Of all the Quaz subjects I’ve interviewed thus far, with no one do I share fewer commonalities than Karl Mecklenburg. A six-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Denver Broncos, Karl is a conservative Christian whose beliefs—in many cases—seem to run polar opposite to many of mine.
And yet … who cares? Karl Mecklenburg is the kind of human being we all should strive to be: Socially aware, charitable, family oriented, decent. Since retiring from the NFL after the 1994 season, Karl has worked as a motivational speaker, is the author of Heart of a Student Athlete: All Pro Advice for Competitiors and Their Families, and heads his own charitable organization, the REACH Foundation, which helps provide Denver schoolchildren with resources and opportunities.
Here, he talks on a wide range of matters, from political views to the ludicrousness of an 18-game schedule to being the 310th overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft to the pressures he felt (and ignored) to use performance-enhancing drugs with the Denver Broncos.
It is my pleasure to welcome Karl Mecklenburg to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: The Giants once had a quarterback named Dave Brown. He played here for years—was often booed, sometimes cheered. When he retired, he went into some sort of investment field. He still lives in the New York City region, yet nobody pays him any mind—because his name is Davis Brown, and the world has 8 million others.
You, on the other hand, are named Karl Mecklenburg—probably the only one in the world. Is this a curse or a blessing? Because I’ve often felt that famous retired athletes are, in a sense, trapped. You’ll always be remembered, first and foremost, for a job you held when you were 28 … no matter what else transpires. There’s no escape.
KARL MECKLENBURG: The other side of that equation is that name recognition is very valuable. It opens doors of opportunity all the time. I believe that the number one benefit that I took away from my time in the NFL was name recognition. Without name recognition your resume as a retired NFL linebacker qualifies you to be a football coach or a bouncer. I can lend my name to an important cause and people line up to help. My wife Kathi and I started the REACH foundation 6 years ago and we are making a huge difference in the lives of Denver Public Elementary School kids. Many of my speaking clients use my name recognition to fill their customer, association, or business meetings. The doors of opportunity open and then it’s up to that recognized name to step in and do a first rate job.
J.P.: So I’ve always been curious about something regarding athletes—it’s blunt, awkward … and you’re going to be the one I ask. I’m pretty sure at some point I noticed on your Facebook page (or somewhere) that you lean conservative when it comes to politics. I’ve covered sports for a long time, and I’m always taken aback by the split, in this area, among white athletes and minority athletes. It seems most white athletes are Republicans, most black athletes are Democrats. And what confounds me is that, from your years playing alongside so many African-Americans, you’re surely aware of the struggle that often comes with race. You’ve seen many blacks, I’m guessing, who grew up poor and succeeded, in part, because of the local YMCA or Boys & Girls Club or community center; who were raised in public housing that was, in all likelihood, government subsidized. In short, you’ve seen the good government can do in helping people who need hope. So why do so many white athletes support the party that, without fail, works to end such programs?
K.M.: My mother [Marjory] was a Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Reagan Administration. When she took the job she had many wonderful things she wanted to accomplish from that position but soon found out how truly difficult and wasteful it is to try and legislate local change nationally. The groups you identified as making a difference in athlete’s lives operate and for the most part are funded within the local community. They have the flexibility to see and act on local issues. I don’t have a problem with charity. As a matter of fact I have spent and will continue to spend my time and money to make my community a better place. What I don’t agree with is that national government can do a more effective job identifying worthwhile local causes and distributing my money then I can. Yes I have friends who grew up hard, but I have never heard one of them attribute their success to a national government run program. Mothers, coaches, teachers, grandmothers, pastors, fathers, these are the difference makers, local people making a difference in their communities. I can’t tell you why other NFL players vote the way they do, but I am conservative.
J.P.: You were the 310th overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. The immortal Clete Casper was picked 311th. I’m fascinated by this. A. Did you know/assume you were going to get drafted? B. How’d you find out, and what was your reaction? C. What sort of prejudice did you face, reporting to camp, as a 12th rounder? And was there a moment when you think people started realizing, “Dang, this guy can play?”
K.M. That’s 20 picks away from Mr. Irrelevant. There were reasons I was a late pick. I was a 240-pound defensive tackle running a 4.9 forty on a good day. I played with my knee in a brace after surgery and had a broken foot from that crummy turf in the Metrodome. My junior year I tied with Andre Tippett for the Big Ten sack lead. We played from behind so much my senior year that nobody threw the ball against us.
The Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons had shown enough interest that I expected to be drafted earlier then the 12th round. There was no ESPN or wall-to-wall draft coverage in 1983. No cell phones either, so I stayed home and waited for the phone to ring. On the second day of the draft Kathi had stayed with me and was planning to make me a congratulatory margarita when the call came in. It got to be 11 o’clock at night with no call so she fixed me a “This Stinks” margarita and went home and I went to bed. The phone finally rang at about 12:30. Instead of a head coach it was the Broncos’ secretary, Jenny Anne. She told me they had picked me and gave me the details on how to get my airline ticket for a Denver press conference the next day.
The Broncos brought rookies to Denver in June to train and prepare for training camp. We all stayed in the hotel across the street from the Broncos facility and got to know each other really well that summer. It was a good year to be a Bronco rookie. Thirteen of us ultimately made the team. The year before had been disappointing one for the Broncos and the team was going through a purge of the roster. Dan Reeves was old school and as hard-nosed as they come, but he had a soft spot for overachievers. He had been one himself as a player with the Cowboys, so he saw himself when he watched me.
They had me playing nose guard at the start of camp but I tore a ligament in my elbow the week before our first preseason game. You need to extend both arms on every play at nose guard so they moved me to defensive end and taped my right arm at a 90-degree angle. After playing defensive end in the Broncos system for a week I somehow got matched up against Seattle’s starting left tackle for the third quarter of the first preseason game. I got two sacks against him and forced a fumble despite my injury. Afterward Coach Reeves named John Elway as the offensive player of the game and me as the defensive player of the game. If you’re getting the same accolades as the first pick of the whole draft you’re going to make the team.
I’m not sure I would make a roster in today’s NFL. I was a football player, not a height/weight/40-yard dash guy who looks good in shorts. We had five weeks of full contact, full pads football at our training camps. Today’s training camps are shorter with much less hitting. The majority of practice is done without full pads. There are few opportunities for late round draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents to show that they belong.
J.P.: Part of your work nowadays is as a motivational speaker. I’m going to be 100 percent honest: I’ve always found the ties between athletes and motivational speaking to be odd. What I mean is this—Just because a guy plays in the Super Bowl or captained a defense doesn’t mean he’s qualified to tell, say, the 100 participants in IBM’s corporate retreat how to increase sales. People assume sports translate to real life, and I’m not sold. So I request this, Karl: Tell me why I’m wrong. Because I certainly might be missing something.
K.M.: I believe there are universal unchanging keys to success that apply across the board. They are every bit as important to the businessman as they are the ball player. These keys include: teamwork (with leadership being its ultimate expression); courage (the courage to try new things and the courage to be decisive); honesty and forgiveness (with yourself in self evaluation and then with others); dedication (which is hard work, constant learning, and refusing to quit); desire (that’s the dream, passion, or mission); and finally, goal setting (the reasonable, short-term, specific steps that take you to your desire). The reason that people find sports so captivating is that they get to see the athletes react to stressful situations and observe the obvious display or lack of these traits on the field. There is instant credibility that comes with captaining a sports team. Your actions and results are out there for everyone to see. Rajon Rondo’s courage as he recently led the Celtics to a playoff game win over the Heat with a dislocated elbow is a great example of inspirational courage and how it can work for a leader. The team focus and commitment that championship clubs demonstrate are easily related to a businesses making a commitment to increasing sales, customer service, or any other business mission. The corporate world is crying out for teamwork and leadership. The average corporate employee stays with the same company for less than three years. Successful businesses value the lessons that can be learned from team sports and value the messages of the athletes they bring in to motivate their business teams.
J.P.: The NFL clearly wants to go to an 18-game schedule. I have yet to meet a retired football player who thinks this is a good idea. You were known as an extremely dogged, extremely hard-nosed football player. Hence, I ask: A. How’s your body? What hurts? What doesn’t hurt? B. How do you feel about the possibility of 18 games?
K.M.: I’ve had 16 football-related surgeries, including nine knee surgeries and more than a dozen concussions. Some days are better than others. Today some weather came in so my back, neck, and knees are sore. I am 50-years old now, and I find that as I get older it gets harder to ignore the toll of 12 years in the NFL. Many of the long-term effects of football, especially the effects of concussions, are just now coming to light. Trying to add games to the schedule as these medical discoveries are being released is foolishness. How can the NFL tell the public and players they are concerned about safety in the game and then try to add two more games a year? This wasn’t part of your question but I think it relates to it. As a player representative for the Broncos I fought with Gene Upshaw, the union head, about providing health insurance to retired players for years. He felt that he was responsible for the active players while they were playing and that was all. I felt that he was responsible for the active players though their lifetime, not just the average 3 1/2 years of an NFL career. Many retired players are uninsured and uninsurable. There is no reason other than the shortsightedness and greed of both the union and the NFL that there still isn’t health insurance for retired players.
J.P.: In reading about your life, I got into the Mecklenburg REACH Foundation. And, I have to say, I absolutely love your commitment to getting kids in the Denver public schools to read. Where does this come from? I mean, I’m genuinely fascinated: Why reading? What about reading inspires you? And do the kids receive bonus points for buying Meck For The Defense on Amazon?
K.M.: There are no bonus points for buying the book. REACH is an acronym for Rewarding Experiences for All Children. I believe that God has given us all more talent than we can use in a life time but along with that he’s given us free will. That means it is up to the individual to go out, have new and varied experiences and find where his/her talents lie. One of the best ways to sample the wide variety of experiences the world has to offer is through reading, especially for young people with limited means. The high school graduation rate in Denver is less than 50 percent. National statistics say that 90 percent of high school drop outs quit because they can’t read. We are reaching the kids in elementary school and incentivizing and challenging them to read 100 minutes a week. I have dyslexia which made learning to read and write difficult for me. Now I’m an award-winning author. I had a lisp as a child and was in speech therapy for years. Now I’m a professional speaker and spoke at the World Speaker’s Summit in South Africa a few years ago. I’m a slow white kid from the suburbs who became an All-Pro linebacker. We are encouraging and challenging young people to read so they will be aware of what is possible in their lives. This is my home and these are my people. The conservative in me believes that an educated Denver is a prosperous and healthy Denver.
J.P.: You retired from the NFL in 1995. Many athletes struggle with this—moving on; finding meaning in life; avoiding depression. I mean, it makes sense. The transition, from 60,000 screaming fans to dead quiet, must be brutal. Did you go through any rough patches in the aftermath, and how were you able to move on beyond the field?
K.M.: It took me some time to adjust. For all of my adult life I had a full schedule of things I had to do. When I retired from football it was a huge change. Now there were infinite options of what to do and I found it overwhelming. It did free me up to spend more time with my wife and kids which was one of the reasons that I retired. The thing that I found I missed most from football was the adrenaline. It’s very difficult to replicate the excitement of taking the field on game day but speaking comes close. I game plan and prepare by adjusting my presentation to meet the needs of the client. I get the adrenaline I’m addicted to, perform at a high level and then evaluate my performance with honesty and forgiveness. I set some goals and move on to the next job. In many ways speaking is like football without the injuries.
J.P.: Everyone makes such a big deal about PED in baseball, and somehow the NFL skates by. How big a problem do you think performance enhancers are in football, and how prevalent were they when you were playing? Did you ever turn to illegal PED, either to boost performance or overcome an injury?
K.M.: Yes they were around but PED were something I was never tempted to try. When the Broncos drafted me they told me I should gain 25 pounds and weigh 265 pounds by the start of training camp while working out to be in the best shape of my life. They didn’t tell me to use steroids but that’s what they meant. I ate like it was Thanksgiving every day and got up to 245 by camp. I wasn’t going to risk my health by taking drugs. If I didn’t make the team I was going to go to medical school. I was one of the strongest guys on the team without using drugs. Everyone I know who has used PED regrets it and wonders what they could have accomplished without them.
J.P.: I once had a conversation with Matt Suhey about Super Bowls, and how they can’t possibly live up to the hype. You played in three. Do Super Bowls live up to the hype? And what was your greatest Super Bowl moment and lowest Super Bowl moment?
K.M.: I’m not the right guy to ask about great Super Bowl moments, or the game living up to its billing. We played in three of them and were blown out in all three. To this day I’m frustrated about those games. My lowest Super Bowl moment was getting leg whipped in the second quarter by a 49ers lineman and tearing cartilage in both of my knees. After working so hard to get back to the Super Bowl for a third time, it was devastating being taken out by a cheap shot.
J.P.: This story is on your website, under the Faith section, and it’s pretty spectacular: In 1987, the NFL players went on strike. I was picketing at a “replacement players game”, and signing autographs for the union workers kids, who were helping us picket. I noticed I was signing an extra autograph, so I asked if anyone was going to the game. A kid answered that he was, and because I was a union leader, because we had agreed not to promote the game by signing stuff for the fans, and because I’m a tactless fool, I took back the autograph, tore it in half, and told the kid he couldn’t have an autograph if he was going to the game. The next day, his father wrote a letter to the editor of the Denver Post, and my world turned upside down. I had lived for fan adoration for a long time, and now it was gone. I got death threats instead of fan mail,. The media was in a frenzy over the incident. A group in Denver formed called “Mothers Against Mecklenburg”. I tried to turn to my wife and friends for support, only to find my pride had alienated them. I had found it easier to bask in the praise of those who didn’t know me, than to act on the criticism of those who did.
Karl, I’m Jewish. My kids are Jewish. My wife is Jewish. My wife is the most amazing, most selfless, most empathetic person I know. She’s a social worker who used to run a homeless shelter for kids. Her life is about giving, giving, giving, and she’s never asked for credit. Do you believe, as a Christian, that she’ll wind up in hell simply because she doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as her lord and savior. And, if so, isn’t that sorta messed up?
K.M.: It’s not fair. Fair would be a system to earn your way to heaven based on the good things you do in your life. Fair would be God talking to each of us, laying down the rules of the game, and reminding us when we’re getting close to the point of no return. It’s unfair that we are asked to believe before we can know, and so many people need to know before they can believe. It’s not fair that a repentant murderer goes to the same heaven as a saint. It isn’t fair that the one perfect man had to sacrifice himself to forgive the sins of sinners. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it. It’s not fair.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KARL MECKLENBURG
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember: No.
• What was it like playing with Alphonso Carreker?: Phonz was a powerful lineman and pass rusher. He called his bull rush the fork lift.*
• Most talented NFL player people would be surprised to hear you mention: Dennis Smith. Dennis was an unbelievable player for us. Maybe he never got his due because of the name recognition factor you started this with.
• McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Boston Market or Wendy’s?: Boston Market.
• A memory from your senior prom?: Kathi and I dancing to Color My World.
• Celine Dion or Jimi Hendrix?: Merle Haggard.
• Best place you’ve ever vacationed: Bora Bora.
• John Elway vs You in tennis?: John has had a knee and a hip replaced. I think I could take him.
• Best concert you’ve attended: Karla Bonoff.
* Confession: I asked about Alphonso Carreker because, in interviews like these, reporters often say, “So, what was it like playing with Derek Jeter?”—never “What was it like playing with Luis Sojo?” So I randomly picked a Sojo. Karl didn’t flinch.