ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For Quinn Meinerz, it was the moments before his first practice as a Bronco that made his entrance into the NFL finally feel real.
The feel of his helmet at it cradled his head while he pulled it on, the sounds of Velcro cinching gloves tight or chinstraps snapping into place and the smell of freshly cut grass were all familiar elements that he'd largely missed since 2019, his final college season.
"There's so many different senses that just remind me of playing football," Meinerz said. "It's always a rush to have that."
Meinerz has felt that rush recently much less than any other member of the Broncos' 2021 rookie class. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Division III football season in 2020, and over the past year his only competition in the trenches has come during a brief week in January at the Senior Bowl.
Now, at UCHealth Training Center, Meinerz is back in his comfort zone on the practice field as the Broncos' rookie minicamp enters its second day on Saturday.
"It's always a privilege to get out there and get on the field," Meinerz said. "Going back to college and having my season canceled, the only time I had on the field was the Senior Bowl. So it's always a great experience to be able to jog back onto that field and get ready to play some football."
Like any rookie at this time of the year, Meinerz is fully immersed in the playbook and applying those lessons on the field. While he's started his NFL career on the field practicing at center, he's also learning the two guard positions.
"Right now, all I'm really focused on is learning the playbook," Meinerz said. "That's crucial, and not only learning it from one position. So, yeah, I'm definitely trying to learn it from both guards and from center. As an interior offensive lineman, you're kind of expected to know all three of those positions, so you can slide in. And it not only adds value to myself as a player, but it adds value to the team to where I can gain that trust to be able to play all three positions."
Given that reality, Meinerz said he is not focused on possibly pushing for a starting role but simply learning the position, be relied upon as a teammate and contribute when needed.
"That's kind of something to think about that's kind of selfish right now," Meinerz said. "I've got to get myself up to that level of where the vets are and to be able to contribute. So it's not really, 'Hey, I want to be a starter.' It's, 'Hey, I want to be able to contribute to this team and help them win.' When it comes down to when the veterans get here, I want to be a great practice partner for them as well to help them improve their craft. So something like that isn't really on the radar right now. I'm just focused on this rookie minicamp, taking it day by day. You can't worry about those kinds of things."
When the team unites its rookies with the veterans later during the offseason program, it may still be fairly easy to pick out Meinerz on the practice field from afar even without seeing his No. 77 jersey.
As Meinerz heats up during practice, he usually pulls his jersey up a bit to try to cool off. It's something that fans saw during Senior Bowl week, and with the added difficulty Denver's altitude brings, his "Let the belly breathe" mantra probably will stick around, as long as it doesn't become a distraction, he said Saturday.
"The main purpose behind that is when I start getting hot and I'm starting to breathe pretty heavy, I've got to roll up the jersey," Meinerz said. "As you can tell, the jersey fits a little snug. But it just naturally happens."
In additional to those physiological benefits, it also has already made Meinerz a bit of a fan favorite. And while he hasn't been able to meet many of his fans just yet, he's looking forward to that opportunity.
"I've definitely gotten the love from Broncos Country," Meinerz said. "That's always awesome. To have the fans have your back, as well, is a cool experience. ... You know, I'm not a big social media guy, but to have a lot of messages welcoming me to Broncos Country was really cool. I haven't really been able to have any time to explore the Denver area. I just go to my hotel and study all night, so there will be plenty of time for that later to interact and meet some of the people."
Until then, the smell of the grass, the feel of his helmet and the sound of the practice whistle will be more than enough.
Take a closer look at the action on the field as Denver's rookie class began its minicamp.