ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It all seemed too good to be true – except that all of it was.
The short-sleeve December weather. The golden sunshine dousing the Rocky Mountain horizon.
And the NFL defensive tackle who hauled in an over-the-shoulder touchdown pass from a quarterback whose face could take George Washington's place on the Mount Rushmore of NFL players from the last 15 years.
In other words, December 2, 2012 was no ordinary Sunday for Mitch Unrein.
Unrein's 1-yard touchdown reception from Peyton Manning in the Broncos' 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – on a play where Unrein lined up as a fullback and snatched Manning's lofty spiral out of the air after a play action rollout – was a lasting image in a season filled with memorable plays.
"I actually had Peyton sign it," Unrein recalled during minicamp in June. "I kind of felt like a little kid going up to him and saying, 'Hey, Peyton, will you sign my football for me?' He was a class act about it and signed it for me."
For Unrein, who mentioned after the Buccaneers game that he had never caught a touchdown pass in his life, it's a memento that will stand the test of time long after his playing days come to an end.
After all, realizing a childhood dream of scoring a touchdown for his favorite NFL team might be a little too farfetched of a story to pass onto future generations without some hard evidence to back it up. "I have it in my house and it's something that I'll always remember," Unrein said. "I wanted to have it to at least be able to show my kids and my grandkids someday because I'm sure they won't believe me when I tell them about it someday when I'm older."
Unrein proclaimed after the Buccaneers game that he's willing to do whatever it takes to help the Broncos win.
Whether that means reeling in touchdown passes or barricading the middle of the defensive line, the third-year defensive tackle from Eaton, Colorado has shown that he will play the part in whatever role he's cast.
Racking up 20 tackles and a fumble recovery as a backup in 2012, Unrein was a cog in a defensive line that helped the Broncos rank third in the NFL against the run (91.1 YPG) and second in total defense (290.8 YPG).
Unrein's penchant for sealing gaps shut and swallowing up ball carriers earned him a role on the defense in 2012, and he expressed enthusiasm about the strides that he believes the Broncos rotation of defensive tackles can take in 2013.
"I think the sky is the limit for (the defensive line) this year, as long as we keep on working hard at practice every day," Unrein said during minicamp. "It's the nose to the grindstone and trying to perfect our craft on the d-line. I think we can be very tough and better than we were last year up front at stopping the run, getting after the passer."
The Broncos beefed up on defensive tackles in the offseason by adding veteran Terrance Knighton and rookie first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams – who will join Unrein and veteran Kevin Vickerson, among others, in the mix for playing time.
But rather than show concern about playing time, Unrein is celebrating the competition as an opportunity to grow stronger – individually and collectively.
"I think competition is always good. It always pushes the guy next to you to work a little bit harder," Unrein said. "You're always trying to be on that number one squad. I think it's great competition and we're going to get a lot out of it. At the end of the day, we're all going to get playing time."
Unrein circled Williams as an impactful addition to the defensive line.
"He's a very explosive and powerful kid. He's smart – he's picked up the playbook pretty quickly during minicamp and OTAs," Unrein said. "I think it's going to be a great rotation and I'm just looking forward to the season."
As for Unrein, he says he will continue adapt to the size and scope of whatever the situation asks of him – just as he's always seemed to do.
Despite a 5-26 record as a freshman, Unrein wrestled at the 215 pound weight class as a senior in high school – winning a state championship with a 33-4 record.
Despite a productive college career on the defensive line at Wyoming, Unrein went overlooked and undrafted.
He now weighs 306 pounds and is making contributions to an NFL team – in ways that are familiar to defensive tackles, and in ways that most defensive tackles only achieve when they're playing video games.
In the same game that he scored his lone touchdown, Unrein made an equally big impact on defense, hammering Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman just as he was releasing a pass. Flustered by the pressure, Freeman threw the ball directly to Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who returned the interception for a touchdown.
It's the type of contribution Unrein and his buddies on the defensive line will look to replicate in 2013.
But has he been practicing for an encore performance of his best Demaryius Thomas impression?
"No, not yet," Unrein said, laughing. "Hopefully they'll throw that little wrinkle in there again and hopefully I'll get another opportunity to be on offense."
"No matter what they ask me to do, I'm going to do whatever they need me to do. I just love playing for Denver as my hometown team growing up, so I'm just glad to be here."