ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The pinnacle of an NFL life, the dream destination, the ultimate goal -- all coalesce in the 10 seconds before the kickoff of a Super Bowl.
There's the anticipation, electricity and realization that a shot at the title is on the line.
“It would be rough -- really, really rough -- to go through a season, or most of a season, or even part of a season and we make the Super Bowl and you can’t play," Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “... You put in all that time, effort, practice, meetings, OTAs [organized team activities], training camp. Even your family can go, and they're happy you're there, around the team, a part of it, but they can't see you play."
And that’s why Super Bowl 50 is a layered affair for the Broncos. Sure, there are players such as linebacker DeMarcus Ware, tight end Owen Daniels and guard Evan Mathis, who have been in the league for a decade or more and are making their first Super Bowl trip.
But then there are those like linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive end Derek Wolfe. The trio was on the sideline two years ago when the Broncos played in Super Bowl XLVIII -- but they were all on injured reserve. They stood helplessly in what Harris called “Super Bowl workout clothes’’ as the Seattle Seahawks overwhelmed the Broncos, 43-8.
“Awful, man, just awful," Harris said. "You’re standing there and you can’t do anything about it, you can't fix it, you can't help, you can't make any plays. You're there, but you're not there. We even went in late in the week, so I was on a Super Bowl team, but I didn’t play, I didn’t get to try to do anything to change what happened. This time is different."
History says that game was simply a rout, yet another Super Bowl game that didn’t live up to the hype. Harris had played in 17 games that season -- 16 regular season, one in the playoffs -- before he tore the ACL in his right knee in the Broncos’ divisional-round win over the San Diego Chargers.
Miller suffered an ACL tear in Week 16 at Houston, the same day Peyton Manning broke the single-season record for touchdown passes. Wolfe started 11 games before he suffered a seizure on the team’s bus on the way to the airport and missed the remainder of the season.
Reserve linebacker Lerentee McCray, a special-teams regular this season, was also on injured reserve for the Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks.
“I remember after the Super Bowl loss, I was sitting in the locker room and you have guys crying," Miller said. “It’s just a depressing moment. You try to lift everybody up. Lerentee, he didn’t play either. He came to me and he said, 'We’re going to get back here.' He said, 'We’re going to get back here. We’re going to go out and we’re going to get back here.' When he said that, I just knew it."
Miller traveled a particularly bumpy road to get back. In 2013, he was suspended for the first six games of the season for a violation of the league’s substance abuse program and had multiple traffic violations to deal with, including a missed date at a courthouse that is roughly 200 yards from the Broncos’ weight room.
After working out on his own, he came back from his suspension overweight. He weighed more than 270 pounds, or roughly 20 pounds more than he weighed when he has played his best. With the weight gain came a loss of explosiveness. Miller looked to be teetering on the edge of wasting his talent, and then he tore his ACL against the Texans.
“I’ve said before, it’s kind of the best thing that ever happened to him," Harris said. “Sounds weird, but he tore his ACL, he had to get to work, every day -- we were here every day, me and him, trying to get back for [the 2014 season]. No breaks, no getaway, just working. And I think he just made up his mind he wasn’t going to lose the chance to do what he could do."
“Like I said, God is just so good," Miller said. “He’ll give you a second chance at life … I wanted to do it. That’s just where I put my mind at. We’ve grinded. Chris, Wolfe and I, we all wanted to get back. That’s a true blessing."
It's shown in the biggest moments. Miller had 2 1/2 sacks to go with an interception in the Broncos’ win over the New England Patriots in last Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Wolfe had a sack and four of the 23 hits the Broncos put on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Harris, after dealing with a painful left shoulder injury, ended up playing 82 snaps against the Patriots, the most of any defensive player on the Broncos’ roster.
“[Against the Patriots,] you thought about it sometimes," Wolfe said. “How you’re battle-tested. But this team is like that, this team is battle-tested."
“I think there are moments sometimes, you know, in a game, when it comes down to who does it mean more to," Harris said. “I’m so proud of our team. We stuck together, it means a lot to us."