for the franchise, both due to the Hall of Famer and future team Vice President at the top, and the hard-working, extremely talented defender taken at the bottom.
So while the eyes of the NFL and the Denver fans were focused solely on Elway and the drama surrounding the trade from Baltimore, Mecklenburg was trying hard to prove he belonged in the NFL. As the preseason of his rookie year approached, an elbow ligament injury left his chances of making the team in doubt. Rather than take him out of the first preseason game entirely, they simply moved him from nose tackle (a position requiring both arms to be mobile) to defensive end, where he could play with one arm mostly immobilized. “Back then, if you were on the bubble to make the team and you were injured, you landed on injured reserve. There was no practice squad, the injured reserve players were the practice squad.” In that first preseason contest, he recorded two sacks and a forced fumble against Seattle’s starting offensive tackle, and was recognized by the coaching staff as defensive player of the game. “That game got me on the team.”
Mecklenburg’s career from that point forward was filled with highlights as he cemented his reputation as a tough, versatile, hard-hitting linebacker that could attack from any defensive front position. In fact, he played all 7 defensive front positions, often in the same game. “No one ever really did that, and no one does it now. Joe [Collier, Defensive Coordinator] would move me to the point of attack.” It was this, Mecklenburg emphasizes, that demonstrates how talented the Broncos defenses were in the 80s. “Not only did I have to know all those positions, but every time I moved it meant someone else had to move too, so all of us had to know other positions. You have to know the different footwork at each position, how to read the play from each position. We had over 100 different schemes plus adjustments. We had a good group of bright players.” Not only did these defenses have to know how to adjust, they were playing for a coordinator in Joe Collier that was about outguessing, outscheming, and outcoaching his opponents, which meant a multitude of situational adjustments that changed week by week for any given game plan. “You had to have a good memory, but also you had to be good at forgetting.”
Mecklenburg, as well as many of his teammates, have been mentioned in Hall of Fame consideration. As good as those defenses were, and as much as Denver’s best teams are remembered for the defensive prowess, Canton still remains void of any Bronco players from the defensive side of the ball. “That’s not right.” Mecklenburg says, shaking his head. “We have the body of work defensively, we have guys that should be there.” Karl got to see first hand some amazing players, none of whom get any real consideration when Hall of Fame voting comes around, players like Dennis Smith, Steve Atwater, Tom Jackson, and Randy Gradishar top the list of some of the top defenders to wear the orange and blue – together with Mecklenburg forming a list of defensive players that were among the best ever to play, but will likely never get recognition in the halls of Canton, Ohio.
This is part one of a two-part article. In the second part, Karl tells us what he’s up to now, and what he thinks about this whole Peyton Manning thing.
In the meantime, enjoy this little compilation of Denver Broncos defensive gems – there’s a great little package of Mecklenburg tackles starting at about 0:50.