ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Derek Wolfe said goodbye to Broncos Country on Friday.
A crowd of 3,270 fans joined Wolfe in the same howl he broke out after each of his 33 sacks as a Bronco. Then Wolfe picked up his 3-year-old daughter and took her on a victory lap in front of the fans, who gave him a standing ovation.
A few hours earlier, the 32-year-old defensive end had announced his retirement from football on Twitter. Around that same time, Wolfe signed a one-day contract to retire a Denver Bronco, after spending the past two years with the Ravens.
While in the building to fill out the paperwork, new Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett invited Wolfe to visit team headquarters whenever he wanted.
“I live just down the street,” Wolfe warned him.
“Come here any day you want,” Hackett said.
“You might get sick of me. I might be finding reasons just to slip over here,” Wolfe said.
Whenever Wolfe decides to swing by, he’ll get a chance to visit the Super Bowl Trophy he played a key part in bringing to Denver. Wolfe found his way into the sack column in each of the Broncos’ final four games of the 2015 regular season, and in all three of the Broncos’ postseason games.
“That whole season, being able to be a part of something like that was really special,” Wolfe said. “All the plays that we made and all the games that we should have lost but won just because we were playing harder than the other team.”
Hall-of-Famer Steve Atwater jabbed Wolfe for not wearing his Super Bowl 50 ring, but Wolfe left it at home for a good reason.
“When I got that ring I just put it away and was like, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll have more, I’ll get more,'” Wolfe said. “That shows you can’t take it for granted. I didn’t even get close again. I tried so hard to get close again but it just never happened.”
Still, one ring is more than most NFL players are able to put on their finger and more than just about every player in the room had when Wolfe spoke with the Broncos ahead of Friday’s practice, the third of training camp.
One message from Wolfe’s talk was to follow the leaders in the locker room. He told stories about his mentors, like Elvis Dumervil, an All-Pro pass rusher for the Broncos who happened to finish his career in Baltimore, just like Wolfe.
Wolfe followed Dumervil everywhere in his rookie season, including to a post-practice lift ahead of the first game of Wolfe’s rookie season. But there was a problem: Wolfe was gassed from practice, and lifting 60-pound dumbbells above his head wasn’t as easy as he expected.
When Wolfe made his debut on Sunday Night Football against the Steelers, stitches held each of his eyebrows together. He still managed to sack Ben Roethlisberger on a third-down just before halftime to knock the Steelers out of field-goal range, and the Broncos came back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win.
In hindsight, this incident was the perfect start to Wolfe’s career. Wolfe’s strength was in his toughness. He was more than willing to instigate a fight. One of the things he’ll miss most after retirement is being allowed to hit people.
“What other job can you go to where it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m pissed at this guy today, so we’re gonna fight in practice?” Wolfe said. “You guys can’t fight each other after you leave here. You’ll go to jail. Here, you get to assault people. And that’s great.”
Not all of Wolfe’s tough-guy stories had a happy ending though.
Wolfe was hit high on a double team and fell to the turf limp in a preseason game in Seattle ahead of his second NFL season. He was put on a stretcher and carried off the field in an ambulance. Wolfe says he didn’t have feeling from the nose down. The injury was later described as a spinal cord contusion, which left Wolfe paralyzed for three hours.
Wolfe missed the preseason finale but wanted to return to the field for the first game of the season.
“They couldn’t give me a straight answer on if something was really wrong,” Wolfe said.
The Broncos beat the Ravens 49-27 to open the NFL season on Thursday Night Football behind an NFL record seven touchdown passes from Peyton Manning.
Wolfe was on the field for the first snap of the game.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
“It turns out I wasn’t getting fresh blood in my brain,” Wolfe said.
Late in the season, before a game against the Chiefs, Wolfe suffered a seizure on the team bus. His heart rate dipped to 12-16 beats per minute. Doctors feared cardiac arrest and induced a coma.
The first words out of Wolfe’s mouth when he woke were a pair of questions.
“Are we in Kansas City?”
“Can I play?”
He was in Kansas City.
But he wouldn’t take the field again that season.
“(My career) was almost taken away from me,” Wolfe said. “I wasn’t in a place financially where I was gonna be taken care of the rest of my life if that happened. It would have been a miserable existence for me; that regret, living with that.”
Injuries became an important piece of Wolfe’s NFL story. After his rookie year Wolfe would only play in every game of a season twice more. There were ankle sprains, elbow breaks and sprains, concussions and neck injuries. If not for the injuries, his nine-year career may have been extended. He could have been lacing up the cleats again this fall.
“Training camp, it’s easy to get complacent,” Wolfe said. “Because you’re just like, ‘Man, this sucks. It’s hot. My body hurts, our feet hurt, my shoes are soggy.’ There’s all these different things that you can complain about. And looking back on the things I used to complain about, it’s like, ‘Well that wasn’t really a big deal.'”
Wolfe has undergone two hip surgeries in the past year and delayed his retirement until he was recovered, potentially so he could take the victory lap with his daughter.
Outside of a nagging back problem, Wolfe thinks his body is in decent shape, considering the wear. He’s lost some of his playing weight.
“Being healthy is a blessing,” he said. “Every day that you’re healthy, just be happy about it.”
For a kid who didn’t have a relationship with his biological father, whose mother struggled with alcohol addiction, whose stepdad was abusive, who couch-surfed his way through high school, who built his body through farmwork in small-town Ohio, who scrounged for cleats in high school and didn’t get a fresh pair until college, who had seven dollars in his bank account when he was drafted, a few bumps and bruises are worth living out a dream.
“If you offered me this deal at 21 years old, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat. No questions asked,” Wolfe said. “I was running from my past. Now I don’t have to run anymore. I get to enjoy the fruits of my labor.”
For Wolfe, that means spending more time with his wife and his daughter, who just turned 3.
“I get to play with her and hang out with her and relish in those moments.”
And a few more trips to Dove Valley, too.