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How Broncos' Derek Wolfe has persevered to get to Super Bowl

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Defense on display at Super Bowl 50 (0:58)

Jeff Legwold breaks down the defensive tale of the tape for Super Bowl 50. (0:58)

ENGLEWOOD, Colorado -- As a junior at the University of Cincinnati in 2010, Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe remembers sitting on his bed, staring at $7.

It was all the money he had. He was ready to pull the trigger and declare for the NFL draft.

"I was tired of being broke. I've been broke my whole life," Wolfe recalls. "I was tired of not being able to feed myself, not take care of myself, not be able to buy myself a pair of shoes if I wanted them. I had enough."

This revelation led to a conversation with his head coach, Butch Jones.

"I was like, I'm outta here, man. I'm done," remembers Wolfe. "He told me, 'you're going to be quitting on this team, on your teammates. You don't want to be a quitter.'"

The conversation struck a chord with Wolfe; he doesn't know how to quit.


Wolfe left his childhood home of Youngstown, Ohio, when he was 11 years old to escape an environment in which he didn't feel welcome.

"I don't know my dad. And my mom, you know, she had some problems growing up," he said. "My stepdad was a stern guy. Imagine having a wife that's an alcoholic, and then you have two of your own kids, then you got this step-kid. They made me feel like I was in the way. So I just stayed away."

Wolfe had barely spent one year in middle school when his mother and stepfather divorced.

"I was staying with my stepfather," Wolfe said. "You know that feeling you get when something's not right? So I made the decision to go."

That decision led Wolfe to escape the "city" of Youngstown to rural Lisbon, Ohio. Relying on middle-school friends, Wolfe bounced around homes across the greater northeastern Ohio area. Often, it changed every month. Other times, it changed every weekend.

"As a kid, I was never alone. I was always with friends. I mean, I lived with so many of my friends in high school that the whole town helped me out," Wolfe said with a laugh. "If I couldn't afford rent that month they helped me out. I let people stay with me all the time now because I don't like being alone. I never was alone."

That would change in Wolfe's junior year of high school, when his best friend, Logan Hoppel, decided for him that enough was enough. The Hoppel family home had been a consistent option for Wolfe, until Logan decided that it would now be permanent.

"Logan was just like, 'Dude, why don't you just come stay at my house?' And I was like, 'I don't know, man. Then his mom actually came to me, and said, 'It's time for you to settle down. You're staying with us.' And so I did."

Staying with the Hoppel family not only provided a sense of home and stability for Wolfe, he said, but working on the family's Black Angus farm also gave him responsibility.

"Every bit of work ethic that I learned was from living with those people," Wolfe said. "They taught me so much about waking up in the morning and putting in a hard day's work. If you're not working hard then you're just lazy."

One daunting task in particular stands out to Wolfe from his days working on the Hoppel farm. "I skinned the bark off of these fence posts -- 500 of them. I did it the old school way with a blade, you know.

"And I thought it was going to take me maybe a day. It took me three days to do that. It was awful."

Wolfe says he's not spiteful about the struggles he endured early in his life. He said his childhood experiences awakened what would become his strongest characteristics: hunger and perseverance.

"With everything that I'd been through, I don't know how to quit. I don't really know what that feels like to just give up on something," he said. "It's a blessing and a curse at the same time because I'll just keep going until I run the brakes off of it. That's just the way I look at things."

That persona couldn't more evident on the football field, where Wolfe, in his third year with the Broncos, has started to make a name for himself. Working alongside DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, among others, in what has been called "Orange Crush 2.0," Wolfe has two sacks and seven tackles in the playoffs. Last month, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $36.7 million to stay in Denver.


Despite his recent success, Wolfe can't help but look back at that meeting with Coach Jones at Cincinnati. Wolfe returned to school for his senior season and had 9½ sacks while earning Big East co-defensive player of the year honors.

His senior-year performance undoubtedly garnered more attention, and he was drafted early in the second round by the Broncos in the 2012 draft. Though he consistently credits the mental and physical toughness of his upbringing, it was Jones who perhaps changed the course of his career by reminding him: Derek Wolfe was no quitter.

"All he had to do was tell me, 'You don't wanna be a quitter.' I was like, 'You're right, I am quitting.' So I didn't quit. And it played out just the way he said it would -- it worked out better for me."