“Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”
His perseverance with the technique illustrates his single-mindedness.
When many sports fans think of the term “professional athlete”, they think of players like LeBron James, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Judge. You know, the superstars in the limelight — the ones that were first-round draft picks, achieved massive amounts of popularity and success en route to fortunes unfathomable to the general population.
But what many don’t think about are the fringe players. The ones who overcame adversity, kept their nose to the proverbial grindstone, and persevered against all odds to succeed in the pursuit of their dreams.
For players like Denver Broncos defensive lineman Mike Purcell, who signed a three-year contract extension worth $14.8 million on Tuesday, the story is much closer to the latter than the former.
After a solid but unspectacular four-year career at the University of Wyoming, Purcell was on the outside looking in heading into the 2013 NFL Draft.
Coming into the league at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, there were questions about Purcell’s ability to hold the anchor in the running game against double teams, as well as his athletic ability in getting after the quarterback from the 3- or 5-technique defensive alignments.
As an undersized nose tackle with little positional flexibility and limited success rushing the passer, Purcell didn’t hear his name called during draft weekend.
That was the start of a remarkably fascinating journey. One that features a series of releases, a pregnant wife, and the sudden realization that maybe, just maybe, Purcell just wasn’t good enough to be in the league.
“The journey has been up and down,” Purcell said following practice on Tuesday. “There have been multiple times when I’ve thought about hanging it up and saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to move on and start a real career.'”
Purcell signed with the San Francisco 49ers after going undrafted, where he would spend the first two years of his career on the team’s practice squad. His first break came with the late-season release of Ray McDonald, opening room for the Niners to promote Purcell to the active roster for the first time in his career.
Purcell would then go on to play in 23 total games with eight starts over the next two seasons, recording 41 total tackles and a sack as a rotational nose tackle for the Niners’ defense.
Following the 2016 season, San Francisco would turn a new leaf on the story of its franchise, bringing in their new brain trust of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, all but ending Purcell’s stay in with the team. Shanahan was bringing in a new 4-3 defensive front, a scheme that doesn’t align with Purcell’s strengths as a 0-technique nose tackle.
Purcell was released following the 2017 draft after watching the Niners spend yet another first-round pick on a defensive lineman, this time former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas. With a new scheme and three promising young players on rookie deals, Purcell was once again the odd man out.
From there, Purcell went on a string of signings and releases that would make most men quit out of pure frustration. Rather than let his dreams fade into oblivion, Purcell took them personally. Every single one of them.
“One of the biggest ones was probably San Francisco,” he said. “If you’ve struggled in the league, you’re getting cut so many times before you finally find a home. For me, I was there for four years. Granted, the first two years was practice squad. I stayed there for four years total—two years on practice squad and two years active. From that point, it was the reality of the league.”
That reality included a grand total of five different teams calling his name over the next seven months, only for each of them to move on quickly after bringing him in. Oftentimes, Purcell wasn’t even able to showcase his talents for much more than a week before teams would move on.
The Los Angeles Rams started the fiasco, immediately claiming Purcell off of waivers after his release from San Francisco. He spent the entirety of training camp in L.A. before being released on the doorstep of the season.
From there, Purcell spent a month in Chicago on the practice squad before being released. Carolina was the next team to bring Purcell aboard, but it moved on six days later.
Shortly after that, Purcell was signed to New England’s practice squad for literally one day, then brought back a little over a week later. This time, he lasted a little over two weeks before being axed once again.
His final destination in 2017 was a late-season stint with Kansas City, where he would finish the season on the Chiefs’ practice squad.
Talk about a rollercoaster of emotions and frustration.
Making matters worse was the fact that Purcell bounced around the country without the support of his wife during that relentless gauntlet of misery.
“My wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time.” Purcell confided. “We traveled together to Chicago. We were there for about a month and we settled down into a place because we thought we might be there for a season. Two days later, I get a phone call in the morning saying, ‘Come in and turn in your iPad.’ From then, she stayed home, and I had to journey across the league. That whole year in general kind of hurt, but I kept pushing.”
His efforts would end up fruitless in 2018 as well.
Purcell signed a futures/reserve contract with the Chiefs following the 2017 season and spent the entirety of training camp in Kansas City, only to be bounced from the league at the start of the regular season. Purcell did not make another roster or practice squad that year, and his future as an NFL player looked incredibly bleak. So bleak, in fact, that Purcell started looking to life after football, including a career as a firefighter.
Fortunately, Purcell got an opportunity to play for the Salt Lake City Stallions of the Alliance of American Football, a jumpstart league with eyes on showcasing players looking for another chance at playing in the NFL.
It was just the ticket to revitalize Purcell’s competitive fire and reignite his love for the game of football.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a last-ditch effort. I wasn’t ready to hang up the pads. I wasn’t ready to hang up the cleats, so I went and played in that league.” Purcell explained. “It took me back to high school and college football. It was the love of the game and I was out there playing. It was a fun time. I went out there, had fun, played my ball and got another opportunity with it. It was exciting. If that didn’t work out, it could have been the end of the road. I’m glad it wasn’t.”
Despite the AAF only lasting all of one season, it was the opportunity Purcell needed to get his playing career back on track. Purcell played in all nine of the games that season racking up 14 total tackles, three sacks, and 11 total quarterback hits as well as knocking down five passes at the line of scrimmage.
In a twist of fate, the Broncos and newly-hired head coach Vic Fangio —Purcell’s former defensive coordinator in San Francisco and in Chicago — thought highly enough of Purcell’s play in the AAF to allow him a tryout opportunity during veteran mini-camp leading up to the 2019 draft, one that would eventually lead the team to sign him to a veteran minimum contract.
With another opportunity in hand, Purcell’s perseverance kicked into another gear.
That extra gear of motivation, relentless determination, and the gritty attitude on top of his dramatically improved play up front was on full display all preseason long, and for the first time in his playing career, Purcell landed on a team’s opening 53-man roster to start the season. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There was still work to be done.
Purcell was a gameday inactive to begin his Broncos tenure, not seeing any action at all over the first four weeks. During that time, Fangio’s defensive front struggled against the run and had just allowed Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette to rush for 225 yards on 29 carries in Week 4.
Part of the reason for that was the blatant misuse of Shelby Harris as the nose tackle in the running game. Denver opted to play Harris at the nose tackle position over Purcell, choosing to keep the added pass rush prowess Harris possesses available in sub-packages. Adam Gotsis and Derek Wolfe rotated through to varying ineffectiveness as well.
But in Week 5 and going against the Los Angeles Chargers and Melvin Gordon, Fangio chose to sit Gotsis in favor of Purcell to try to bolster the team’s running defense upfront.
From there, the rest is history.
The combination of adding Purcell and linebacker Alexander Johnson to the defensive front led the Broncos to their first win of the season, and Purcell was ready for his opportunity to shine.
“I’ve said it before—you have to go into a game thinking you’re the guy. You’ve got to prepare like you’re the one playing.” Purcell said of his fateful performance against the Chargers. “The weeks leading up to that, I was inactive, but I still prepared every week like I was the guy. When my number finally was called, it was time to perform and go out and to do what I prepared to do. It was a great game for me to come in and do that. Luckily, it was a turning point in the season.”
And a turning point for a career. From that point onward, there was little question as to if Purcell could handle the duties as a starter on the defense.
Purcell finished the 2019 season as the No. 1 run-defending interior defensive lineman in the entire league, posting a 91.0 run defense grade as well as a 14.3 run-stop percentage per Pro Football Focus, leading the league in both categories.
The Broncos took his success from 2019 and rewarded Purcell with a second-round restricted free-agent tender earlier in 2020, a good-faith gesture for an up and coming player, but also a “prove it” sort of deal for a player heading into his sixth NFL season. Though Denver was enamored with his ability to stop the run at the point of attack, there were still concerns with Purcell’s production in the passing game.
After all, run-defending defensive linemen are a dime a dozen, so why would the team tie themselves to a one-dimensional player, especially with plans to continue to fortify the defensive line in free agency as well as the 2020 draft? Purcell had to earn his future, despite having a career season the year before.
But even with a shortened offseason program due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Purcell continued to work to get better. And so far the early returns are highly promising.
Through necessity due to injuries along the defensive line, Purcell has gotten far more opportunities to get after the quarterback as a pass rusher. He has created a handful of pressures upfront by displaying a wicked swim move and even registered the team’s first sack of the season.
For those reasons, the Broncos made good on their end of the “prove it” deal, securing a long-term future with this rags-to-riches player through the 2023 season.
Purcell’s perseverance with the technique illustrated his single-mindedness, his dream of being an NFL player. And it allowed him the opportunity to provide generational wealth for him and his family.
The native of Highlands Ranch, CO, is glad to be home, saying his family is excited to be back in Denver and with the Broncos. And for the next three years, Purcell isn’t going anywhere.
As for coach Fangio?
“Mike is a real good story. The guy is a tremendous worker. He’s dedicated—his perseverance—he’s a good story of all that.” Fangio said during his Wednesday press conference. “I don’t know why he’s never stuck anywhere but he’s a good football player, he’s tough, strong, a great teammate, and I’m really happy for him on a personal level.”