In our Broncos Legends series, we're revisiting the careers of some of the best players in franchise history with video highlights and rarely seen photos — and they'll join us to break down their favorite moments as a Bronco and more. Here's a refresher on Karl Mecklenburg's time in Denver.
On the night of the 1983 NFL Draft, Karl Mecklenburg went to bed expecting to start planning the next steps in his medical education.
The University of Minnesota defensive lineman had joined the team as a walk-on transfer from Augustana College in South Dakota, and though he had decent stats in his final college season, he didn't draw NFL attention. Perhaps it was because scouts mistakenly entered his height two inches lower than it truly was; maybe it was how Minnesota's 3-8 record and poor run defense didn't play to Mecklenburg's strengths as a pass-rusher; maybe it was because teams couldn't figure out whether his size lent more to playing on the defensive line or in the linebacking corps.
Regardless, it added up to not getting a phone call from an NFL team before his bedtime, so Mecklenburg assumed he'd continue his pre-med education track. Then, in the middle of the night, he awoke to a call from a secretary for Broncos head coach Dan Reeves telling him that he had been drafted in the 12th and final round.
Though Mecklenburg had largely slipped through the cracks because of his physical stature, the Broncos were intrigued by his versatility and his smarts, as Mecklenburg had the highest score in the NFL’s intelligence test given to college seniors that year.
"When you do all your tests to find out how he measures up, Karl will always be No. 12," Minnesota coach Joe Salem said. "But when the game's over, he's No. 1. He just plays better."
Eventually, the Broncos learned that not only was Mecklenburg one of the smartest players, but the concerns about his position meant little. The "Albino Rhino," as he was known, was strong enough to hold his own on the line while also being also quicker than most lineman; and he was also fast enough to play linebacker while also being stronger than most linebackers.
An elbow injury derailed his rookie season, but when he got back in, the Broncos began to find ways to best utilize his skills. That meant not settling to play him at any one particular position, and in the process, defensive coordinator Joe Collier discovered the team had a weapon unlike almost any other.
In 1985, Mecklenburg truly came into his own. He logged a 13-sack season, including two four-sack games, as he was named to his first career Pro Bowl and earned his first-team All-Pro nod.
Mecklenburg continued to have the same unique role even when the Broncos changed defensive coordinators, and with Wade Phillips leading the defense for the first time in 1989, he returned to form after an injury-shortened season to claim his fourth Pro Bowl and third first-team All-Pro selection.
Against the odds, the former 12th-round pick had become a bonified star. Mecklenburg had made six Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team All-Pro, and he helped Denver reach three Super Bowls during his career.
"I do believe that maybe the chips were stacked against me," Mecklenburg said. "But maybe I believed in myself more than anyone else. A lot of people gave me no chance to play pro football. I figured, I'll show them. I'll show them I can play at least a couple of years, just long enough to earn money to go to medical school."
But by the time he called it quits after 12 seasons, there was no need nor any time for that.
"Denver was a great place to play," Mecklenburg said after his final season. "I really enjoyed it. I got to accomplish all I could individually, and we got to accomplish almost everything you could as a team."
2001 Ring of Fame inductee, Broncos Top 100 Team selection, first-team Broncos 50th Anniversary Team selection, three first-team All-Pros, six Pro Bowls, three Super Bowl appearances, seven postseason appearances, five division titles, retired as franchise's all-time sack leader (now third), only Bronco with two four-sack games
Stats to know
Career stats: 180 games, 141 starts, 1,118 tackles, 79 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries, five interceptions, two defensive touchdowns
In his own words
"One of the things I talk about in my presentations is decisiveness — the courage to be decisive. I was a 12th-round draft choice; nobody expected me to make it, because height, weight, 40[-yard-dash] time, I didn't match up. But I found out early on in my career if you could take the first step in the right direction before anybody else did, all the angles would change in your favor. The tight end couldn't pin you in, the guard couldn't cut you off, a fullback couldn't keep you from getting to the line of scrimmage. Everything changed. And that was really my career. It was based on that. Joe Collier was an amazing guy. I was drafted, like I said, as a 12th-round draft choice [and] I was drafted as a nose guard. I was a 240-pound nose guard, and they don't last. I got hurt right away, and so they moved me out to defensive end and I made the team as a third-down pass-rusher.
"Two years later, Joe — and Myrel Moore, at the time, was the linebacker coach and Stan Jones was the defensive line coach — the three of them got together and said, 'You know, I think Karl is actually a linebacker. We should move him to linebacker.' I switched to linebacker, I made the Pro Bowl my first year as an All-Pro linebacker. But I also still played defensive end. I played defensive tackle. I played on the left, I played on the right. And then all of a sudden they move me to outside linebacker when they had matchup issues out there. There were games I played all seven defensive front positions. And that's something nobody's ever done before and probably will never do again. Everybody else had to know two different positions, too. You had to have the right group of guys who were smart enough; you had to have the coach that really identified something in an individual that he was trying to take advantage of.
"And Joe moved me all over the place, and what a great opportunity. As a defensive guy, you want to be where the ball is going, right? And that's where Joe tried to put me. 'We think this team runs right all the time, so you're going to play on the right side all game this week,' and then the next week, 'That team runs to the strong side all the time, so we're going to put you on the strong-end side linebacker.' They just moved me around depending on the opponent and what the challenges were that week."
Three games to remember
Week 2, 1985 season: Broncos 34, Saints 23
You can call it Meck's flu game. Despite fighting the illness, Mecklenburg logged his first four-sack game. The Broncos jumped out to an early lead, which helped Mecklenburg and the rest of defense. But you don't just get four sacks on luck, though Mecklenburg may have felt so at the time.
"They can't seem to block him and they can't seem to find him where we put him in our normal defense, and that's where he's helping us right now," said Moore, the linebackers coach, "As long as we can keep getting big plays out of him in the variety of positions we play him, we're going to keep doing it."
Week 13, 1985 season: Broncos 31, Steelers 23
In this second four-sack game, archived newspaper articles tracked Mecklenburg as playing seven positions — nose tackle, both defensive end spots and all four linebacker positions — and he also had two forced fumbles, in addition to his four sacks.
"It seemed like there was a whole army of Mecklenburgs out there," Steelers coach Chuck Knoll said after the game.
Week 13, 1987 season: Broncos 31, Patriots 20
As a multi-positional dynamo, Mecklenburg wasn't just a sack machine. In this game, he helped power a second-half comeback with two interceptions. After falling behind 17-3 at halftime, the Broncos got within a touchdown early in the third quarter. Then, Mecklenburg made his first interception; six plays later, the game was tied. Later in the fourth quarter, he snagged his second pick as New England looked to bounce back from a pick-six on their previous possession. It would not result in points, but it would help the Broncos bleed the clock to the point that a comeback was practically impossible.
Flip through photos from Karl Mecklenburg's Broncos career.