Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe (AP Photo/Jack Dempsy).
THIS WOLFE WON'T CRY
When he was in 5th grade, a buddy asked him to have dinner at his house. Hungry as he was for a good meal, starving as he was for some company, his pride pushed him aside and answered first. "No thanks. Gotta get home."
"I always said no,” admits Derek Wolfe, the Denver Bronco's second year D Lineman. “I didn't want anyone feeling sorry for me and I didn't think anyone would actually want to be with me for any other reason. I figured it was just pity."
True pity was the fact that he was raised to believe he was worthless. Raised by a man who raised his fists, raised his voice and destroyed the core of a young boy who was not his own, reminding him every day that he wasn't. "I wasn't his kid. He kept me around to abuse me. To break me down."
"I didn't want anyone feeling sorry for me and I didn't think anyone would actually want to be with me for any other reason. I figured it was just pity."
Not knowing who his real father is to this day, the stepfather had married his mom when Derek was just 3 months old. Together, the man and the boy rode the rollercoaster of her addiction and together they drove late nights through the tiny town of Lisbon, Ohio to look for her. Once found, strange men would protest her departure and a fight would usually ensue. Come dawn, while most kids were slipping into their fuzzy slippers, Derek Wolfe was sliding out of a pickup with a bruised stepfather and a wasted mother in tow.
The inevitable divorce came and with it went Derek Wolfe and the stepdad across town with a school district named Beaver Local. Understanding that it was a choice to keep him in the pack, Derek Wolfe was grateful to the man and he showed that gratitude by keeping the constant beatings and verbal demoralization to himself through junior high.
Wicked came the new stepmother and before the end of her first night, a fight broke out over the dinner dishes. "We ate our first meal together. I remember thinking, this could be nice. Like family. Instead she got up from the table and told me to do the dishes." Something from her tone sucked the rose color right out of his glasses. I said, "How about if we do them together?"
It was either his audacity or mere presence that set her off. The maiden in distress cried wolf and Derek was unceremoniously tossed out.
Months later, stepdad asked him back, but by then his bruises had healed nicely. He had bounced from his friend Logan Hoppel's house to his Grandma's and then his two aunts', so he would appear to be "visiting" instead of homeless. But mothers know, some anyway, and Kris Hoppel saw that a boy was suffering and asked him to stay for good. Soon he became family and at 15 he emancipated himself from his mother who had been cashing in on his existence by cashing his government checks to support her habit.
"I am a strong believer that in life you're going to become who you have around you."
At that same time, he started to thrive under the structure of family, guidance, affection and good old-fashioned farm work. It was on the Hoppel farm that he honed a work ethic and thrived on contributing and kinship. The Hoppels are a big wrestling family too and it was on the mat that the 270-pounder conquered the demons that might put a weaker man on his back. He went 32 and 2 his senior year with a trip to the state championship. The Hoppel clan spoon-fed kindness to the young man until the only hunger he would feel would be the hunger to succeed on the farm, on the mat and on the field - as in football field.
College coaches began mapquesting their way to Negley, Ohio by Derek's junior year to meet the 6'5" tackle who in ten games had racked up 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 9 tackles for a loss and 5 deflections. While he appreciated them all rolling up their pant legs for a visit, Derek had a good reason to commit to Cincinnati and that was Adam Hoppel, Logan's older brother. Truth was, he'd gotten used to the familiarity of family in any form and having his network close felt like the right thing to do.
The Hoppels would caravan to Cincinnati for all of his games. "It was the first time in my life that I was opening up to anyone and I knew I needed them in my life." His newfound brotherhood would extend to the Pastore brothers, Josh and Jamin. "I am a strong believer that in life you're going to become who you have around you. The Hoppels and the Pastores kept me straight. They taught me how to treat people, how to work hard and how to get results from that hard work."
The life lessons of his extended family would result in a stellar start in Cincinnati. Derek would see time as a true freshman and start 13 games as a sophomore where he finished with 41 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble and recovery and a quarterback hurry. Newspaper articles in Beaver Local shed a spotlight on the promising young prospect and with that, his mom saw great opportunity, for herself. "She called to get back in my life. She wanted money and I didn't have it. She called the university for it. She threatened to sue."
Sad truth was that Derek Wolfe didn't have it. In fact, junior year he only had $7.00 to his name and the worry of it almost made him make the mistake of a lifetime. "I knew it wasn't the right time to leave for the league," Wolfe reflected. Cincinnati had finished 4 and 12 and although his numbers were respectful, they were clouded by the record. "I called Josh and told him I was going. He didn't lecture me or judge me. He didn't force his opinion on me. He didn't ask why and I didn't go into it. He just read between the lines and sent me enough cash to get through the school year, in case money had anything to do with my decision. That is family. I let him in - in my way and he showed me he cared - in his."
Derek Wolfe's senior year at Cincinnati would prove the importance of that wait. He tallied 70 tackles with 31 solo stops, 21.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. He was declared the BIG EAST Co-Defensive Player of the Year, a First Team All BIG EAST selection at defensive tackle, named to five All-American teams, and a Second Team All-America selection at defensive tackle by the Associated Press and Scout.com. The wait, was in fact, worth its weight in gold, as Derek Wolfe became the 36th overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft.
The Hoppels and the Pastores hosted Derek's draft party on the farm. A family moment shared by good people who saw a suffering soul and gifted him with arms opened instead of hands out. "My family doesn't care about ball. They care about my life. They ask me - how is your life?" He is grateful and knows all too well how susceptible players can be to being played. "People point and say, 'There he is', but what am I to them, really? When all the lights are shut off and I'm not playing anymore, what am I then? No one in the football world cares. Why? Because you can't do anything for them anymore. My brothers and I always say, 'Are they do or die?', Before I let anyone in, I always ask that. This way I avoid people who are in my life for the wrong reasons."
"I was afraid to let go of my anger because it drives me. Deep down though, I knew it was becoming reckless. I had to re-channel the fire, before it became destructive."
Letting love in for the first time didn't exactly kill him but, he admits, it nearly did. He met her in Florida during off-season training. She was an athlete like him and his connection to her was quick and fierce. "Letting someone like her in for the first time was like removing layers and layers of layers." In the end, the chiseling left him too vulnerable, too open, too pure. He had given heart, mind, body and soul and the responsibility of nurturing his needs and calming his fears of re-abandonment was too much for anyone - especially a creature as fragile as himself.
"When she cut it off, all the hate came back. I had to find a way to get it off. Hate is like a poison. Everything hurts when you hate." So he did what most boys do when they get hurt, he called his mom. He didn't know what to expect. He didn't even know what he wanted. He just thought it might feel good. "I was already crushed, so I figured, what could hurt more?"
It had been four years since he last saw or spoke to her. In the last year alone he got his degree, moved across the country, started in 16 pro games and signed a four-year contract with the Broncos. In that same year, his mom got a fatal diagnosis, battled a brain tumor, recovered from surgery and signed a new lease on life. She was sober. She was straight. And she seemed to be glad he called. He called Josh and asked him to make the trip with him. Perhaps he was hoping Josh's innate ability to read into things might help him make sense of his need to see her.
It would seem his biggest fear might be her rejection. Instead he contemplated the loss of a larger need. That which fueled his passion, lit up the football field and paid his bills. "I was afraid to let go of my anger because it drives me. Deep down though, I knew it was becoming reckless. I had to re-channel the fire, before it became destructive."
"The only time I ever felt happy was when I was miserable. The release of anger was pleasing and I understood that as happiness."
Considering the current epidemic casting a shadow on the league, with a 75% increase in player arrests since 2012 (there have been over 30 since the Super Bowl), perhaps Derek Wolfe is on to something. Players are valued for their violent collisions, for laying a player out. We revere the field assassin. *On the football field, that can get you in the Hall of Fame. On the streets, it can get you in the penitentiary. "There are a lot of us guys that use anger as fuel. The game becomes the vehicle. The roads we choose - well that's on us."
They would meet in Lisbon. He picked the date. The time. The place. "When you are forgiving someone for something they did to hurt you - it gets to be on your terms." He has decided that he is doing this for himself and he doesn't feel that this is selfish. "There came a point when I realized that in order to have a healthy relationship with anyone - even myself, I'd have to let go with my mom.
Where he braced himself for indignation, he instead found regret. She admitted that he had not been a priority in her life, that she had not been a good mom, that she was wrong. She expressed sorrow in words and gesture and hoped for a relationship. By the time he left, he had forgiven her, even though she never asked him to.
"There are a lot of us guys that use anger as fuel. The game becomes the vehicle. The roads we choose - well, that's on us."
And while the world of naysayers shake their heads at a seemingly naive boy, about to be lured back into the trap, Derek Wolfe is wise to the worry. "All she has asked for and all I am willing to give is time. The gift of time. Talking, checking in, just answering the phone when she calls." It's a choice she knows he has and he has an arm's length of reasons not to. "Every time I answer the phone she says, thank you." It's a big step and for the first time in Derek's life, he feels he is worthy to receive that love and ready to believe it might be real.
"Anger is just an energy, you have to take it and channel it into something else. Don't react with your temper, react with your talent."
He credits his newfound clarity to the Hoppels and the Pastores. It is Jimmy Pastore that he publically refers to as dad. He remains grateful for the time they continue to invest in his life, honing his work ethic, his business principles, his character. "What they taught me most is that to care about yourself, you have to care about other people."
They taught him this, not in words, but in action and reaction to his own needs and in their constant reassurance that he matters in their lives.
A rookie no more, Derek sees the world differently now. He no longer feels like he is on the outside looking in. "Everyone is chasing happiness. Turns out, the only time I ever felt happy was when I was miserable. The release of anger was pleasing and I understood that as happiness." Like many with a cross to bear, he had something to prove. Life had tested him, tried him and he responded to the blows with brutal force. But he's a quick study and after one rookie season he has learned that you can't let the fight inside destroy you. "Look,” he said, spinning a Wilson game ball in the air, "this little football has given me everything I have. A face, an identity, an income, a purpose. " This is a personal affirmation. A refusal to link his name to a staggering stat that has NFL execs clamoring to find a solution. "Anger is just an energy, you have to take it and channel it into something else. Don't react with your temper, react with your talent."
"This little football has given me everything I have. A face, an identity, an income, a purpose."
This off-season, Derek Wolfe has honed that talent and is poised to build off of a rookie season where his skills were proven (he led the Denver's defensive line in snaps (over 1000), recorded 40 tackles, six sacks and batted down two passes) and his leadership abilities unleashed, early on. Veteran players like Wesley Woodyard, Kevin Vickerson, and Von Miller already respect him for his on and off the field work ethic and the 2013 first pick Sylvester Williams, acknowledges that he already follows his lead. Wolfe is hungry again, not for love or money, not for food or friendship. He is hungry for a ring and he'll huff and he'll puff 'til he gets one.
* Excerpt from Zordich/Lyon When The Clock Runs Out/Letting Go/Triumph Books
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out: 25 former NFL greats share their stories of post career hardship and triumph. Zordich/Lyon/Triumph Books. She is currently a contributing author for NFL Player Engagement. www.cynthiazordich.com.