ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — An undrafted rookie, Juwan Thompson had his work cut out for him to simply make the roster. Nothing was given, and so the running back decided to take instead. Thompson proved his worth, leading the Broncos in rushing yards in the preseason with 143 total yards on 29 carries for an average of about 5 yards per carry, and the team signed him to the 53-man active roster.
Still, he was the fourth running back on the depth chart after starter Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.
When Ball left Sunday's game with a groin injury, Thompson would rely on the preparation he had built that stems from Head Coach John Fox's 'next man up' mentality. With Hillman getting the bulk of the carries following Ball's injury and Anderson inactive for the game, this would be Thompson's first chance for snaps running the ball.
"I was prepared for it from the beginning of the week, even from the beginning of the season," Thompson said. "Coach always told me he wants to see me play and wants me to get in at some point and he just felt that this week was going to be that opportunity, not knowing that Montee would go down. He was just saying 'Just be prepared' because we only carried three backs that week."
Though he was prepared to enter the game, running for 15 yards on three carries, he certainly wasn't prepared for his touchdown.
"It was a big shocker," he said. "It was kind of like it was overwhelming at the same time and I wanted to celebrate but my body just stiffened up on me to the point where I was like 'What can I do? I haven't been here before.'"
The end zone was unfamiliar territory for him as an NFL player, as he was unable to cross the goal line in the preseason despite an impressive rushing yardage total. Instead, he got his touchdown in the fifth week of the regular season on an 8-yard run on a historic day in which the offense set franchise records
"I mean, you've got 80,000 people there watching you and then in the preseason, I had never gotten into the end zone. I just had a lot of good runs, I just never had that opportunity to be there. Next time, hopefully I'll have something up my sleeve, given that opportunity."
From the way it sounds, Thompson was more uncomfortable after scoring the touchdown than when he got put under the bright lights to run the ball. Despite the sudden change and being thrust into a bigger role before a bigger audience, Thompson said he got into rhythm with ease though he said he thought he'd be a bit nervous.
"I felt pretty comfortable for some reason," he said. "I just went out there and it felt comfortable, just like in practice. I got my job done at every time that the opportunity came."
Though he hadn't played much with Manning and the first string offense, he said he felt at ease because of the similarities between them and the second string. Plus, he had a great resource in Manning to help him make sure he didn't forget anything as far as pass protection or ensuring he's wasn't running the wrong route.
"Peyton is on another page with the playbook because he knows it inside and out so you just have to be prepared for a lot more," Thompson said. "I just know: When in doubt, ask him. Because you don't want to be wrong out there, even though you want to feel like you know everything and let him know that he's 100 percent secure that I'm in the backfield and nothing will go wrong, but there's going to be a point where I'm not going to remember something and I don't want to make that mistake in getting him hit or running the wrong route and messing up the scheme."
All in all, he stepped up admirably, helping the running game gain traction in the second half. As he jogged off the field with his roommate Corey Nelson after the game ended, his smile lit up the stadium as the sun went down over the Rockies.
And he got a keepsake to go with his touchdown. The ball from the first NFL touchdown of his career will go to his mother when she comes to visit. Now he just has to figure out what to do when he gets to the end zone the next time.