by Mike Bebernes
Teamwork. Courage. Dedication. Desire. Honesty. Goal Setting. These are the six pillars of success that former Pro Bowl linebacker Karl Mecklenburg preaches in his present job as a motivational speaker. He uses anecdotes from his 12 years as a Denver Bronco to relay his message to corporations, churches and charity groups in the Denver area and beyond. A theme that weaves through each of his speeches is the need for perseverance to overcome obstacles.
He speaks about losing his college scholarship at the University of Minnesota after tearing a ligament in his knee during a preseason scrimmage. “Have you ever been there? Where you worked and you fought and you planned and you dreamed for something then somebody pulls the rug out from under you right when you get there?” he says to a crowd in a promotional video on his website. “Don’t give up, don’t quit. That’s the difference between successful people and those that aren’t.”
These days, Mecklenburg, 52, might be the single biggest benefactor of his own advice. “Every time I sit down and work on a motivational speech, I’m reminded of what’s important,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m reminded of the fact that you have to have perseverance, you have to have dedication.”
Mecklenburg’s resolve has been tested in recent years by the onset of symptoms from traumatic brain injuries he suffered during his time playing football. He is one of more than 4,000 former players who have filed civil suits against the NFL, saying the league “deliberately ignored and actively concealed” information about the long-term effects of head trauma from players. He filed the same generic form as many of his colleagues. The form has check boxes for fields such as “Injury to Herself/Himself” and “Economic Loss.” The description of a player’s symptoms in court papers might be uniform, but the way the condition manifests itself in each man is unique and deeply personal.
For Mecklenburg, it is his memory that has betrayed him. “On a bad day, I end up places and don’t remember what I was trying to do. I’ll go out to the garage and can’t remember why I was there, what I was going to get or what I was planning to do,” he said. He has developed systems to compensate for his lack of retention. When he travels, he parks his car in the same section of the Denver airport – level two east- so he can find it when he returns home. His cell phone is filled with photographs of hotel doorways. “When I get to my hotel room, the first thing I do is take a picture of the hotel room number with my cell phone, make sure, otherwise, I’m lost.”
Mecklenburg played 12 seasons for the Broncos through the 1980s and ‘90s. He was named to six Pro Bowls and was first team All-Pro three times. He was a semi-finalist for Hall of Fame selection in both 2012 and 2013.
Though he makes his living with his words today, Mecklenburg was a silent leader on the field. “He was mute on game day. You never heard a word,” said Simon Fletcher, his teammate in the Denver linebacking corps for nine years, in a phone interview. “If you looked at his demeanor before kickoff, you knew he was going to give you everything he had until the end of the game. It was a look of silent intensity.”
Mecklenburg’s motivational speeches are built around overcoming shortcomings to achieve success, something he knew about from his first day in the NFL. Drafted in the 12th round in 1983 as a 240-pound nose guard, he was faced with the reality that he was too small to play the position he had always known. He was given two options: gain 20 pounds in two months or learn to play linebacker. “They didn’t say take steroids but they basically said take steroids.” he said. It was the advice of his father, an OBGYN, who warned him of the dangers of steroids, which informed Mecklenburg’s choice to avoid them. He would go on to play each position in the Broncos front seven over the course of his career, making his biggest contribution at inside linebacker. Mecklenburg’s career-long success was no surprise to Fletcher. “Whether in life, on the field, in his public speaking or service to his community, Karl Mecklenburg is fearless,” said Fletcher.
Fletcher is not entirely correct. Mecklenburg does fear that his memory issues will worsen to the point where his mnemonic systems are no longer enough. “I’m still a smart guy,” he said in an e-mail. “I just don’t easily remember names and numbers. It’s not difficult to deal with now, and hopefully where I’m at mentally now is where I’ll stay. Every position player in the NFL has had concussions of various degrees, but not every player goes over the edge mentally.“
He worries that he may end up like Dave Duerson, Shane Dronett and Junior Seau- three of his friends with brain injuries who killed themselves. “Unfortunately if I have a bad day now, or get upset about something, my loved ones have to ask themselves is Karl’s brain starting to go or is it just life?” he said. “ It feels like a time bomb in our heads, but we don’t have enough information to know what the clock is set for, or if it’s even active…Unfortunately those of us who played during the NFL’s misinformation era weren’t given the opportunity to decide if we were or weren’t willing to live with the time bomb. We live with it.”
The culture of ignorance about the effects of head trauma, said Mecklenburg, was pervasive throughout his playing career. “We were told as long as we can see and you’re not nauseous, you’re fine, get back in there,” he said. “You come to the sidelines, [trainers] hold up two fingers, ask you how many fingers? It’s always two, so you say two and you go back in. That’s what we did.”
The Broncos defensive identity through the 1980s centered on big hits from linebackers and safeties out the 3-4 defensive scheme. “That’s something we always competed for, who had the biggest hits, who had the most hits, who was the first guy to knock somebody out,” said fellow linebacker Michael Brooks. “We prided ourselves on that.”
Mecklenburg’s future gift for speaking showed up during his playing career. He was a reporters dream, giving pithy and poignant quotes. On the difference between two defensive coordinators, he told Peter King of Sports Illustrated, “Joe Collier’s defense was calculus. Wade’s [Phillips] is algebra.”
Though he said that the cumulative effect of countless blows to the head was equally important, Mecklenburg points to a handful of specific blows from his final year in the league that he believes are the root of his struggles today. “I had three concussions that last year and I didn’t ever really feel right until April the following season.”
Mecklenburg said he would have changed his behavior had he known of the future ramifications of his head injuries. “Yes, each player made a decision to put their body on the line to play in the NFL,” he said. “I expected the aches and pains I live with now. The problem is that the NFL systematically covered up and denied the long term effects of concussions when they knew that these effects existed.”
Mecklenburg’s intention with his lawsuit is not to seek revenge or to make money for himself, but to send a message to the NFL in the only form that he believes the league will hear. “What happened to me has happened and I understand that. But the NFL is a business and it operates on money,” he said. “If you want to get their attention. If you want to make them change. If you want the kid next door who’s playing football to know that getting a concussion is a real thing and a long term problem if its not treated right, the only way it’s going to happen is by lawsuits. That’s the only way the NFL is going to listen.”
He said he doesn’t know whether his symptoms will get worse over time, and he’ll continue to park in level two east, take pictures of doorways and study photographs of people so he doesn’t forget their names until he has to develop new systems. Many players have chosen not to file suit. Fletcher — he said he would sometimes come to practice on Monday begging for his job back because he had no memory of the previous day’s game and assumed he had missed it — said he dropped his own suit as a point of pride. “You knew the risks. You took the reward. You deal with the consequences,” he said.
A large number of players who have sued the NFL decline to speak about their symptoms. Mecklenburg has been open about his issues in his speeches and in interviews, which is a turnaround from his time as a player. “He was just a quiet guy,” said Brooks. “He never wanted to really open up about his personal life.” Mecklenburg sees honesty about his condition as another chance to lead by example, as well as a means of connecting to people with his speeches. “I’ve got some dings and some nicks to me, but that’s ok that’s what makes me human,” he said. “When I tell a story about a failure, then people can relate to me better than if I’m just talking about, you know, this Pro Bowl and that Pro Bowl and going to the Super Bowl…that separates me from the audience rather than being a vulnerable person that brings me closer to the audience.”
The audience for one of Mecklenburg’s speeches can know that the man giving it believes in the words he’s saying. He needs them himself. “If you have a passion in your life and a direction you want to go, you’ve got to make daily decisions in that direction,” he said. “Being reminded of that over and over again is a wonderful thing.”