In today's NFL, there's perhaps no better moment for a drafted player than the moment when he answers his ringing phone and hears a general manager tell him he's been selected by their team.
It's a moment that creates excitement and tears, promises and chills.
But for Karl Mecklenburg, taken in the 12th round of the 1983 NFL Draft, the call he received only caused him to wake up.
Mecklenburg had taken the day off from his classes at the University of Minnesota to ensure he'd be available in case he got a call; in 1983, the draft began at 8 a.m. ET, a 12-round marathon all over the course of one day. Eventually, Mecklenburg simply gave up.
"It was like midnight," Mecklenburg recalled in an interview with DenverBroncos.com in 2020. "I was asleep. My girlfriend — my wife now — was there with me. We were going to have the celebratory margarita or whenever I finally got the call. Finally, I just went to sleep."
The phone eventually rang around midnight, and the team's general manager or head coach — or any coach, for that matter — was not on the line. Head coach Dan Reeves' secretary placed the call, as the coaches had already gone home, Mecklenburg recalled to Ed Werder in 1987. She told him they'd mail him an airline ticket to Denver.
Then, he went back to bed.
The Broncos' last pick of the 1983 draft, Mecklenburg arrived with little fanfare, which was considerably different the most prominent rookie in the class, quarterback John Elway.
Mecklenburg's collegiate bona fides had not inspired the same confidence that Elway had. A lineman at the University of Minnesota, Mecklenburg had been a walk-on transfer from South Dakota's Augustana College. The team, which struggled in his senior season to a 3-8 record, fell behind regularly and didn't give him many opportunities to show his strength as a pass rusher. And if all that didn't hurt his stock enough, his height was erroneously listed two inches short of his actual measurement.
In that 1987 article, Werder reported that two Broncos scouts worked him out and watched him play. One told him that while he didn't have the speed to be a linebacker, maybe he could be a defensive lineman. The other told him that while he didn't have the size to be a lineman, maybe he could play linebacker.
"I was a 12th-round draft choice; nobody expected me to make it, because height, weight, 40 time, I didn't match up," Mecklenburg told DenverBroncos.com. "But I found out early on in my career if you could take the first step in the right direction before anybody else did, all the angles would change in your favor. The tight end couldn't pin you in, the guard couldn't cut you off, the fullback couldn't keep you from getting to the line of scrimmage — everything changed. And that was really my career."
The physical limitations of a so-called "tweener" can sometimes doom a player's NFL career. But for Mecklenburg, they were a major reason his blossomed.
A few years into Mecklenburg's career, defensive maestro Joe Collier, the mastermind behind the "Orange Crush" defense, decided that instead of setting him at just one position, they'd move him around at will.
"Joe Collier was an amazing guy," Mecklenburg said in 2020. "I was drafted, like I said, as a 12th-round draft choice. I was drafted as a nose guard. I was a 240-pound nose guard, and they don't last. I got hurt right away, and so they moved me out to defensive end and made the team as a third-down pass rusher. Two years later, Joe and Myrel Moore — at the time, [he] was the linebacker coach — and Stan Jones, [who] was the defensive line coach, the three of them got together and said, 'You know, I think Karl's actually a linebacker. We should move him to linebacker.'"
The impact was immediate; that season, Mecklenburg tied a franchise single-season sack record and earned two league-wide accolades. By the end of his career, he had earned three first-team All-Pro selections, six Pro Bowl nods, helped the team reach three Super Bowls and shaped a Ring of Fame career.
"I made the Pro Bowl that first year as an All-Pro linebacker," Mecklenburg said. "I also still played defensive end. I played defensive tackle. I played on the left, I played on the right. Then, all of a sudden, they moved me to outside linebacker when they had matchup issues out there. There were games I played all seven defensive front positions. That's something nobody's ever done before and probably will never do again."
The same can be said for Mecklenburg's career path. Of course, the NFL Draft now only lasts seven rounds. And more than that, Mecklenburg may have needed what was then a very physical offseason training regimen to prove himself.
"I wouldn't have made the team [in today's era] — really," Mecklenburg said, with a laugh. "I don't look good in shorts. They spent most of their time in shorts. I'm a hitter. I'm a guy who's not a height, weight, 40-time guy. I don't jump out at you when you're running me through the calisthenics or any of that. I'm a football player. But I don't think I'd have a chance to ever make the team. Now, they have to base so much of their evaluation of a player on what they did in college or just the walkthroughs. I don't know how you do that. Fortunately, we [did] two-a-days in Greeley and hit each other in the mouth every single practice. And I'm good with that."