Wolfe’s howl of pain, rage and – fi­nally – hope

Bron­cos’ top de­fen­sive line­man tack­ling past, get­ting hands on bright fu­ture

The Denver Post - - NFL SUNDAY - By Nicki Jhab­vala

The bar­baric scream is Derek Wolfe’s sig­na­ture, his fi­nal act af­ter bull­doz­ing an of­fen­sive line­man, or two, and then tak­ing down the quar­ter­back. He will emerge from the pile, bend his knees, puff his chest and let out a howl so loud and so de­mand­ing that he can­not be ig­nored.

It is a cel­e­bra­tion and a re­lease — another sack to add to his stat sheet and of rage that has been build­ing since he laced up his cleats and stepped on the field.

“I’m on the verge of wanting to get kicked out of every game be­cause I just want to start swing­ing at peo­ple,” he says, bluntly. “Every game I want to rip off some of­fen­sive line­man’s hel­met and start beat­ing him with it. But I don’t, be­cause it would be detri­men­tal to my ca­reer and my team.”

It’s also a nod to his past and the be­gin­ning of his fu­ture.

In the past two sea­sons The Wolf, as he’s known, has evolved into more than just 285 pounds of pent-up anger, wait­ing to ex­plode. With the de­par­ture of Ma­lik Jack­son to free agency, Wolfe has been the Bron­cos’ top de­fen­sive line­man, im­prov­ing his pass rush to rank sec­ond on the team in both sacks (5½) and quar­ter­back hits (19) while rank­ing among the NFL’s top 3-4 de­fen­sive ends in stop­ping the run.

“He’s been a leader on the de­fen­sive line,” Bron­cos out­side line­backer DeMar­cus Ware said. “Usu­ally you have a guy that sits back, and now he de­mands that men­tal­ity of ‘The Wolf,’ if you want to look at it that way. He plays that way every game. He plays hard. He is a com­peti­tor.”

Coach Gary Ku­biak be­lieves Wolfe has com­piled a Pro Bowl sea­son, no easy feat given the rash of in­juries he has en­dured since the start of train­ing camp.

Man­ag­ing the hurt has be­come a way of life for Wolfe. But his evo­lu­tion off the field has been more try­ing.

“I’m very ac­cus­tomed to pain,” he said. “My whole life has been painful. Phys­i­cally, I could han­dle it. Then I evolved into some­body who could han­dle the men­tal prob­lems, the day-

to-day prob­lems that you have as a hu­man be­ing. Be­cause those are the things that get you.”

Lost and found

It’s 6:15 on a Thurs­day even­ing and Wolfe, fresh off a day of prac­tice, treat­ment, weightlift­ing and film study at the Bron­cos’ prac­tice fa­cil­ity, has ar­rived at Landow Per­for­mance in Cen­ten­nial, a train­ing cen­ter owned by Loren Landow. It has been Wolfe’s sec­ond home the past two off­sea­sons. Sit­ting in the back of­fice, ad­ja­cent to a row of power racks and be­hind a wall that bears his signed and framed No. 95 Bron­cos jersey, Wolfe leans back in a leather chair and re­flects on that time in Fe­bru­ary.

He re­mem­bers the feel­ing when con­fetti rained down at Levi’s Sta­dium af­ter the Bron­cos up­ended the Pan­thers and hoisted the Vince Lom­bardi Tro­phy. He re­mem­bers the pa­rade through the streets of down­town Den­ver days later. He re­mem­bers the grat­i­fi­ca­tion, the cul­mi­na­tion of a process that started at age 7.

“It’s not even about the ring,” he says. “It’s about the ex­pe­ri­ence. Try­ing to re­peat is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult be­cause ev­ery­one’s gun­ning for you.”

And yet he loves it. The pres­sure fu­els him.

“It’s fun when­ever your back is against the wall,” he said. “For me, it’s just nor­mal be­cause for my whole life my back’s been against the wall. It’s ei­ther all or noth­ing with me.”

Some of what Wolfe missed as a kid in Ohio he has gained through football. He didn’t know his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. His mother strug­gled with sub­stance abuse. His re­la­tion­ship with his abu­sive step­fa­ther, who di­vorced his mother, crum­bled long ago. When Wolfe was a teen, he moved in with his friend, whose fam­ily of­fered him shel­ter and sta­bil­ity. The Hop­pel fam­ily raised him, he has said. But his no­madic start shaped him.

“I spent my child­hood in Youngstown, Ohio. In high school we moved to a more ru­ral area, and that whole area, there’s no place like it,” Wolfe says. “There’s no­body built the way that we’re built. … That’s just the way it is. If I can make it out of here, I’m tougher than ev­ery­body else.”

The void of the past is still very much a part of his present. It’s per­haps why he has learned to set goals but not ex­pec­ta­tions: “Those are two dif­fer­ent things in my mind,” he says. “When you ex­pect some­thing, it leads to dis­ap­point­ment.”

It’s why his coaches over the years have been much more: “I wasn’t get­ting told at home, ‘Good job.’ I wasn’t get­ting that love at home,” he says. “My coaches were show­ing me that love. It was like ad­dict­ing to me.”

It’s why, in part, he ac­cepted sig­nif­i­cantly less when he signed a four-year, $36.7 mil­lion con­tract ex­ten­sion with the Bron­cos in Jan­uary.

“Just make sure I’m taken care of and we’ll be fine,” he says. “I don’t live an ex­trav­a­gant lifestyle. All I need is the home that I never had when I was a kid.”

With his fi­ancée, Ab­bie Bur­rows, and her 9-year-old daugh­ter, Ta­tum, Wolfe is con­struct­ing the life he al­ways wanted but never got. Their new home is ex­pected to be com­pleted early in the new year.

“Ab­bie is prob­a­bly the best thing that’s ever hap­pened to me,” Wolfe says. “She makes sure that I’m fed. And that’s huge for me be­cause find­ing food as a kid was not easy. When I’m go­ing through a tough time, if I have an in­jury, she doesn’t baby me. She gives me the love that I need but also gives me the con­fi­dence and mo­ti­va­tion. She’s my best friend. And Ta­tum — if you want to see me get soft, that lit­tle girl brings out the soft side in me.”

Painful mem­o­ries

When times get tough, as they have this sea­son with in­juries, Wolfe’s mind wan­ders back to 2013. In a pre­sea­son game against Seattle, a cut block left him tem­po­rar­ily par­a­lyzed on the field. He was carted off and later di­ag­nosed with a bruised spinal cord. His sopho­more NFL sea­son was lost, as his phys­i­cal frame and men­tal health deteriorated.

That was the only time he couldn’t get a han­dle on the phys­i­cal pain, he says. But even that be­came more of a men­tal ob­sta­cle. As the de­pres­sion set in, he of­ten won­dered if his ca­reer pas­sion had ended.

“You’re like, ‘Am I ever go­ing to play again? The only thing that I’ve ever re­ally loved, that’s ever given any­thing to me is go­ing to be taken away from me,’ ” he says. “I wasn’t go­ing to let that hap­pen. I bounced back from that and here we are.”

The mem­o­ries will never be erased. They of­ten re­turn when the phys­i­cal pain does. He calls them nicks: There was the high an­kle sprain in pre­sea­son that lin­gered, a neck in­jury in the sea­son opener that caused stingers through­out the sea­son, and then the el­bow in­jury in early Novem­ber that forced him to miss one game but could have side­lined him for many more.

And sand­wiched in be­tween was the stress of his mother’s ad­mit­tance to an in­ten­sive care unit, in late Au­gust.

“I think back to my child­hood. I think back to that time,” he says. “When­ever I’m go­ing through any kind of ad­ver­sity, I think, ‘If I made it through that, I can make it through this.’ It was the same thing this sea­son. This sea­son has been tough for me. I’ve been deal­ing with a lot of pain.”

Big­ger than football

The PG-rated ver­sion of “DEFWU” means “don’t ever fool with us.” But the ex­plicit ver­sion is the mantra Wolfe has lived by since he was a fresh­man in col­lege.

It comes from Steubenville, Ohio, he says, a small, blue-col­lar town some 80 miles south of Youngstown that has been rid­dled by drug use, heroin es­pe­cially.

“It’s right by where we grew up,” Wolfe says. “The peo­ple in that Ohio Val­ley are so tough and hard-nosed and they kind of mind their own busi­ness, but when some­one jaws at them, they’re go­ing to fight them. That’s the kind of peo­ple they are. That’s why DEFWU is such a lifestyle for me. It’s big­ger than just football.”

Wolfe’s lifestyle has spawned an ap­parel com­pany, with its sweat­shirts of­ten donned by Bron­cos play­ers. Wolfe is wear­ing one on this Thurs­day, his sleeves rolled up to ex­pose the “WAR­RIOR” tat­too on his right fore­arm. Both are re­minders of his past and his jour­ney out of Ohio, but also of where he’s go­ing.

Last June, Wolfe re­turned to Ohio to ac­cept a life­time achieve­ment award from the Lou Holtz Up­per Ohio Val­ley Hall of Fame. The award af­forded him a chance to talk to Holtz at length, a man Wolfe had idol­ized as a kid. It also gave him a chance to talk to lo­cals who have ex­pe­ri­enced many of the same things he has.

“Get­ting to talk to peo­ple from that area and giv­ing them a lit­tle bit of hope be­cause there’s no hope,” Wolfe says. “There’s noth­ing go­ing for any­body there. Ev­ery­body just wants to be bet­ter, and there’s no out­let to be bet­ter. I think that my story can give any — even if it’s one kid that reads my story and it helps them, that’s great.”

His “Wolfe Pack Foun­da­tion” was formed to help un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren in Colorado and Ohio try to find hope. He re­cently shipped a bag of cleats to his high school coach so his play­ers wouldn’t have to wear the same pair of hand-me-downs for four years like Wolfe did.

His mis­sion, for now, is broad. Wolfe says he wants to help kids in need, and mil­i­tary veter­ans. Af­ter watch­ing those close to him strug­gle with drug and al­co­hol abuse, he wants to open a detox cen­ter in Colorado.

He wants to play a more prom­i­nent role in the move­ment for cannabid­iol re­search and ap­proval by the NFL to give play­ers health­ier op­tions for treat­ment — op­tions that won’t leave them ad­dicted or in greater pain.

“I don’t take opi­oids,” he says. “I refuse to take them be­cause I’ve seen too many peo­ple be­come ad­dicted to it and ruin their lives. I’ve lost a cou­ple of friends to heroin al­ready and it all started with sim­ple things like Per­co­cet and the next thing you know they’re do­ing Oxycon­tin. Then they’re shoot­ing heroin. I don’t ever want to be that per­son be­cause it just de­stroys ev­ery­thing.”

Wolfe’s pain may never fully fade. But it has of­fered per­spec­tive, and a bit of self-aware­ness. It’s not about the start, he says.

“It only mat­ters how you fin­ish. When I’m dead in the ground, no­body’s go­ing to be like, ‘Oh, he signed a $90 mil­lion con­tract,’ ” he says. “But if I can get my name in that Ring of Fame in Den­ver and I can be a key part of this team, then I’ll have a legacy. That’s what it’s about.”

AAron On­tiveroz, The Den­ver Post

Den­ver Bron­cos de­fen­sive line­man Derek Wolfe says, “I’m very ac­cus­tomed to pain. My whole life has been painful.”

Bron­cos de­fen­sive end Derek Wolfe howls to the sky af­ter sack­ing Chiefs quar­ter­back Alex Smith on Nov. 27. John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

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