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Ring of Famer Nalen Now Has Plenty to Say

Posted May 23, 2013

Tom Nalen, for years a silent part of the Broncos offensive line, opened up Thursday after being elected to the Broncos Ring of Fame.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A decade ago, the phrase "Tom Nalen press conference" made sense -- about as much as "Equatorial Guinea, World Cup champions" or "the Bahamas have nuclear weapons."
 
Nalen didn't talk publicly for most of his career. Like most of his fellow Broncos offensive linemen of the day, he preferred to let his play do the talking. But now, chatter is his business for three hours a day on the radio -- and, Thursday, for a 28-minute press conference that was equal parts thoughtful, wistful, bold and comic.
 
"I needed to save it all. Spew out," he said.
 
Nalen and the Broncos' offensive linemen took their silent cues from long-time position coach Alex Gibbs, who returns to the club as a consultant this year. It will be his first time with the Broncos since 2003, and he will return to a town in which he can hear Nalen and fellow pupil Mark Schlereth on the radio for three hours a day.
 
Silence is no longer golden.
 
"I can guess what (Gibbs') thoughts are: 'Sellout. Hypocrite.' All that good stuff," Nalen said.
 
There are limits to Nalen's loquacious side. He expects they'll be on display when he is inducted into the Ring of Fame at halftime of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 29. There's a massive difference between speaking to thousands of unseen listeners via radio and looking up at three tiers of packed grandstands.
 
"I'm pretty sure -- I’m hoping -- that there won’t be 76,000 fans there. Hopefully they’ll be getting a beer when I’m speaking for 12 seconds or so," Nalen said. "I’m not looking forward to that at all, no. I think I’ll put my helmet on and feel much more comfortable."
 
Nalen is headed for the Ring of Fame because no one was ever more comfortable as the Broncos' center, starting for 13 years of his 15-season career. Only three of his years ended with losing records, but the frustration of coming up short one year after another after winning a pair of Super Bowls in his fourth and fifth season still rankles him. "It sucked," he repeated multiple times Thursday.
 
No season bothers him more than 2005, when the Broncos went 13-3 and fell to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. But he left the game after the 2008 season with no regrets and two Super Bowl rings. He wasn't going to hang around in mad pursuit of another. 
 
"Greek (Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos) and I tried to do everything we could to get me back on the field  throughout training camp. Three weeks into the season they finally put me on (injured reserve)," Nalen said. "The doctors had told me my knee's not going to get better. So I started losing weight. I was still rehabbing. I was doing cannonballs in the pool in there. By November, Greek's like, 'Dude, you don't even need to come anymore.' And I was like, 'Sweet!'
 
"I was done. I was old. I was 37-years-old. D.J. Williams was 22-years-old — he was closer in age to my daughter than he was to me, which is scary. But I was ready to retire."
 
Nalen was drained as much by the mental rigors as the physical ones.
 
"I'm just sitting in the room taking orders and running the same damn plays I've been running for 14 years. I was sick of meetings," he said. "The best time I ever had was after meetings, after the day was over, Matt Lepsis, Cooper Carlisle, Ben Hamilton and I would go into the room over there and play (NFL) Blitz for an hour, as opposed to going home to see our families. That was fun. But the meetings and all were a grind. I was ready to be done."
 
Retirement has been kind to Nalen, whose presence remains commanding, even with a trimmer frame. He worked as an offensive line coach at Denver South High School and later worked at Aurora Central. He also spent more time with his family, although he was ready for something beyond the house.
 
"For three and a half years, I did nothing but drive my kids around to crappy sporting events, and coach high-school football," Nalen said.
 
That led him to radio, where all the opinions he kept to himself and his friends and family during his playing career spill out for three hours a day. In Denver, that career also taps into what he knows best.
 
"It's a Bronco town, and you cannot talk enough Broncos," he said. "Despite not much to talk about, you'll take any morsel of information and create a half-hour segment out of it. It's crazy. It's Broncos, Broncos, Broncos, and a little Nuggets, a little bit of Rockies and just a scootch of Avs talk."
 
Radio might not be the destination for Nalen; he says he would like to coach, and has inquired about a coaching internship with the Broncos and with low-level college assistant. But Nalen's aversion to meetings might preclude that.
 
"From a coaching standpoint it's different, though, because you're changing things. To me (as a player), it was always the same," Nalen said. "As a center you just kind of sit there and take whatever they give you. For me, it was always, because I'd been here so long, it was so monotonous every day. It was like that movie Groundhog (Day), that's what I was living every day."
 
That's not the case with radio, where breaking news can throw any plan out the window. You have to think on your feet, something Nalen did well as a player and has translated to the studio.
 
"It's enjoyable in the fact that it challenges me," he said. "It's May 23, what the hell do we have to talk about?"
 
Well, on this day, he can talk about himself: the once silent Ring of Famer who always had plenty to say -- and now has no qualms about doing so.

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