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How a DeMarcus Ware pregame speech capped a Hall of Fame career
By Aric DiLalla Aug 05, 2023
Photographs By Ben Hays

On an unseasonably warm January afternoon, DeMarcus Ware turned back time.

In his 11th NFL season, the pass rusher delivered a vintage performance in the Broncos' 2015 AFC Championship Game win over the Patriots.

Over the course of three hours, Ware and the Broncos battered Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — and the 33-year-old Ware led the team with seven quarterback hits.

"It's what you expected, I guess is the best way to describe it," former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak told this week. "You knew you were going to get his best in that situation and what he was playing for. He's basically playing for his whole career, to become a Super Bowl-winning player, which obviously sure as hell helps you get in the Hall of Fame a lot quicker, you know what I mean? Obviously, [it was] a big, big moment for him."

For the first time in his career, Ware earned a trip to the Super Bowl. And yet, his performance the evening before may have been just as important on his journey to Canton.

Kubiak knew what it took to win.

He served as the Broncos' offensive coordinator during the franchise's back-to-back Super Bowl wins, and he led the Houston Texans to a pair of playoff berths — the first in franchise history — during an eight-year stint with the organization.

So, as the Broncos prepared for an AFC Championship matchup with Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots, there was little doubt in Kubiak's mind about who he would have speak to his team the night before the game:

No. 18 and No. 94.

"I think the greatest compliment a coach can give to players is to turn the team over to certain players in situations from a mental standpoint or motivational standpoint," Kubiak said. "That team was just so blessed with those two leaders and who were they were as people. And obviously they were great players, that all speaks for itself. They were so well respected. I could sit there and talk all day, but for one of those guys to get up there and echo something the coach says or talk about how important something is to them, that's extremely powerful."

Peyton Manning and Ware had plenty to share with their teammates. Both players were nearing the end of their careers — Manning would play just two more games — and were looking to win a Lombardi Trophy with a new organization.

And while Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, Ware had never tasted that sort of success. The four-time first-team All-Pro, who posted 20 sacks in 2008 for the Cowboys, won just one playoff game during his tenure with the Cowboys and had never played in a conference championship game. In an already Hall of Fame-worthy career, Ware lacked the team success and the accompanying jewelry to go with stellar individual statistics.

In his message to his teammates before the matchup with one of the Broncos' biggest rivals, Ware owned that history and expressed his desire to at last reach his ultimate goal.

"You've got a guy like DeMarcus up there who had never been to a Super Bowl," Kubiak said. "This was about his career and what it meant to him. Let's face it, he and Peyton were both at the end of their career, and it might have been their last opportunity. So it was a powerful message to their teammates to say, 'I've got to get this done, my ass is getting older.' It was pretty cool from that standpoint."

Ware, though, was not done.

After Kubiak asked him to speak to the team, Ware got his hands on the Broncos' Super Bowl XXXII Lombardi Trophy. He snuck the trophy into the meeting, unbeknownst to his teammates or coaches.

"I had no idea," Kubiak said with a laugh. "I had told them, 'I'm going to turn them loose to you guys when I get through.' You just trust guys like that. You know they're going to do the right thing."

"All of a sudden, I see this bag come up there and I see him reach in there and get it. I'm like, 'OK.' It makes you feel pretty good as a coach, watching your guys' attention looking at him."

Ware set the trophy on a table, and he recalled the room falling silent.

"I saw in all the guys' eyes how they felt, what they felt, because I felt the same way," Ware said in 2016. "From that point, I just knew how important it was to those guys."

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who would come up with a critical fourth-down stop the next afternoon, still recalls how he felt as he sat next to defensive end Derek Wolfe and running back C.J. Anderson and listened to Ware.

"I remember getting excited," Harris said this week, "and Wolfe always carried the intensity — he was ready to go that night. C.J. was so animated, I think he [stood] up."

After Ware's speech, there was little question among the Broncos what would happen next.

"We could kind of feel it in the air that we were going to get out there and win," Harris said. "We just had to get to the game, man. We were ready to go all week."

Safety T.J. Ward felt the same level of confidence, and he called it a "very special night" to hear Ware share what it would mean for him to win a title.

It was also exactly what the Broncos needed.

"There was no doubt in that room," Ward said this week. "There was no doubt among anyone that we were going to win that game. … The emotions were high, but it was a calm, serious, just readiness. We were ready to go.

"… We knew we had their number. They couldn't beat us. They couldn't match up with what we had."

You know the rest.

The Broncos berated Brady en route to a 20-18 win and a trip to Super Bowl 50. Two weeks later, Denver's defense was even better in a masterful performance against league MVP Cam Newton and the NFL's top scoring offense.

In the aftermath of a 24-10 win, Ware donned a Super Bowl champion shirt and hugged his teammates. He lifted the Lombardi Trophy. He celebrated a championship that he'd waited 11 seasons to earn.

And as he's enshrined into pro football immortality on Saturday, those memories will surely come rushing back. His teammates and coaches will join him in Canton, including Harris, Ward and Kubiak.

The ceremony will serve as an unofficial Super Bowl 50 reunion of sorts — and it also may provide a sense of the difficulty of what Ware and the Broncos accomplished that season.

"[It] just kind of reminds you what it takes to win Super Bowls," Kubiak said. "You've got to be around players like that and people like that. I think at the time, maybe sometimes we don't appreciate it enough. As you step away and you've got a chance to step and look back, you realize how much it means to be around guys like that and helps you be a part of special things."

Added Harris: "That's a forever bond. You can never change that."

Ware will almost certainly mention that season and that bond in his enshrinement speech, which he'll deliver in a gold jacket alongside his newly minted bronze bust.

And if it's anything like his speech from that January night, it won't soon be forgotten.

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