DENVER — The last time KJ Hamler played in an NFL game was Week 3 of the 2021 season. On a leaping attempt to secure a pass in tight coverage, Hamler suffered a torn ACL and a hip injury — devastatingly bringing an end to his sophomore season just after it had begun.
On Saturday night, the third-year wide receiver made his highly anticipated return to the field. In the Broncos' final preseason game against the Vikings, Hamler recorded three receptions for 18 yards.
"I felt good," Hamler said. "It was very exciting to be back. I'm blessed. God … He gave me a little bump I had to get over, but it was all worth it."
Coming into this final preseason game, Hamler advocated for the opportunity to see some snaps. Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett did not play most of the starters during the preseason, but Hamler noted that in order to know if he'll be ready for Week 1, he needed to see the field on Saturday.
"I thought it was very important, I really wanted to get in," Hamler said. "[Hackett] didn't want to really play me, but I was like, 'Man, just let me get in, let me get a few reps, just see if I'm still myself.'"
Hackett said after the game that he was excited to see Hamler back on the field, noting the wide receiver's reluctance to come out of the game.
"We had to take him out, he wanted to keep going," Hackett said. "He was having such a great time. I think it's great for him to be able to catch the ball, take a couple pops. You want him to want to stay in, in those situations, for a guy that hasn't played for as long as he had. It's very encouraging, and we can just build off that."
As Hackett mentioned, Hamler did take a few hits — the most significant being a hard collision on a six-yard reception to open the second quarter, which resulted in an unnecessary roughness call on the defender. But to Hamler, the contact is just another sign that he's back.
"It wasn't really nothing to me, I got right back up — but that's football," Hamler said.
Hamler earned the respect of his teammates as he battled his way back from injury throughout the offseason, taking meticulous mental reps even when he couldn't suit up. Players have continuously praised Hamler's work ethic and positive attitude, which he always maintained even in the most difficult times.
Quarterback Brett Rypien, who found Hamler multiple times on Saturday night, was ecstatic for his teammate's return.
"He's got such a fire and a passion for the game, and you can see it every time he's out on the field," Rypien said. "I was telling some guys on the sideline, there was one play where he was lined up in the slot and … there was nobody over him, and he was like, 'Brett! Brett!', you know, getting ready for me to throw it to him. He's just got so much fire, so much passion. He's a great guy to be around, he brings great energy every day. I couldn't be more happy for him."
Right before running onto the field with his teammates, Hamler took a moment in the tunnel to sit down and take in the moment. It had been almost a year since he last played in a game, and he was grateful to have another opportunity to do what he loves.
"When you come back from injury, it's always hard, but just getting back to where I was now, it's just like, 'Man, I'm really back [to] football,'" Hamler said. "I've been out for a year, so that was just a blessing. … [I] just had to soak everything in."
View exclusive photos of the Broncos' game vs. the Vikings by team photographers Gabriel Christus, Eric Lars Bakke and Ben Swanson