ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After a decade in the NFL, including eight memorable years in Denver, Super Bowl 50 champion defensive end Derek Wolfe has decided to retire.
Drafted in 2012, Wolfe became one of the most fearsome players in recent memory for the Broncos, racking up 33 career sacks, 299 tackles, 46 tackles for loss and 77 quarterback hits in Denver.
And just as memorably, Wolfe was an unforgettable character. After many of his big plays, Wolfe punctuated the moments with howls that fans returned throughout the stadium and the city.
"The gratitude that I feel to the organization as a whole and the city itself, the love that they showed me from Day 1, it's just been incredible," Wolfe says. "And even after I left, after eight years I was with them, with the Broncos, and then I went to the Ravens for two years, during those two years I still got a ton of support and love from this city — and the whole state, really, and anyone that's a fan of the Broncos became a Derek Wolfe fan."
The Broncos made their first selection of the 2012 NFL Draft with the 36th-overall selection and added a powerful, aggressive lineman out of the University of Cincinnati. In his senior season, Wolfe was a crushing competitor; he pushed through offensive tackles and guards to record 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, which earned him several honors including Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-Big East selection and a second-team All-America nod by the Associated Press.
Wolfe, frustrated that he had not gone a day earlier in the first round, did not see that destination coming.
"That day was just so weird," Wolfe says. "I did this crazy workout early in the day because I was so [mad] about the night before. … I was living on a farm, so I had to clean out pig stalls and just do some dirty work. And then it was kind of surreal, because I never even imagined I'd be going to Denver."
With less than $10 to his name and having never previously opened a bank account, Wolfe saw the unimaginable become reality.
Over the months to come, Wolfe secured a starting role as a rookie and played all 16 games as an integral part of a defense that ranked second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed. And it wouldn't take long for him to cement a persona that would become a Denver legend for years to come.
"My first sack was against Ben Roethlisberger my first game," Wolfe says. "… I get this sack, and I just start howling. I didn't even think about that; there was never even a thought process."
During the eight years that followed, the Wolfe howl would become his trademark move after recording a sack or tackle.
"I never asked them to do that, and I really appreciate it," Wolfe says of the fans' response. "… I don't know, it gives me energy. It would always give me energy going out there. …
"It didn't matter if I made a tackle 20 yards downfield, they didn't care. They'd start howling for me any time my name was called. When I talk about the love that showed me and continue to show me, it's just unbelievable."
After a neck injury in 2013 cast doubt on his future in the game, Wolfe recovered, played all 16 games the following season and then was part of one of the most dominant defenses in franchise and league history in 2015. Equally punishing vs. the run and pass, Denver's defense that season was stingy, ruthless and opportunistic with takeaways, and it made plays when the team needed it most.
"That season will go down as my favorite season," Wolfe says. "I know we won a Super Bowl, but even if we hadn't won a Super Bowl, that group of guys, the tightness that we had and the kind of fun that we were having, that was special, man. That was something special. It just doesn't come along [often]. That comes along like once a decade, a defense like that. That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be a part of that team, and I'm super grateful I got to be a key part of that. That was fun."
On the left side of the Broncos' defensive line that season and for seven others, Wolfe was half of a dominant pair of defenders alongside Von Miller. During their years as teammates, Miller often compared the two to Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, a couple of his favorite Dallas Mavericks — not just because they were both productive players, but also because of how they played off each other. Wolfe would sometimes run picks to free up Miller, and more often than not, it worked.
"For eight years, Von and I — out of a 100 sacks, only six of them I wasn't in on the play, like involved with it," Wolfe says. "To get to be a part of that was super special, and to watch him win [Super Bowl 50] MVP — because he deserved it, he put the work in. And sitting in meetings with him, he had that, he had the number he wanted in his head at the top right of his notes. I watched a whole different type of lock-in from him. He matured as a player into this unstoppable force that wasn't going to be stopped. Nobody could block him. He just couldn't be blocked. It was incredible. We had a ton of fun and a ton of years together. Eight years — to play right next to somebody every day for eight years, that doesn't come along all the time."
In the years that followed, the Broncos would come up short in their hopes to again make the postseason, but Wolfe continued to be a disruptive player along the line. In 53 games from 2016-19, he posted 159 total tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 43 quarterback hits, 16 sacks and 11 passes defensed.
In reaching the championship pedigree that all football players strive for, Wolfe displayed a significant rise from childhood struggles that included abuse, homelessness and depression. As a Bronco, Wolfe gained the kind of support that he felt like he never had in his youth.
"My upbringing and where I came from and the things I went through as a child and the lack of love in my household, it just felt like — I can't really put it into words, the way it makes me feel," Wolfe says. "I get a little choked up when I think about it, because I made Denver my home. I'm from Ohio, so for me to come out here and I obviously I love something about it, right, for me to make it home. And it feels like I'm from here now. I've lived here for a decade. I love it here."
In adulthood, Wolfe found stability, and not just financially. In 2016, he met the woman who would become his wife, and starting a family finally opened his eyes to life beyond the game.
"I just was like focused on nothing but football," Wolfe says. "It was like just dominate as much as I can, win every snap, do everything I can to win this snap. And I was never thinking long term. It wasn't until 2016, when I met my wife, after we won a Super Bowl, and it was like she couldn't have come in at a better time. I had spent a lot of years not really believing in divine intervention or that things are meant to be, but when I met her … I feel like I just felt it right away — like, She has to be in my life. I need her in my life."
In the years that followed, Wolfe took on a new role as a devoted husband and father, bringing new meaning and purpose to his life. And as his football career took him to Baltimore, he always kept an eye on coming home to Denver.
After becoming a Raven, Wolfe saw messages on his social media pages urging him to end his career as a Bronco. Now that he has retired, Wolfe's able to look back on a life centered around the game and see a little bit of humor and a lot of meaning in the path that brought him to Denver.
"I was a huge Brett Favre fan growing up, so in 1997 when the Broncos came in there and beat them, I cried," Wolfe says. "I was upset. And I was like, 'I hate John Elway!' I just couldn't stand him because I was so mad. That was the 'Helicopter' game and that big hit, and I was like, 'I can't believe he's old out there doing that. No way he can still do it.' And he did it, and they were underdogs, and they did it. And that's kind of been the story, the Broncos' story: always an underdog, but always having the support."
That was Wolfe's story for his eight years as a Bronco, too, and in retirement, he says he'll cherish being on the other side.
"I'm super excited — now I get to be a fan," Wolfe says. "It's crazy, because I started this game hating the Denver Broncos, and I'm ending it as a huge fan. It's crazy."