ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- At times, he was at a loss for words. At others, he couldn’t keep from smiling.
As defensive tackle Mitch Unrein sat at his locker and talked about his spot on the 2011 Broncos 53-man roster, it was obvious the reality of his accomplishment was still setting in.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Unrein said. “I grew up here in Colorado and never thought that I’d be playing for the Broncos when I got older. When I came in that morning of cut day and I didn’t get called up, I realized I had made the team… it was just great.”
Few, if any, believed Unrein -- a self-proclaimed “underdog” – would ever have a locker to call his own in the National Football League.
College coaches overlooked him when he graduated from Eaton High School and eventually walked on at the University of Wyoming.
But once he arrived on campus, Unrein began to make a name for himself as a defensive end, earning a scholarship after his redshirt freshman season and finishing his collegiate career with 156 tackles and 10.5 sacks.
NFL coaches then overlooked him once he entered the NFL Draft as he eventually signed as a college free agent last year with the Houston Texans for the preseason. The Broncos later signed Unrein to their practice squad, where he would spend the entire 2010 season adjusting to the speed of the game and gaining strength.
Unrein entered the Broncos’ 2011 training camp hoping for a chance to prove himself worthy of a roster spot yet again.
And with the Broncos thin at defensive tackle to start camp, the coaching staff tried Unrein at nose guard. It was an opportunity Unrein knew he needed to take advantage of.
“I never thought I was going to be playing nose or anything like that, but when we were down in numbers at the beginning of camp I started doing pretty well at nose guard,” Unrein said. “So they kept me there and that just built confidence for me.”
Unrein began to feel like he belonged. His confidence grew as he refined his technique and continually progressed throughout camp.
“I had confidence going in to this training camp playing on the practice squad last year,” Unrein said. “I know I can play at this level.”
The Broncos coaching staff and front office believed that to be true.
Unrein was named to the active roster, defying the odds once again.
“Obviously we thought enough of him to make him a part of the team,” Head Coach John Fox said. “I don’t know what people on the outside expected, but he was evaluated just like everybody else that got a spot and we think he deserves a spot on the team.”
Unrein made the team, now he needs to make it count.
“I still have a long ways to go and there is no getting around that,” Unrein added. “But hard work is the reason I made it this far so I’m just going to keep a clear head and work as hard as I can.”
That’s been the formula for success for Unrein – work as hard as possible and let the rest fall into place.
Now a former Wyoming walk-on is getting ready to suit up for his childhood team on Monday Night Football against the Raiders.
“It hasn’t really set in that I’ve made the active roster yet,” Unrein said. “I know running out of the tunnel on Monday night – that’s when it’s really going to hit me.”
“I’ve come a long way,” he added with a smile. “Hard work does get you places.”