EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was the cover story in the Gameday program from Aug. 29, when the Broncos took on the Arizona Cardinals. Wolfe was back on the field to start the team's Week 1 win.
Inked on Derek Wolfe's right arm is a ferocious-looking representation of a wolf. Naturally.
"It's my name," he said with a smile. "I'm not going to go get a lion."
It's been there since the start of his sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati. And while he says the motivation for it was merely nominal, it seems to be a fitting representation of a tenacious defensive end constantly hunting down ball carriers with his own pack of teammates on the defensive line.
That pack mentality was never more evident than in the Broncos' second preseason game, when Wolfe was taken off the field in an ambulance.
A hit to the neck, after he had already been blocked to the ground, left the defensive end without much feeling in his extremities.
"It was pretty scary laying there on the stretcher, being numb," Wolfe said. ""Once I got into the ambulance and started moving I could start feeling everything again. I could move everything the whole time, it was just everything felt kind of fuzzy. Obviously when you shock your system like that it has to kind of reboot."
Wolfe said the injury ended up being diagnosed as a cervical strain, but it "looked a lot worse than it was." After all the tests came back negative, Wolfe was able to fly back to Denver with the team.
"They clapped for me when I got on the plane," Wolfe said. "I got yelled at for not giving a 'thumbs up' when I was on the stretcher. 'Wood' (Wesley Woodyard) keeps giving me a hard time about that, the whole time. I was extremely happy to be on the plane with (them). I look at this team as my family so it was good to be there."
With regards to his timetable to return, Head Coach John Fox said that Wolfe was "coming along very well." The defensive end said that "everything is back to normal" and that he's just waiting for the pain to subside before he'll receive another MRI and be cleared to play. He doesn't want to put a timetable on his return, but he didn't shy away from aiming for the club's home opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
And when he's back out there, expect to see the same tenacious play from the lineman that has already made him one of the most important cogs on Broncos defense.
"If you play scared you're going to get hurt again," he said. "So don't count on me playing scared."
In his freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, Wolfe played in seven games as a defensive tackle and picked up three tackles and a sack. After that season, he put a wolf on his arm and started every game between then and the time he graduated with a degree in criminal justice.
Now Wolfe is staring down the start of his second season in the NFL. And it's also his second season under Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Having that continuity from last season has made the offseason and preseason a time for improvement instead of instruction. That's a luxury he wasn't always afforded as a Bearcat as he worked with three different defensive line coaches and two different head coaches in his four years.
"Learning a new defense and new techniques is hard on anybody. It's tough," Wolfe said. "It's better to have those techniques already set in stone. You come in and you already know what they want from you. You can get better, you're not learning again."
Wolfe had an impressive rookie campaign to build on, too. Just like the last three years of his college career, he started every game in the 2012 season. He was fourth on the team in sacks with six takedowns – Von Miller said he probably took four away from him, too – and he registered 40 tackles.
"I thought last year was a really special year for him," Del Rio said during minicamp. "And the refreshing part is that he came back hungry for much more. Not a little bit more, but much more. He really has his eyes set and his heart set on being a great player in this league. He knows he has to work to do that."
Just as soon as rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams arrived in Denver, he knew that Wolfe was the guy he wanted to follow because "he was going to do the right thing."
That's exactly the kind of leader Wolfe said he wants to be.
"The thing I take from him is play hard all the time," Williams said. "He's a hard-nosed type of guy and he gives 100 percent to everything he does. In the weight room, this is the kind of guy that's doing extra reps and some guys are struggling to get all the reps they're supposed to do."
Having been in Williams' position just a season ago, Wolfe has plenty of wisdom to offer the rookie. Wolfe was the first player selected by the Broncos in 2012 – although it was in the second round – just as Williams was who the Broncos used their first pick on in the 2013 NFL Draft.
"I know you feel like there's a lot of pressure on you but just forget about that," Wolfe said he told Williams. "It's just football when it comes down to it.
"We're just playing football still, just like you've been doing since you were little, just football."
But younger players aren't the only ones taking note of Wolfe's effort and following suit —Woodyard called him a "freak of nature."
"Derek Wolfe had an amazing rookie year," Von Miller echoed in August. "I think everybody knew he was destined to be (a leader) right when we first brought him in. He's just a worker. His sophomore year, I think he's going to have an amazing year. You can just tell by the way he's working on the field. It's hard to go against him. I'm all for him."
Every pack needs a leader. The Broncos defensive line in 2013 is no exception. And this Wolfe, through his focus and work ethic, is looking more and more like that leader.
"I'd like our defensive line to lead to league in sacks. I'd like to see our defense be number one overall in everything," Wolfe said. "That's what I'm striving for – to get our defense to be the best in the league."
Like the stealthy wolf, Wolfe doesn't need to be loud or boisterous to take charge. In fact, his approach is quite the opposite.
"I'm not the type of guy to be, 'rah-rah,'" he said. "I'm more of a, 'I'm going to be leading in the front, if you want to follow, follow.
"If not, stay in the back.'"