The Broncos' eight Pro Bowlers practiced in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Jan. 24 in advance of the 2015 Pro Bowl.
PHOENIX —** Of the 88 Pro Bowlers in Phoenix this weekend, 13 of them went undrafted. Six of those players were selected to their first Pro Bowl this year, and two of them—C.J. Anderson and Chris Harris Jr.—are Broncos.
The path for them has not been easy to get to this point. Before proving himself as one of the league's most dominant defenders this year, Harris fought his way up the depth chart from a special teams role. Then when he became a starting cornerback on a team that would make a run to the Super Bowl a year ago, he went down with an ACL injury in the first game of the playoffs.
Anderson hasn't had to recover from major surgery, but breaking through to start in the backfield took a while. When he finally did, he broke through it like a wet paper bag. He exploded onto the scene with a 51-yard catch-and-run against the Raiders in Week 10, and when the Broncos' offense began to focus on establishing their run game starting in Week 12 against Miami, no one rushed for more yards or touchdowns in the final six games of the year. And though Anderson was a Pro Bowl alternate after four running backs required replacing after injury or due to a Super Bowl appearance, few, if any, backs played at the level he did when he broke into the starting lineup.
Pro Bowl selections for them were well-deserved, and they were all the more impressive since they had somehow slipped through the cracks in the drafting process and built their reputation from the ground up.
For undrafted players, recognition is hard to garner outside of their immediate area codes. When you think about how Pro Bowl selections are part of how people define football careers, to earn the acclaim of that first Pro Bowl marks a beginning of people—coaches, peers, fans—realizing their success.
"...With me coming in undrafted, I had to do everything above and beyond everybody else, just to get noticed," Harris said. "I think now people are finally seeing what I did the past four years, is finally what has really gotten to me here."
And as if making the Pro Bowl after being undrafted isn't impressive enough, Harris also recovered from his season-ending ACL injury in six months in time to make training camp and to be a full practice participant in preseason. Then he proceeded to not give up a single touchdown all year, showing great agility, body control, vision and tackling skills. Though he didn't get the fan vote to earn the Pro Bowl selection, coaches and peers across the league voted him to go to Phoenix.
"I had to really go above and beyond in play on the field to get noticed, being an undrafted player," Harris said. "Just to be here and to be selected by my peers, it just means a lot. It means they notice what I'm doing out there on the field. The way I got into the Pro Bowl is so different because I didn't have any fan votes. I got through by the coaches and the players, so that made it even more special."
Four-time Pro Bowler Tony Romo remembers his first Pro Bowl after going undrafted and the excitement he had breaking through in the NFL to be considered among the NFL's elite.
"I think it's exciting just to see the guys you've been watching for a long time and just to kind of be able to hang out with them and it's funny how the whole spectrum [is here]," Romo said.
Whether it's excitement, joy or something else, the Pro Bowl easily evokes emotion for players who had to take a longer road in the league to reach elite status among the best of the best.
I asked Miami Dolphin and four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake about what his first Pro Bowl meant to him, and his response was "How long is this excerpt here? Short show? Long show? I could be here for 30 minutes," he said, laughing.
"It's hard to put into words from a guy like myself who—not only did I go undrafted—I got signed as a free agent and got cut, and I sat out of football for a year," Wake said. "So to go from that to two years later being a starter in the Pro Bowl, that took a lot of determination, a lot of discipline, a lot of belief in myself and my abilities, because there were so many opportunities for me to kind of throw in the towel, wrap it up and go maybe in a different direction.
"But I continued to believe in myself and go after my dream. It wasn't easy, trust me — and now I can laugh looking back on some of the hard times, but truly, truly it was probably a moment in my life that made me into who I am today and I'm grateful for it and I wouldn't change it."
Going undrafted was hardly the most difficult of those times. He was signed briefly by the Giants in the offseason but was cut in June. After a year off from professional football, he returned to the sport in the Canadian Football League, became a standout defensive end and drew the eyes of NFL teams. Years after not being able to get passing interest from teams, he signed with the Dolphins and made his first Pro Bowl in 2010, and as a starter, no less.
"I got really emotional, actually. Shed a few tears. This is in Hawaii — when I stood on the sideline and sang the National Anthem, I realized I am in the Pro Bowl. This is an opportunity to represent your team [and] yourself, selected by players you played against to say you're one of the best of the best. And to go from a situation when nobody would even call me to even get a workout to being recognized as probably one of the best players in the world in the span of a few years, that really, for me, was really emotional. I may be an emotional guy but it's really rewarding, beyond the money, beyond the trip but just the recognition of saying 'Hey, this who you are and this is a reward for everything you worked for in the past.'"
Wake wasn't the only undrafted Dolphin at the Pro Bowl, either, and cornerback Brent Grimes also recalled the emotions of his first Pro Bowl game.
"During the season you're just playing and you're just going week-to-week, trying to get ready for each game," the three-time Pro Bowler said. "But when the season's over, you realize you made the Pro Bowl, that's when it really [hits]. You have your friends hitting you up, talking about like 'Wow, man. You know, we played at Shippensburg University together and now you're playing in the Pro Bowl.' It really hits you around that time."
That moment hasn't hit Anderson yet, he said. That should come as no surprise considering his intense focus.
"I just keep my head down and keep pushing. I'm so blessed and so humble to be here, though," Anderson said. "I know where I'm at but I just keep my head down and keep grinding."
That focus, drive and continuous grinding is what gets these undrafted players here, so stopping that even for a moment might be a bit unfamiliar.
In fact, that could not have been made any clearer than when the Broncos' two undrafted Pro Bowlers came together on Friday as Harris played reporter and interviewed Anderson after practice.
Anderson flipped their positions and jokingly pressed Harris on his practices that week, saying "Rumor is, though, people say you're going too hard on the opposite side of the ball."
Harris replied, "See, I only have one switch and I can't play soft or light so I'm out here going hard."
And that's exactly why they're in Phoenix being honored as some of the NFL's best.