ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --A day after signing a two-year contract extension with the Broncos, Manny Ramirez proclaimed that his new deal was "truly a blessing."
Given the long and winding road Ramirez has walked throughout his NFL career toward becoming the Broncos' starting center, it's tough to question the sincerity of his statement.
"It's been a blessing ever since I've come to this organization. I think the path that I've taken has been a tough one and I'm just happy to be here," Ramirez told the media on Thursday. "I'm very happy that the organization wants me to be a part of it, as well."
Ramirez's contract extension came less than a week after he made his first-ever start at center for the Broncos, helping anchor an offensive line that blocked for Peyton Manning's record-tying seven touchdown pass performance in Denver's 49-27 win over the Ravens.
For Ramirez, it's all a far cry from three Octobers ago, when he was waived by the Lions on Oct. 6, 2010 and spent the rest of the season unsuccessfully searching for a new team – an experience he that he said shifted his entire outlook on football.
"You do something for so long, especially something you have so much passion for that you love, and all of a sudden it's taken away from you. It kind of puts everything in perspective," Ramirez said. "It kind of makes you think that, if I do get an opportunity again, you've got to take advantage of it and give it all you have."
The uncertainty Ramirez faced during those three months caused him to question whether he would ever even play professional football again.
"Any call that I got, I'd go take a visit and try out, just like any other play would," he said. "You never knew if you would have that opportunity again. You kind of had to start adjusting for the other lifestyle. I was at peace about it. If that was meant for me, that I was done playing, I was OK with it.
He eventually found a home in Denver – signing a future contract on Jan. 4, 2011 – but his odyssey was still just beginning.
Ramirez made two appearances for Denver in 2011 and was inactive for 14 games. The following season, he saw his most extensive playing action in a Broncos uniform, lining up at right guard in 15 games and getting 11 starts in the regular season after Chris Kuper was lost to injury – as well as playing in his first-career playoff game in the Broncos' AFC Divisional Round loss to the Ravens.
In the offseason, however, he switched positions and began practicing at center. And while Ramirez was never certain that he would ultimately win the starting position, he approached the competition with confidence and the readiness to step in and be the starter if called upon.
"It was never specifically told to me in that way, that I was the starter. But I approached it like I was. Because, again, every year is a new year all over," Ramirez said. "You're in there competing – there's the competition from everywhere. I don't think there's any other way that you could approach it. Because if you don't approach it that way, this isn't an easy job to do. It's very hard, so you've got to have the right mindset for it."
Ramirez's persistence was rewarded when he held on to the starting job that Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said was his "since the spring" despite having to navigate the feeling out process of switching positions.
"It is an adjustment just because it's a whole different position," he said. "It's more of a mental game inside as far as playing center and guard."
For Ramirez, winning the trust of quarterback Peyton Manning was one of the most crucial challenges of the position switch.
"The center sets all the protections. You want your quarterback to feel comfortable when he's back there, knowing that the person that's responsible for that is going to make the right calls and the right adjustments when the time comes," he said. "I think I've filled that role so far and I'm just going to continue to improve it."
Gase noted that Ramirez's progression has been an important part in developing unity and consistency on the offensive line.
"His development has been just exactly what we thought was going to happen," Gase said. "He stepped in that role. He's kept that group together. We've had the same guys playing together since the spring and we're looking for good things from him and that group."
In reflecting on a time when he thought his playing career might have ended and where he now finds himself, Ramirez was quick to note that he'll always continue looking for opportunities to keep moving forward and growing as a player.
"That's where I feel I'm at today," he said. "Where I'm at today, I'm not going to let it go with ease. I'm going to give it all I've got."
"I feel like I've been given another opportunity and I'm just going to run with it."