ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Nearly a decade before Phillip Lindsay became the first undrafted offensive rookie in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl, the Colorado native prepared for his first season of high school football.
By then, Lindsay knew he had the talent to succeed at the high school level. He had been playing football since he was 8 years old, and he often ran circles around the opposition.
In the months before his freshman year, though, Lindsay and a few of his future Denver South teammates had the chance to get a head start on their high-school careers.
That spring coincided with the first season of Futures Football, a Broncos-funded program designed to promote football in Denver Public Schools.
The Broncos were recognized Wednesday as a finalist for ESPN's Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year Award, in part for their work with Futures Football.
During his time in the program, Lindsay had the chance to meet his new teammates and begin to learn Denver South's playbook. Lindsay's uncle Tony was South's head coach at the time, so he was already acquainted with the staff. For other students, though, Futures gave them the chance to begin to interact with the staff.
"I got to be around the coaches, and I got to be around my teammates," Lindsay told DenverBroncos.com recently. "We got to grow together and everything else. It just prepared you to get ready for the next level, which was high school football."
Lindsay, a decade removed, still sees the benefit of the program.
"It gives them the opportunity to go in there and be with their new friends," Lindsay said. "It's scary going into high school when you're just sitting in eighth grade getting ready for a new chapter in your life. It gives them an opportunity to jell and bond and kind of get to know their coaches and sets them up for success to at least give them a shot to have a successful high school career."
The Broncos now invest approximately $465 per player each season to cover equipment, uniforms, coaching, training and other costs for the tackle football league.
Lindsay and the thousands of players who have come through the Futures program, though, benefit equally as much from the opportunity.
"I think the biggest thing is some of these kids don't play youth football, some of them do," current Denver South head coach Ryan Marini said. "That part's cool, but the real cool part is they can start becoming our family and our culture before any other eighth grader in the state. Other districts may have feeder teams that have been playing sixth through eighth, but they don't get to interact with the head coach and the varsity staff and the freshman staff like our futures kids get to.
"They come in already part of the family. We have some of our players come out and meet them. They come in in August already feeling like they belong to something."
Since Futures Football began in 2008, high school football participation at Denver Public Schools has grown by more than 25 percent. Some schools have seen as much as 60 percent increase in participation.
The program, which has since expanded to include Aurora Public Schools, now welcomes both seventh and eighth graders and features 17 teams with around 35 athletes per team. The impact of the Futures program, Marini said, cannot be overstated.
"[The Broncos] kind of saved DPS football to a degree," Marini said. "DPS football was in trouble. We just couldn't compete in a lot of ways. The support we've got — and not just the financial support, but the character support and the program support for building programs, not just trying to win games, has been huge from the Broncos. We've had five or six Broncos on South's campus at various times to talk to the kids. No autographs, nothing like that — just character stuff. Stuff that's real and stuff our kids can relate to."
Bobby Mestas, the Broncos' director of youth and high school football, plays a major role in keeping the program running.
"What Bobby Mestas does for us is uncharted," Marini said. "He's like the Godfather of Futures Football. Whenever we need something, if he can't get it for us, he finds a way to get us connected with something."
Lindsay has been among the Broncos players to interact with Futures athletes, as he attended an end-of-year Futures Football banquet in 2019 at Empower Field at Mile High. He has also made visits to local high schools as part of the Broncos' High School Game of the Week community initiative.
"It's important to talk to those kids, because they came from where I came from," Lindsay said. "At the end of the day, I was in the DPS. A lot of times DPS was looked down upon. For those kids, it gives them hope. … At the end of the day, I represent the Denver Public Schools and I represent the Denver kids. That's what it's about."
Marini, who joined South's coaching staff in time for Lindsay's senior year of high school, said he tries to explain that Lindsay's success comes from more than just his speed and natural ability. He also benefits from some of the very same lessons that Futures tries to instill.
"The most important part for me was, 'Hey, guys — there's lot of talented kids out there, but it's everything else about Phil,'" Marini said. "It's his loyalty to DPS, it's his hard work, it's his character, his grades. All these things that we're teaching, that's why he's there. There's a lot of guys who run 4.4[-second] 40[-yard dashes] who aren't in the NFL. The reason Phil's there is because of the things he picked up from his coaches and his teachers."
Even for those who won't eventually pull on a Broncos jersey, those lessons remain valuable.
"This is about school," Marini said, "this is about character, this about the True Man program.
"They learn right away this isn't just about football if you're coming to play for DPS."