ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Every year, the Ed Block Courage Award is awarded to one member of each NFL team who exemplifies tremendous sportsmanship and courage. Previous winners of this award have persevered through substantial adversity, maintaining a positive attitude during the darkest moments in their careers.
For the Broncos, there is no player who embodied these characteristics this season more than wide receiver KJ Hamler.
In Week 3 of the 2021 season, the Broncos shut out the Jets in a 26-point rout and brought their record to a perfect 3-0. It was a great day for Denver, but for Hamler, it was the start of an arduous journey.
On a leaping attempt to haul in a deep pass from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Hamler took a hard hit and landed awkwardly on his leg. In just a single play, the wide receiver tore his ACL and dislocated his hip, effectively ending his second NFL season shortly after it had begun.
What followed was 14 days spent in a hospital bed, unable to move after undergoing two surgeries — one to remove part of the patellar tendon in his right knee, and the other to transfer it into his left knee as a replacement for his ACL. Hamler noted during the offseason that his legs were numb for more than two days, and he lost 40 pounds through the ordeal.
"It was hard," Hamler said Friday. "I don't think a lot of people can come back from an injury like that, but I appreciate the training staff, the coaches for believing in me and just having guys around me to support me everything and talking me down and things like that. To see how much fight I've got in me is incredible. You figure out a lot of stuff that you don't even know about yourself, and I'm proud of myself that I got through that."
Just a few months after suffering the injury, Hamler received more devastating news: His beloved grandmother had passed away.
While working through a long recovery process for his multifaceted injury, Hamler was suddenly left without his greatest supporter. His grandmother, whom he has frequently referred to as his best friend, was a mother figure in his life — and Hamler has spoken candidly about the severe mental toll that came with such a profound loss.
"We all go through things, and a lot of people still need to realize that we're not just football players," Hamler said. "We actually deal with real-life things outside of here, and we have to come in here and put on a fake smile and act like things are OK all the time, but they're not. There's been times where I've been in a dark place, still, and I come in here and I go to work, I still put a smile on my face and make sure my boys [are] good. You've got to put your head down and work, man. It's a mentality, and it's just the type of courage you've got to have."
Hamler has endured unimaginable hardship over the past year, but he consistently maintains a positive attitude and a remarkable work ethic.
Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, who has been alongside Hamler since they both were drafted by the Broncos in 2020, has witnessed Hamler's journey through the highs and the lows, and Jeudy said he has been inspired by his teammate's resilience.
"He's been through a lot of injuries, a lot of personal stuff that was going on within his life, and just showed the type of character he is, coming in and out with just a great energy, great personality each and every day, even though he's battling through a lot of stuff in the real world," Jeudy said. "That's just the type of person KJ is, so he's just overcoming the obstacles throughout life and still having a smile at the end of the day."
Receiving the Broncos' Ed Block Courage Award is a testament to Hamler's perseverance though a time in his life that has been both physically and mentally strenuous. As an honor that is voted on by the players, it also speaks to how Hamler has served as a role model for his teammates.
Perhaps no one on the team understands the significance of this award more than wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who was the Broncos' winner in 2021 after returning from his own ACL injury.
"It's huge for him," Sutton said. "I'm so excited for him, and it's such an honor for him to get that award. There's nobody that's more deserving, I would think, on the team because of the unique situation that he had been given, having two almost career-ending injuries. ... He just had this determination to get back out there and get [back] to being himself. Watching him do that, man, it's inspiring to see him have that juice because it reminded me of myself and Albert [Okwuegbunam] and the guys when we were going through our rehab. Understanding the mindset you have to have, he went about it the right way. Every day he came in, he was ready to work, and it got him back onto the field. I'm just proud of him, because with him being one of the young guys in my room, you want to see all those guys have success."
While many believed his football career may have been over, Hamler was back on the field running routes in early June — just over eight months after suffering his injury. He continues to battle as he recovers from a hamstring injury, but this award is proof that no matter the challenge, Hamler is committed to overcoming it.
"It's a blessing," Hamler said. "... I've been through a lot, still going through things, and everybody goes through things; it's just a matter of how you push through it and how you get through it. I have a great support system, great friends, great teammates who help me through a lot, but it's a blessing, man. At the end of the day, it was people telling me I probably wasn't even going to be able to play football again or this season. So, just to prove a lot of people wrong and to get back out there and play with the team — I know the year hasn't been what anybody expected, [and] my personal goals haven't been what I wanted [them] to be, but just being out there and just getting a feel for it again is amazing, and I'm proud of myself."