Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Chapter After Sunday: A Chat With Broncos Star Karl Mecklenburg

Author's note: I had the opportunity to speak with NFL All-Pro linebacker Karl Mecklenburg recently about his new book and his playing career. Along with some fascinating stories about what it's like at an NFL training camp and an honest discussion of the pressures of being a professional athlete, the Broncos great articulates how a commitment to athletics can positively shape a person in his book, Heart of a Student Athlete. Check out the book here and his website here and read below how to win a free signed copy.

Karl Mecklenburg was never supposed to make it to the NFL. The climb was a steep one for a 235-pound college senior with an injured knee who played on the defensive line. But Mecklenburg didn't care what he was or was not supposed to do. It was a climb he was determined to make. After a twelve year career as a Denver Bronco--a captain--and three trips to the Super Bowl and six appearances in the Pro Bowl, it's safe to say, he made it. Now with the same intangible qualities that made him a football star, he's making an impact again.

Heart of a Student Athlete

Mecklenburg's debut book, Heart of a Student Athlete: All Pro Advice for Competitors and Their Families is the sum of his experiences as a student-athlete, a professional football player, a father, son, husband and a motivational speaker. The underlying premise, that success is overcoming obstacles on the way to your dreams, didn't dawn on him yesterday. It's a mentality that was ingrained in him as a youth and one he has carried with him since.

Mecklenburg grew up in hockey country in Minnesota, the son of educated and accomplished parents. His father became an obstetrician gynecologist and an infertility specialist, and his mother raised the four children and later became president of two pro-life organizations, and eventually was appointed deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services where she served the Reagan administration for six years. Education was a priority for their children. So was opportunity.

At age nine, in the fall of 1969, Mecklenburg got his first chance to strap on football pads. A year earlier he saw his beloved Minnesota Gophers football team play for the first time at Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis.

"My dad had no illusions of me earning a college scholarship, let alone making a profession out of football when he brought me to that first college football game," he writes.

It was an incredible atmosphere, and he was hooked. His first opportunity as a part of the action came as one of eighty-five kids in a "Football Fundamentals" program. The kids played inter-squad scrimmages on a patch of dirt and weeds and after his first taste of the action he told his father with a grin, "I really love to smash guys!" That's the type of comment that would concern a parent of a badly behaved child. But a nine year old who gets a mean streak when he puts on pads? Different story. Controlled aggression is a boon in some professions. But it wasn't quite that easy.

The Intangibles

Mecklenburg's road to the NFL was not paved with roses and candy. One of the first major tests, both of his character and his passion for football, came when he was a new student at a suburban Minneapolis high school. He was playing on the JV football team as a junior and landed in the varsity head coach's doghouse when he missed a game due to a family commitment. The coach assigned him the task of running one hundred hills after practice the following week. A "hill", Mecklenburg explains, referred to a sixty yard long, fifty degree bluff and wetland area that separated the school from the practice fields. Basically, the coach was trying to force him to quit. After twenty painful, draining hills each day after practice, the punishment had the opposite effect: it strengthened Mecklenburg's love for the game of football, his belief in his own abilities, and it fueled a burning desire within him play college football and be damn good at it.

Every young student athlete will face obstacles in some form. There will be challenges, failures, trials and errors but, Mecklenburg says, "What separates those who make it and those who don't is how they handle those problems." That's how Mecklenburg explained the maturation process in a young student athlete.

Mecklenburg was never supposed to run all those hills. But he completed the task, on his own, without the intervention of his parents, and probably much to the surprise of his coach. The experienced proved a valuable one, because his improbable path to the NFL was an obstacle course that took him through a division two school, a false promise, a year of ineligibility, a torn knee ligament and a painful rehabilitation, and a head coach that didn't think highly of an injured player who wouldn't give up his earned scholarship.

But Mecklenburg was not deterred, and his talent was discovered thanks in part to an impressive performance against Northwestern guard Chris Hinton, the Broncos first-round pick in the 1983 NFL draft. The Broncos took Mecklenburg eleven rounds later as the 310th overall pick. Even the Broncos staff had mixed reviews, with one scout reporting that he was too small to play lineman, but might be suitable for linebacker, and another reported that he was too slow for linebacker, but perhaps he could play lineman.

"There will be nay-sayers, but anyone who is successful in a difficult field is not there by accident," Mecklenburg says.

During his NFL career, Mecklenburg's desire was to be the greatest football player ever. A lofty desire, sure, but he will say that you have to set high goals to achieve great things. The results speak for themselves: the Broncos staff converted Mecklenburg to a linebacker and there were games when he played all seven defensive front positions in a single game. He became a Broncos captain, earned All-Pro honors six times and in 2001 became a member of the Broncos Ring of Fame. He is also a member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

Six Keys to Success

For 25 years, from the first time Mecklenburg suited up as a nine year-old in Football Fundamentals until his retirement from the NFL in 1994, September meant one thing: football season. So when it ended, Mecklenburg experienced that moment that every passionate football player does. It's that feeling when a season ends, and there are no more practices, no more film sessions, whistles, bruises or trainers. And of course, no more football to be played. But this time it wasn't the season that ended-- it was his professional football career. No more NFL-inspired adrenaline rushes.

"I used to have an itinerary every week with a game-plan, what to eat, what to do, what to lift," he recalls. "Then all of a sudden, you wake up and there's no schedule, and that was a challenge. I could move, stay up all night. I was kind of aimless."

That liberating confusion didn't last long. This was a guy that would have gone to medical school if he didn't reach NFL fame. He just needed a new passion and desire. So Mecklenburg embraced his legacy, or his NFL celebrity, or whatever you want to call it. He poured all the things that made him a legend on the field into his next profession and next desire with his speaking business and this book: "to inspire long-term positive change in teams and individuals."

Mecklenburg reflected on a football career that by objective standards never should have been, and drew on all his experiences to devise what he describes as a template for success. This template, comprised of the six keys to success, include: teamwork, courage, honesty and forgiveness, dedication, desire and goal setting. The keys are interrelated and interdependent. Don't be fooled though, he isn't running a 12-step program and he doesn't think his word is bond.

"I've challenged my audience to come up with another key; if they do, and it fits, I'm happy to make it seven," Mecklenburg says.

His equipment these days is a podium rather than pads and spikes, and he doesn't get to smash people, but the element of game-planning, tailoring his message to a specific audience and connecting with his listeners keeps him excited and engaged.

"I perform at a high level for a short period of time," he says, and each time he steps to the front of a group he has the opportunity to fulfill his new desire to inspire long-term positive change.

Mecklenburg discusses a "seesaw" in his book to describe the balance of a team, whether it be a sports team, a family or a business. It's a balance of the team-first "leaders" and me-first "egos". Most people are somewhere in the middle, he explains, and the balance sways depending on the size and influence of each group. With Mecklenburg out there spreading his message, there are sure to be more people on the right side of the balance.

To Purchase or Win a Signed Copy:

Heart of a Student-Athlete: All Pro Advice For Competitors and Their Families is available through Mecklenburg's web site or through your local Independent Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Borders, or Walden Books.

To win a free copy, go to the guest book on his site (bottom of the page) and mention SportsJudge and you will be entered to win a signed copy of the book.

You can reach Brett Smiley at basmiley@gmail.com

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Cleezy said...

Mecklenburg = GOD

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