Whenever KJ Hamler returned home to Michigan, the first person he visited was the grandmother who had raised him. He drove her to her hair appointments. They went out to eat. When he wasn’t in town, he called her every Monday.
On January 10, he missed that call.
“There is a lot of regret in my heart from that,” Hamler told reporters on Monday. “It still kind of haunts me to this day.”
Five days later, his grandmother died.
“That was the lowest point of my life, hands down the lowest point of my life,” he said.
The death of Hamler’s grandmother amplified what was already a dark time for the 23-year-old wide receiver.
In late September, Hamler tore his ACL in a game against the Jets. He was in the process of catching a pass 20 yards downfield when a defender jumped on his back awkwardly and hyperextended his knee. He injured his hip in the process, which needed a separate surgery.
The injury knocked Hamler out for the rest of the season.
“The one thing that was the down part of being away from football was that you can’t travel with the team, and you can’t be around the guys,” Hamler said. “I was in the house most of the time. Just being away from the guys, you feel like you’re not a part of the team anymore.”
His teammates called to check up on him, but it wasn’t the same. At one point, he needed to go to the side of the practice field to cry.
“The devil was on my back for awhile,” Hamler said. “I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be on this Earth anymore.”
Hamler checked into therapy. He spent more time talking to his parents and his friends. He thought about the people he would let down if he wasn’t around. He asked himself what his grandmother would want him to do.
“Where I’m at now from where I started—big change,” Hamler said. “I’m proud of myself and I know my grandmother’s proud.”
One of the keys was talking to the people around him about what he was feeling. When Russell Wilson and his wife Ciara arrived in Denver, they became two of those people.
“One time I just talked to Ms. C about life for like two hours,” Hamler said. “They’ve really been a big help and they don’t even know it.”
Hamler returned to the field on Monday after spending the first week of camp on the physically unable to perform list as he recovered from his surgeries. He didn’t participate fully and his availability for the preseason is still up in the air, but he plans to be ready to go for the season-opener in Seattle next month.
“It’s funny because obviously when something like that happens, you’re always really fired up for a guy to be able to come back,” head coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “Then you get to know him, and you really like him. He’s wild. Then you watch him work and you watch him study, and you appreciate it more. Every single step, you appreciate it more and more. I’m definitely cheering for him. I can’t wait for him to get out there.”
As he returns to the field, Hamler is bringing a new attitude with him.
“From my rookie year until now I used to come in kind of groggy and didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I just realized I’m more mature and I’ve grown from that. Just trying to be better. I come here with a smile on my face every day.”
That smile has been one of the bright spots around Dove Valley since Hamler was drafted. He’s a goofy presence. He’s the star of the Broncos’ social media accounts. To hear he was struggling with depression is a surprise.
“I’m living something that I wrote down when I was four years old, a dream,” he said. “Football saved my life.”