The NFL and its players have changed quite a bit over the past couple of decades. One of the 1980’s and 1990’s finest defensive players was Denver Bronco Karl Mecklenburg. A six-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, and Denver Broncos “Ring of Fame” inductee, Karl exhibited a level of perseverance and dedication rarely found in the modern-day professional athlete.
Through a lifetime of desire and courage, Karl was able to overcome a number of obstacles, on his way to a prolific NFL career and successful motivational speaking business. We discussed his book, “Heart of a Student Athlete, All Pro Advice for Competitors and their Families”, as well as Karl’s playing days and the NFL of the New Millennium.
Karl Mecklenburg’s path to NFL greatness was truly a rocky one. Far from a “can’t miss” prospect, Karl got his start at tiny Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. An undersized defensive lineman at 6’4” and 235 pounds, Karl quickly exhibited his will to succeed, as he progressed to the point where he was confident enough to walk-on at the University of Minnesota. After sitting out a year to regain eligibility, Karl earned a full-scholarship to play for the Golden Gophers, the team that he rooted for while growing up in Edina, Minnesota.
In his junior year, Karl led the Big Ten in sacks and was later drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 12th round of the 1983 NFL Draft. As the 310th selection, Karl faced a much different transition than his future teammate John Elway, who was the prized first overall pick in that same draft. As Karl discusses in his new book, ““Heart of a Student Athlete, All Pro Advice for Competitors and their Families”, it would require the commitment to six core values to ultimately overcome his challenges which included the struggle with dyslexia.
Through “Teamwork”, “Courage”, “Honesty and Forgiveness”, “Dedication”, “Desire, and”Goal Setting”, Karl battled the odds (and much larger players) to achieve excellence at the highest level of sport. In his book, Karl speaks of the necessity of parents to support their children's' dreams of excelling in athletics by empowering their youngsters to overcome problems independently. Karl told me that parents should “give their kids support to find their passion”.
According to Karl, one of the ways that aspiring athletes can develop into successful adults, both on and off the field, is through teamwork. Whether it’s team sports or other endeavors such as school bands, children can learn invaluable group skills that will benefit them over the course of a lifetime. Karl has shared his teamwork philosophy with many of the top Fortune companies, including Coca-Cola.
In addition to his work as a motivational speaker, Karl is intimately involved with his Denver-based REACH foundation. REACH stands for “Rewarding Experiences for All Children”. The program is aimed at providing inner-city children with the educational support and resources that they would otherwise not receive. Karl’s desire to create such a foundation stems from the example set by both of his parents. Karl’s father, a practicing obstetrician/gynecologist, and his mother, were both very active in their community as Karl was growing up. Karl’s mom had the honor of serving as a Deputy Secretary of Health for the Reagan administration.
One of the programs that Karl has recently implemented for his REACH foundation is called “REACH for a Book”. The initiative encourages elementary school children to increase the time that they devote to reading books. Each child in the program that reads at least 100 minutes per week receives a “pizza certificate”. The top two readers from each participating school earn a trip to Denver’s Invesco Field, where a special event is held each year for those winning students.
When it comes to courage, Karl says, “Don’t be afraid of failing. Failing is a part of being successful”. As a twelve year NFL player, Karl saw many fellow athletes refuse gain the courage to pursue lofty goals for themselves, rather remain content with an invitation to Broncos training camp, only to be “fired” shortly thereafter. From the beginning, Karl Mecklenburg maintained that “I want to be the greatest player to ever play the game”. Had Karl aspired to anything less, it would have been highly unlikely that he would have achieved as much as he did throughout his career.
Karl’s post-football determination has not changed. “My passion and my mission for my speaking business and my book is to inspire long-term positive change”, says Karl. When you are exhibiting that type of attitude for the first 34 years of your life, it becomes natural to continue to do so. Karl Mecklenburg will not settle for anything less.
In addition to talking about Karl’s book, we spoke about the NFL of Karl’s days, versus today’s league. When Karl was playing linebacker for the Denver Broncos, the prototypical NFL player was much different than he is today. When Karl was in the league, players with exceptional speed and quick footwork were valued over those that were larger and less mobile. The successful execution of offensive and defensive schemes of the eighties and nineties demanded an athlete with greater agility than what we see today.
The modern NFL player is much larger. Additionally, the rules have changed in a manner that benefits the offense. According to Karl, today’s offensive linemen are able to hold defenders much longer than they once did. Furthermore, safeties cannot hit the way guys like former Bronco teammates Dennis Smith and Steve Atwater used to. Karl spoke of players “self-policing” themselves, as opposed to the officials imposing penalties and fines. Other hard-hitting players of Karl’s era that were able to use their intimidation tactics to gain an edge on the field were 49er great Ronnie Lott and former Seahawk All-Pro Kenny Easley. There was no trash talking from wide receivers during Karl’s playing days, as defenders would levy heavy game-day “fines” on those that insisted on talking. Karl says that wide receivers were the quietest guys on the field back then.
Today’s NFL has clearly gone out of its way to protect the wide receiver, states Karl. Former NFL wide out Gene Washington is the current Director of Football Operations. Gene protects today’s wide receivers through rules that limit contact by defenders after the ball is snapped.
Although Karl retired from the league back in 1995, he remains in tune with the current NFL and the Broncos organization. I asked him to chime in on today’s Broncos, new Head Coach Josh McDaniels, and how the game has changed since he stepped away.
“I think he has a real good grasp on what’s important and what’s not important to the team”, says Mecklenburg of McDaniels. “They have already won more games than I thought they’d win all year” followed Karl.
Karl sees the 2009-10 Broncos as an example of a unit that truly embraces the team concept. Rookie head coach Josh McDaniels brought in free agents that were not merely seeking a shiny new contract, rather players that were genuinely interested in reaching a common goal. When asked about the morale of this year’s group which reeled off six straight victories before dropping its last three, Karl said there’s “a bit of panic”. Since the first loss of the season in Baltimore, Karl believes that Bronco players are trying to do too much on the field independently, which is causing team performance to suffer. “I’ve seen the breakdown happening since they lost their first game.”
As far as a comparison of today’s players with those that played in Karl’s, as well as prior eras, Mr. Mecklenburg doesn’t think it’s even close. The modern day NFL has gone overboard to deliver a game that promotes offense over defense and protects the quarterback to an excess. Karl believes that the modern-day QB does not have to perform under the same level of duress as such courageous warriors like Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, and John Elway. Today’s signal-callers have too many escape routes, such as tossing the ball out of bounds to avoid contact.
When I asked Karl about one particular modern day football phenomenon, “Madden NFL”, he did have great praise for the two-decade old football video game. “The Madden thing has probably done more for young people to get involved in and understand football concepts than anything else”. Karl sees the offensive and defensive plays featured in the extremely popular video game series as being quite accurate. “That Madden thing is amazing!”, proclaimed Karl.
Karl Mecklenburg has accomplished so very much in his life. Against the odds, he claimed his stake as one of the most successful linebackers of his time. Through “Teamwork”, “Courage”, “Honesty and Forgiveness”, “Dedication”, “Desire, and”Goal Setting”, Karl has achieved a lifetime of accolades and personal fulfillment….and he’s not done. Karl continues to travel the motivational speaker circuit, and may jump back into the “literary ring”, this time with a book devoted to corporate leadership training.
When I closed out our conversation by asking Karl what his greatest accomplishment has been to date, he didn’t surprise me. He told me that it’s clearly his family and his 26 year marriage to his wife Kathi. I suppose he was simply being “Honest”.
Karl Mecklenburg’s book, “Heart of a Student Athlete, All Pro Advice for Competitors and their Families” can be ordered by visiting: http://studentathlete.us/
About the Author
Written by Adam Becker