The Broncos’ newest defensive tackle has a story made for the movies. Not quite as extreme as that of Michael Oher, the homeless kid who became an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and inspired the movie The Blind Side, but pretty close.
Derek Wolfe doesn’t remember being homeless, exactly. He does remember staying at various friends’ houses growing up in Lisbon, Ohio. The closest he came to family were the sisters of his stepfather, not blood relatives but women who helped out when they could. He remembers one of them providing Christmas presents when he was little.
“I’ve never met my real father,” Wolfe told the Cincinnati Enquirer last summer as he prepared for his senior season at the University of Cincinnati. “I couldn’t even tell you his name.”
That fact contributed to his estrangement from his mother. “My mom just won’t tell me anything about him,” he said then. “I guarantee he doesn’t even know I exist. I’ve given my mom chances and chances and chances, but she obviously has some issues.
“I lived with my mother only when she was married to my stepfather. My mother married him when I was only about three months old, but after they got divorced, I moved out and lived with him. My stepfather and I got along well when I was young, and even after he got divorced from my mom, but when he got remarried, that’s when everything fell apart.”
Wolfe’s best friend was a kid named Logan Hoppel. “His family told me if I ever needed a place to stay, I could stay with them.”
When he found himself a child on his own, he took the Hoppels up on their offer. For the rest of his childhood, he stayed with various friends. Getting him to adulthood became sort of a community project.
“That’s who I was raised by, is my friends,” Wolfe told me Saturday just after his introductory press conference at Dove Valley. “I have great friends. They’re like brothers to me. Anytime I needed advice or needed some structure, they gave it to me. I can’t pick one out. I have a lot of friends, a lot of families. I’ve got two aunts that helped me a lot. There’s a ton of families that helped me; my whole town.”
As it happened, Hoppel had an older cousin, Adam, who ended up playing football at the University of Cincinnati. Wolfe didn’t know it at the time, but the generosity of his friend’s family had set him on a career path.
“My childhood, it was what it was, and it formed me into the man I am today,” Wolfe said less than 24 hours after the Broncos made the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle their first pick in the 2012 draft, No. 36 overall.
“It’s never where you start, it’s always where you finish. Just like the draft. I may not have been a first-round pick, but I was their first pick. Now I’ve got to live up to that. I’m happy about it. I could dwell on the past if I wanted to, but what is that going to do? Just forgive and forget. That’s the way I like to look at it. If you sit around worrying about things, it’s just going to tear you down and tear you apart.”
As far back as he can remember, football was his escape from a life that was hard and frustrating in almost every other area. When I asked when he started playing, he knew exactly.
“I was seven. I liked to watch Reggie White. Don’t tell Mr. Elway this, but I liked Brett Favre. I wanted to be a quarterback and a defensive end. So that’s what I did. I played quarterback and defensive end my first year. Then they moved me to running back. I played running back until I got to like eighth grade or something.
“I actually cried when Elway beat us. Wait, I can’t say ‘us’ anymore. When we beat them. I was going to write hate mail to Mr. Elway because I was so upset. I told him that upstairs, too. I said, ‘You made me cry when I was eight years old.’ He just laughed at me and said, ‘Well, welcome to the good side.'”
It didn’t take Wolfe long to realize that playing football was what he wanted to do. His only other sport was wrestling, and he wrestled mainly to achieve better body control for football.
“When I was a junior in high school, I was like, ‘I want to play this forever; I don’t ever want to stop,'” he said. “Once I really started focusing on players and what to do, I started watching guys like J.J. Watt, guys like Justin Smith, just those guys that played every snap like it’s their last. Those are the guys I watched.”
Which is exactly what the Broncos saw in him — a motor that never stops. Some scouts have issues with him, which is why it was something of a surprise when the Broncos took him ahead of better-known defensive linemen such as Kendall Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State. Not athletic enough, some say. Doesn’t deal well with double teams. Short arms.
The Broncos love his fire, his will to compete.
“On some testing things we do, he’s a high character guy and a guy that I think will bring a great attitude to our defense,” coach John Fox said.
“His background, you can see it in the way he plays,” Elway said.
“He’s really hungry,” Fox added.
“And that’s what makes him the player that he is,” Elway said. “And that’s why he’ll make us hungry on defense and he’s going to rub off on a lot of guys because he’s got a motor that doesn’t stop.”
A year ago, Wolfe almost made what he calls now “the worst decision of my life.” He nearly left school a year early to enter the draft, mainly to get a paycheck and escape poverty. He remembers sitting on his bed staring at seven dollars, all the money he had in the world.
“It was just like a breaking point,” he explained. “I was hungry. I was a month late on rent. Thank God one of my best friend’s mom owned the house we were staying at. I was just looking at it, like, ‘Seven bucks? Come on.’ I always have somebody I can go to, I’m never going to be without, but it’s like, when is enough enough? I’m tired of asking for things, you know? I’m tired of having to go ask my friend. It’s demoralizing when you have to do that because I’m a very private person. I don’t like asking for anything. So it hurts when you have to do stuff like that. I was just tired of it.”
Cincinnati football coach Butch Jones used the most practical of arguments to change his mind: He told him he’d be costing himself a bundle by coming out early.
“I decided I came this far, why stop now?” Wolfe said. “Why cut it short? Why not just ride it out? I can do one more year, grinding and eating nothing but what they give me, basically. It all worked out.”
Adam Hoppel, whom he followed to the University of Cincinnati, was signed to the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad for a while but never played in a regular season game. Wolfe, the kid his family took in, now has a chance to compete for a starting job on the Broncos’ defensive line. How his skills play out remains to be seen, but he will never need motivation.
“If you could see my area, it’s dead,” Wolfe said. “There’s not a lot going on. I was on my own for a little while and I didn’t have anything. That’s the best way I can say it. Growing up, I didn’t have anything. It was hard to get cleats sometimes. It was hard to get wrestling shoes. It was hard to do anything. You had to fight for everything you had. That’s why I fight so hard. I’ll play this game as long as I possibly can because it’s my escape from what’s really going on.”