DENVER — For Colorado kids, there’s a new idol in town.
Mike Purcell was cut 10 times, by six NFL teams. He toiled on practice squads in New England, Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City and North Carolina. He began 2019 in a league that no longer exists — the Alliance of American Football. When the AAF folded into oblivion, Purcell said, he briefly considered “a (real) job.”
“I probably would have (become a firefighter), if this didn’t work out,” Purcell said Tuesday.
It worked out — bigly. Once undrafted, unknown and unwanted, Big Mike signed a three-year extension with the Broncos, his hometown team, worth a reported $14.8 million — $8 million guaranteed. To honor the man, I drove from his old school, Highlands Ranch High, to UCHealth Training Center, where Purcell, a defensive lineman, became Colorado’s newest millionaire. The commute took 13 minutes. His wild journey took a decade — from The Ranch to the University of Wyoming to seven NFL teams. After all that cross-country travel, chasing a dream, the goal was always just down the road.
At one point, Big Mike played for “five different teams — six different teams?— in one calendar season. It was a lot.” At another point, he moved his pregnant wife into a sweet spot in Chicago, and “two days later I get the phone call in the morning: Come in, turn in your iPad.”
“There’s been multiple times where you think about hanging it up, maybe it’s time to move on, find a real career or start working,” Purcell said. “But to be home, here with the Denver Broncos… my family and I are super excited.”
This is no sympathy contract awarded by John Elway. In 17 games with the Broncos, Purcell has transformed the complexion of the Broncos defensive line. At 6-foot-3, 328 pounds, Big Mike debuted for the Broncos on Oct. 6, 2019 — playing 20 snaps against the Los Angeles Chargers. One year later to the day, the 29-year-old signed a life-changing, smile-inducing extension with the only team he’s ever loved. And he’s had options. Big Mike’s gotten around. Purcell actually played 21 games in 2019 — eight with the Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF, 13 with the Broncos.
Very possible that’s a franchise record. His story of perseverance is one for the record books.
“I’m proud of him,” veteran running back and close friend Melvin Gordon said.
When the AAF fell apart, Purcell researched a firefighting career — the ins and outs of becoming one, and whether his extra-large frame would be accepted in that line of work.
“I think I definitely would have slimmed up a little bit,” he said.
Vic Fangio discovered Purcell with the San Francisco 49ers, the first of seven NFL teams to employ Big Mike. Fangio once famously told Elway: Be careful, because you might like him.
“I’m my own worst critic. But at the same time I have the most faith in myself. I think I could’ve always played at this level. I think opportunity was part of it,” Purcell said. “What probably helped me was knowing this (Fangio) defense from my rookie year (with the 49ers). … Vic’s defense is not easy to catch on to. For me as a rookie a lot of that stuff was burned into my brain.”
Elway loved him. The GM expressed his affinity for the local kid by digging deep into the team’s bank account, and Purcell has yet to play fewer than the 20 snaps he saw in his Broncos debut. Like running back Phillip Lindsay before him, Mike Purcell provides a worthy role model for Colorado kids to see they can get there from here. Both have great, big hair, too.
The Broncos extended the Highlands Ranch defensive player before the Denver South offensive player. Think the defensive-minded head coach carries some weight around here?
“I never liked them growing up. Nobody did.”
“It’s in my blood. I’ll always hate the Raiders. That will never change.”