Having played his peewee football games a hop, skip and a jump away from the old Mile High Stadium, Denver Broncos nose tackle and former University of Wyoming player Mike Purcell had dreams of professional football that not everyone around him thought were particularly realistic.
The 6-foot-3, 328-pound lineman who started seven games for the Broncos in 2019, was born in Denver and grew up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Purcell will be the first to tell you he’s been consistently dropping down the positional glamor depth chart since seventh grade.
He started his flag football career under center as his team’s quarterback; in high school, he started off as a tight end and linebacker. He then shifted further inside to offensive line, in addition to playing outside linebacker.
“I’ve kind of climbed the ladder down,” Purcell said with a laugh.
Purcell grew up idolizing former Broncos All-Pro linebacker Al Wilson. He saw quarterback John Elway win a pair of Super Bowls while leading one of the NFL’s most storied franchises to the top of mountain.
After going undrafted in 2013, Purcell spent his first five years in the NFL on and off of various practice squads, at one point spending time on four different teams in a single season. Purcell later bit the bullet and chose to play in a short-lived spring football league that lasted a whopping eight games.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and Purcell enters the 2020 NFL season as a presumptive starter on his hometown team’s fierce defensive line.
Purcell signed a $3.259 million tender with Denver during the offseason per OvertheCap.com, the first time in seemingly forever Purcell has a team to call his own.
“It’s just kind of come full circle,” Purcell told WyoSports.
Don’t take his joy for complacency, though.
If there is one thing you should know about Purcell, it’s that the chip on his shoulder is about as big as the stadium he plays in. He feels he’s done enough to be an NFL starter, but he’ll never truly feel like he’s home free. And, given where he’s been the past few years, it’s hard to blame him.
“I’ll never feel comfortable, especially with all the battles I’ve been through in this league. I don’t think I’ll ever want myself to really feel that way,” Purcell said. “But now that I’m here, I’m going to keep that humble mind and keep fighting.”
Purcell, who said he hadn’t played defensive line before getting to college, thrived in the trenches at UW from 2009-12, earning first team All-Mountain West honors following his senior campaign by racking up 83 tackles and 1½ sacks. Despite starting 36 games during his Cowboys career, Purcell wasn’t selected in the 2013 NFL draft and wound up signing with the San Francisco 49ers.
He spent his first season and much of his second on the practice squad before making his NFL debut in December 2014, playing in the last two games of the 49ers’ season. Purcell became a key part of San Francisco’s defensive rotation in 2015 and 2016, playing in 23 games (eight starts) over two seasons, making 41 total tackles.
Then, Purcell’s roller-coaster ride started.
The 49ers released him in May 2017; he was claimed by the Los Angeles Rams, released, and spent the 2017 season on four different practice squads: the Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. He was again signed and released by the Chiefs in September 2018, and spent the remainder of the season without a team.
It was tough being away from his wife and family, who stayed home during the 2017 season, but Purcell refused to be beaten down. He’s always going to fight until the end, even if the rewards don’t seem to be there.
“That’s one thing I’ll always pride myself on, is being able to never give up,” Purcell said. “Every team I went to, I said, ‘I’m never going to give up.’ I want to play this game as long as I can.”
After spending 2018 quite literally on the sidelines, a few of Purcell’s friends mentioned a new football league, the Alliance of American Football (AAF), that might offer a chance to keep playing professionally. One peer gave him the number for the general manager of the Salt Lake Stallions, one of the league’s eight teams. The short-lived spring football experiment of 2019 lasted a total of eight games before going bankrupt.
Despite signing with the team just a month or two before the season began, Purcell thrived for the Stallions, racking up four sacks before the league was disbanded less than three months after it started.
Beyond just playing football again was a reignited passion for the game Purcell just can’t quit. There are always going to be politics in the NFL, Purcell said. In the AAF, it was just football, a group of men all trying to follow the same dream, no matter how distant it seemed.
“That’s one thing I really loved about it. It really made me love the game again,” Purcell said.
Purcell’s time in the AAF was not in vain. As was the case when he was cut by his former employers, Purcell told his agent to let all NFL teams know he was ready and willing to play, despite having a far shorter offseason due to the spring league. The Broncos reached out and invited Purcell to a grueling weeklong camp.
Broncos’ coach Vic Fangio was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator when Purcell was on the squad. Fangio clearly liked what he saw from Purcell in the camp, and he was signed by the team on April 22, 2019.
“Without the AAF, I wouldn’t have had a chance with Denver,” Purcell said.
It’s one thing to be a member of a team’s practice squad, but it’s another thing completely to become a mainstay in a team’s defensive line rotation. But that’s exactly what Purcell did with the Broncos in 2019.
Much to the surprise of some, Purcell was active for Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season against the Oakland Raiders. He was inactive for the next three games, the third of which was a matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Broncos’ historically stout defense gave up 269 rushing yards, including 225 to running back Leonard Fournette. It was at that moment Fangio decided the defense needed a change, and that change involved Purcell seeing more playing time.
Purcell was active the remainder of the season and started seven games at nose tackle. He excelled, notching 48 total tackles and eight tackles for loss. The team’s defensive efforts coincided with Fangio’s changes: After an 0-4 start, where the team gave up more than 23 points per game, the team finished the season 7-5 while surrendering just 18.6 points per game.
Following his emergence, Purcell signed his one-year tender with the Broncos.
“I would never take it as I’m the reason that we started to turn around the season,” Purcell said. “(But) things are definitely looking up.”
Once an NFL afterthought, Purcell finds himself surrounded by some of the best players the NFL has to offer, including All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller and newly acquired defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, himself a five-time Pro Bowler.
Purcell has never really been starstruck by any of his teammates, he said. At the end of the day, they’re just his teammates. The only time he found his jaw on the floor was when he was with the 49ers and his team played against the Broncos, then quarterbacked by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
“(People ask me) ‘Oh, you know Von Miller?’” Purcell said with a chuckle. “It’s different when I’m playing in a game. … I’m just going to play.”
As he prepares for what is expected to be one of the most bizarre NFL seasons in recent memory due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Purcell is happy with where he’s at, but certainly not content. He reported to the Broncos a few days ago, but was not yet allowed in the team’s facilities. Players have to pass three coronavirus tests before gaining access, Purcell said. He had taken the first two tests and was awaiting the third.
The unexpected time off over the past few months provided Purcell extended time at home with his wife and family, who live just outside Boise, Idaho. Purcell said he feels safe with the current NFL safety protocols.
“It’s basically on us if we want the season to happen,” Purcell said. “If we follow the guidelines … things will go on.”
The irony of Purcell’s living near Boise is not lost on the former Cowboy. For whatever reason, the last few Boise State-Wyoming football games have happened during his team’s bye weeks. He saw the Cowboys take on Boise State in person at Albertsons Stadium last season, a heartbreaking overtime loss for UW. As Purcell so eloquently states, his license plate might say Idaho, but his truck is still brown for a reason.
As a proud alum, Purcell is amazed by how far the UW program has come since he graduated in 2013. His teams under former coach Dave Christensen experienced sporadic success, but it was nothing compared to what current coach Craig Bohl has done, Purcell said. Bohl has led the Cowboys to four consecutive seasons of bowl eligibility.
“I wouldn’t change how things went … but if I’d do it again, I’d go under Bohl,” he said with a chuckle. “The way he’s taken control of the program, his record speaks for itself.”
Purcell, who just turned 29, isn’t sure how much longer football is in the cards for him. He is on a one-year deal at the moment, and would love to keep playing for the Broncos. But, much like his journey thus far, football tends to be unpredictable, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. He said he will cross that bridge when the time comes.
That’s why he’s taking a few moments here and there to soak it all in, even if he is still battling like the undrafted free agent he started his career as. The Colorado kid scratched and clawed his way into wearing the shades of orange and navy blue he dreamt of as a boy.
“I can say I’ve made it – the one dream I’ve had as a kid,” Purcell said. “In that kind of aspect, I can say I’ve made it.”