Mitch Unrein has allowed the surreal scene to play out in his head countless times.
Battling butterflies and fighting back emotion as he rushes out of the locker room and through the tunnel. Looking up at that Super Bowl logo displayed prominently throughout the jam-packed stadium. Soaking in the cheers — and jeers — of 80,000 fans, cascading like an avalanche down a mountain from the nosebleed seats to the sidelines.
Through all the pageantry, stepping on the field for the most important football game of his life, Unrein will carry with him visions of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
As a third-year Denver Broncos defensive tackle — and a proud product of the small town of Eaton — Unrein no longer has any reason to fantasize.
Tonight, when he straps on his pads and laces up his cleats, his biggest boyhood dream will become a reality.
Unrein — who is 26 years old, 6-foot-4 and 306 pounds — will wear the same shades of orange and blue he often donned as a kid, this time as a member of the AFC champion Denver Broncos as they take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII at 4:30 p.m. today at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“Words can’t describe how I’m feeling, and I think it’s really not going to hit me until I land in New York,” Unrein said late last week, just two days before heading east. “Playing in the Super Bowl is something I’ve always thought about once I made it to the NFL. But, before I made it to the NFL, it’s one of those things that you really don’t think is an achievable goal. ... For me in my fourth year to be going to the Super Bowl and get to play in the Super Bowl, it’s a dream come true. And, hopefully, I’ll have an even better feeling after it’s all said and done.”
Mitch’s mother, Kay, said even though she has always believed in her son, when Mitch was growing up she could have never predicted Mitch would one day play in the NFL, much less compete in the Super Bowl.
“I don’t think I ever sat back and thought, ‘Boy, it would be nice to have a son that plays in the NFL and maybe plays in the Super Bowl,’ ” Kay said with a humble laugh. “But as he’s come along — and there have been a lot of naysayers and doubters — the more people would doubt him or not really give him the credit he thought he deserved, the harder he worked.”
A family affair
The Unreins are going to the Super Bowl, and Mitch isn’t the only Unrein going — not by a long shot.
The Broncos provided tickets for all of Mitch’s immediate family — his mother Kay, his father Mike, as well as his five siblings, Nicole, Natalie, Michael, Marty and Mark.
Mike, who works for Patterson-UTI Drilling Company, said the only thing that would make this experience more enjoyable is if the Super Bowl were taking place in one of its traditional warm-weather venues, rather than East Rutherford, where — as of Thursday — a forecast for today called for a high of 44, a low of 27, 7 mph winds and a 10 percent chance of precipitation.
“The only thing that upsets me is it is in New York. Who in the hell figured that out?” Mike said, jokingly. “I told Kay earlier (in the season), ‘You watch. We’ll go to the Super Bowl, because it is in New York.’ I work outside all the time, and I’m tired of cold weather.”
Kay said, at times, it is almost unfathomable that her very own son will be on the field tonight at MetLife Stadium playing under the bright lights of pro football’s biggest stage.
“Some days you think, ‘Oh, this is great,’ and other days you’re like, ‘I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. This is awesome,’ ” Kay said.
Last week, Mike said he expected the magnitude of the moment to really set in once the rest of the family joined Mitch on Thursday and experienced firsthand the media blitz and circus-like atmosphere that accompanies the Super Bowl.
“It’ll be something, just to be out there and be around the crowd, with the atmosphere there,” Mike said. “Here you are, and that’s your little baby boy out there being interviewed, you know? It will be like, ‘What the heck?’ ... Words can’t describe it. I feel so glad for Mitch.”
Though family time will likely be sparse for Mitch until after tonight’s game, Mitch said the experience of playing in the Super Bowl is that much more special knowing his family is in New Jersey, sharing the moment with him.
“I can’t ask for anything more — to have my parents there, my fiancé there, my brothers and sisters there,” Mitch said. “It’s just going to be a great experience for all of us. I just hope that we leave New York with our heads high and leave with the Lombardi Trophy.”
Being the youngest of six siblings, Mitch never had to look far for a guiding hand.
Mitch comes from a highly athletic family. His brothers Mark and Michael played college football at the University of Northern Colorado. His sister Natalie was a three-time All-American swimmer at UNC.
Former longtime Eaton wrestling coach Rich Urano coached two members of the Unrein family to state championships — Mark (2003) and Mitch (2005).
Urano said family has always been of the utmost importance to all the Unrein siblings.
“I can remember way, way back when — when they were little kids — Mike and Marty, the two oldest brothers, were on the wrestling team,” Urano said. “And, they came in and they kind of had their heads down and said, ‘Coach, we gotta miss practice tonight.’
“I said, ‘Well, what’s goin’ on?’ And, they go, ‘Well, Natalie is swimming at UNC, and we’re going to go watch her.’
I said, ‘That’s fine. You go do that.’ ”
Mike said he and Kay raised each of their children to always remain humble and selfless, yet driven and self-motivated.
“We brought all the kids up that way,” Mike said. “It shows that maybe we did something right. You hope that’s what it reflects.”
Urano said every Unrein sibling shared a tireless work ethic and unwavering desire to excel — attributes that have helped lead Mitch to the success he enjoys today.
“All four boys that I coached in wrestling — Mike, Marty, Mark and Mitch — every one of them had good work ethic,” Urano said. “And, they were good kids. They were ornery kids, but I always like to see that a little bit in a kid. They all had a good family behind them.”
A will to succeed
Mitch was a multi-sport standout in high school.
Urano witnessed Unrein parlay his trademark work ethic into a Class 3A 215-pound state title in 2005.
Urano said it is a testament to Unrein’s desire to succeed that he’s been able to come out of small-town Eaton and become a big-time pro football player.
“Your chances of finding an individual like Mitch, or anybody, to make it from (a small town) to the NBA or the NFL, or whatever — the odds are astronomically against it,” Urano said. “But, (Unrein) had the body size, and he definitely had the work ethic.”
Mitch’s father, Mike, said Mitch displayed that same tireless work ethic long before playing college football for the University of Wyoming Cowboys.
“As a parent, you see what (your son) has to go through and the determination and drive that they have, and they are self-motivated,” Mike said. “Mitch never gave up. He just didn’t care what anybody said about him. He just said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’ll prove to you I can do it.’ ”
Conventional wisdom might suggest Unrein was never supposed to be in the position he’s in today.
After graduating from Eaton High School in 2005, Unrein walked on at the University of Wyoming after not being heavily recruited by major college programs out of high school.
He redshirted during his freshman year with the Cowboys, played in all 12 games — including one start — as a redshirt freshman, before becoming one of the top defensive players on Wyoming’s roster and in the Mountain West Conference.
He went undrafted during the 2010 draft and signed with Houston on May 7, 2010, before joining the Broncos’ practice squad on Oct. 20, 2010.
A year after making Denver’s practice squad, he was signed to the active roster. In his three seasons since then, he’s played in 44 games — starting three — recording 48 total tackles, 33 solo tackles.
“It’s a great story,” said recently retired Eaton coach Bill Mondt, who coached Unrein in high school. “There are a lot of players that work hard. But Mitch obviously just has tremendous confidence in himself, which is a wonderful attribute. He believed in Mitch Unrein.”
It takes a village
Unrein said he’s often humbled by the showering of support he receives from back home, whether it be from Eaton or the numerous other towns throughout northern Colorado.
“It’s really cool when you know that you have literally whole towns that are supporting you,” he said. “All of Greeley, all of Eaton, and I’m sure there are surrounding towns — the small towns out there, which I played against in high school sports — that know I’m a Denver Bronco now, and they’re all supporting me.”
Mike said the support Mitch has received from the community throughout the years has kept Mitch going throughout his long, strenuous journey toward becoming a contributor on a Super Bowl-bound Broncos team.
“We see people (in the community) and they’re always saying, ‘How is Mitch? I really enjoy seeing him play,’ ” Mike said. “That reaffirms everything he has worked for.”
Even outside of the comfy confines of Eaton, Kay said Mitch seems to embrace a community atmosphere at Dove Valley.
Kay expressed gratitude toward Broncos veterans like Champ Bailey and Peyton Manning for taking her son under their wing the last few years and showing Mitch what it takes to excel at football’s highest level.
“He plays with good men, and it’s always good to know your kids are around good people,” Kay said. “Champ Bailey has kind of built up the younger guys, saying, ‘We can (win a Super Bowl).’ ... And, Peyton Manning is a real motivator, with the things he says to the guys, and he’s funny. But, he’s determined and he studies.”
About 1,600 T-shirts in honor of Mitch have been printed and sold throughout the Eaton community. Members of the community who purchased the shirts gathered at Eaton High School on Wednesday to take a huge group photo in one final show of support toward Mitch before today’s big game.
“Mitch is very, very humble and very appreciative of everything that has been done for him,” Mondt said. “I think it sort of comes from his family. That’s kind of the way his parents are. They’re very loyal people and thoughtful people.”
Unrein said he doesn’t take his local celebrity status for granted.
He has routinely helped the communities in Eaton and northern Colorado, including recently acquiring equipment from the Broncos’ facility to renovate the Eaton High School weight room.
“Not very many people get the opportunity that I am in right now,” Unrein said. “So, I just try to give back as much as I can. And, it always feels good when you have young kids looking up to you. I remember when I was that age, and I would have given anything to have been able to meet an NFL player and have an NFL player come from our own town.
“So, I try to do as much as I can and talk to the kids whenever I can.”
Best seat in the house
While Broncos fans have witnessed — from their living room sofa or the stands at Sports Authority Field — the historic offensive numbers this year’s team has put up, Unrein has enjoyed an even more prime vantage point.
At times, Unrein has been on the field with that Manning-led record-setting offense, occasionally lining up at fullback.
Even when he’s not on the field, Unrein has enjoyed Manning’s mastery from the sidelines, with the rest of the defense.
“It’s pretty remarkable when you see them run all the records on SportsCenter that our offense has broken this year,” Unrein said. “It’s really cool to be on such a great team. I’ve never been on a team that was this dominant. But, it really doesn’t matter unless you win the big one. That’s what we’re all still focused on.”
Even though Unrein is having the time of his life, he said he and his teammates aren’t about to lose sight of their ultimate goal: to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to the Mile High City.
“What makes it even that much better is that I’m going there with the Denver Broncos — the team that I watched growing up, the team that I cheered for when I was young,” he said. “I’m trying to soak it all in. But, we’re going out there for a business trip. So, I can’t have too much fun. Everyone is very focused on the task at hand, and we have one more game to go.
“And then we can show our pretty rings to everybody for the rest of our lives.”