It is a celebration and a release — another sack to add to his stat sheet and of rage that has been building since he laced up his cleats and stepped on the field.
“I’m on the verge of wanting to get kicked out of every game because I just want to start swinging at people,” he says, bluntly. “Every game I want to rip off some offensive lineman’s helmet and start beating him with it. But I don’t, because it would be detrimental to my career and my team.”
It’s also a nod to his past and the beginning of his future.
In the past two seasons The Wolf, as he’s known, has evolved into more than just 285 pounds of pent-up anger, waiting to explode. With the departure of Malik Jackson to free agency, Wolfe has been the Broncos’ top defensive lineman, improving his pass rush to rank third on the team in both sacks (5.5) and quarterback hits (19) while ranking among the game’s top 3-4 defensive ends in stopping the run.
“He’s been a leader on the defensive line,” Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. “Usually you have a guy that sits back, and now he demands that mentality of ‘The Wolf,’ if you want to look at it that way. He plays that way every game. He plays hard. He is a competitor.”
Coach Gary Kubiak believes Wolfe has compiled a Pro Bowl season, no easy feat given the rash of injuries he has endured since the start of training camp.
Managing the hurt has become a way of life for Wolfe. But his evolution off the field has been more trying.
“I’m very accustomed to pain,” he said. “My whole life has been painful. Physically, I could handle it. Then I evolved into somebody who could handle the mental problems, the day-to-day problems that you have as a human being. Because those are the things that get you.”
Lost and found
It’s 6:15 on a Thursday evening and Wolfe, fresh off a day of practice, treatment, weight lifting and film study at the Broncos’ practice facility, has arrived at Landow Performance in Centennial, a training center owned by Loren Landow. It has been Wolfe’s second home the past two offseasons. Sitting in the back office, adjacent to a row of power racks and behind a wall that bears his signed and framed No. 95 Broncos jersey, Wolfe leans back in a leather chair and reflects on that time in February.
He remembers the feeling when confetti rained down at Levi’s Stadium after the Broncos upended the Panthers and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. He remembers the parade through the streets of downtown Denver days later. He remembers the gratification, the culmination of a process that started at age 7.
“It’s not even about the ring,” he says. “It’s about the experience. Trying to repeat is extremely difficult because everyone’s gunning for you.”
And yet he loves it. The pressure fuels him.
“It’s fun whenever your back is against the wall,” he said. “For me, it’s just normal because for my whole life my back’s been against the wall. It’s either all or nothing with me.”
Some of what Wolfe missed as a kid in Ohio he has gained through football. He didn’t know his biological father. His mother struggled with substance abuse. His relationship with his abusive stepfather, who divorced his mother, crumbled long ago. When Wolfe was a teen, he moved in with his friend, whose family offered him shelter and stability. The Hoppel family raised him, he has said. But his nomadic start shaped him.
“I spent my childhood in Youngstown, Ohio. In high school we moved to a more rural area, and that whole area, there’s no place like it,” Wolfe says. “There’s nobody built the way that we’re built. … That’s just the way it is. If I can make it out of here, I’m tougher than everybody else.”
The void of the past is still very much a part of his present. It’s perhaps why he has learned to set goals but not expectations: “Those are two different things in my mind,” he says. “When you expect something, it leads to disappointment.”
It’s why his coaches over the years have been much more: “I wasn’t getting told at home, ‘Good job.’ I wasn’t getting that love at home,” he says. “My coaches were showing me that love. It was like addicting to me.”
It’s why, in part, he accepted significantly less when he signed a four-year, $36.7 million contract extension with the Broncos in January.
“Just make sure I’m taken care of and we’ll be fine,” he says. “I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. All I need is the home that I never had when I was a kid.”
With his fiancée, Abbie Burrows, and her 9-year-old daughter, Tatum, Wolfe is constructing the life he always wanted but never got. Their new home is expected to be completed early in the new year.
“Abbie is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Wolfe says. “She makes sure that I’m fed. And that’s huge for me because finding food as a kid was not easy. When I’m going through a tough time, if I have an injury, she doesn’t baby me. She gives me the love that I need but also gives me the confidence and motivation. She’s my best friend. And Tatum — if you want to see me get soft, that little girl brings out the soft side in me.”
When times get tough, as they have this season with injuries, Wolfe’s mind wanders back to 2013. In a preseason game against Seattle, a cut block left him temporarily paralyzed on the field. He was carted off and later diagnosed with a bruised spinal cord. His sophomore NFL season was lost, as his physical frame and mental health deteriorated.
That was the only time he couldn’t get a handle on the physical pain, he says. But even that became more of a mental obstacle. As the depression set in, he often wondered if his career passion had ended.
“You’re like, ‘Am I ever going to play again? The only thing that I’ve ever really loved, that’s ever given anything to me is going to be taken away from me,’ ” he says. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. I bounced back from that and here we are.”
The memories will never be erased. They often return when the physical pain does. He calls them nicks: There was the high ankle sprain in pre-season that lingered, a neck injury in the season-opener that caused stingers throughout the season, and then the elbow injury in early November that forced him to miss one game but could have sidelined him for many more.
And sandwiched in between was the stress of his mother’s admittance to an intensive care unit, in late August.
“I think back to my childhood. I think back to that time,” he says. “Whenever I’m going through any kind of adversity, I think, ‘If I made it through that, I can make it through this.’ It was the same thing this season. This season has been tough for me. I’ve been dealing with a lot of pain.”
Bigger than football
The PG-rated version of “DEFWU” means “don’t ever fool with us.” But the explicit version is the mantra Wolfe has lived by since he was a freshman in college.
It comes from Steubenville, Ohio, he says, a small, blue-collar town some 80 miles south of Youngstown that has been riddled by drug use, heroin especially.
“It’s right by where we grew up,” Wolfe says. “The people in that Ohio Valley are so tough and hard-nosed and they kind of mind their own business, but when someone jaws at them, they’re going to fight them. That’s the kind of people they are. That’s why DEFWU is such a lifestyle for me. It’s bigger than just football.”
Wolfe’s lifestyle has spawned an apparel company, with its sweatshirts often donned by Broncos players. Wolfe is wearing one on this Thursday, his sleeves rolled up to expose the “WARRIOR” tattoo on his right forearm. Both are reminders of his past and his journey out of Ohio, but also of where he’s going.
Last June, Wolfe returned to Ohio to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame. The award afforded him a chance to talk to Holtz at length, a man Wolfe had idolized as a kid. It also gave him a chance to talk to locals who have experienced many of the same things he has.
“Getting to talk to people from that area and giving them a little bit of hope because there’s no hope,” Wolfe says. “There’s nothing going for anybody there. Everybody just wants to be better, and there’s no outlet to be better. I think that my story can give any — even if it’s one kid that reads my story and it helps them, that’s great.”
His “Wolfe Pack Foundation” was formed to help underprivileged children in Colorado and Ohio try to find hope. He recently shipped a bag of cleats to his high school coach so his players wouldn’t have to wear the same pair of hand-me-downs for four years like Wolfe did.
His mission, for now, is broad. Wolfe says he wants to help to kids in need, but military veterans too. After watching those close to him struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, he wants to open a detox center in Colorado.
He wants to play a more prominent role in the movement for cannabidiol research and approval by the NFL to give players healthier options for treatment — options that won’t leave them addicted or in greater pain.
“I don’t take opioids,” he says. “I refuse to take them because I’ve seen too many people become addicted to it and ruin their lives. I’ve lost a couple of friends to heroin already and it all started with simple things like Percocet and the next thing you know they’re doing Oxycontin. Then they’re shooting heroin. I don’t ever want to be that person because it just destroys everything.”
Wolfe’s pain may never fully fade. But it has offered perspective, and a bit of self-awareness. It’s not about the start, he says.
“It only matters how you finish. When I’m dead in the ground, nobody’s going to be like, ‘Oh, he signed a $90 million contract,’ ” he says. “But if I can get my name in that Ring of Fame in Denver and I can be a key part of this team, then I’ll have a legacy. That’s what it’s about.”