A former Denver Broncos captain and All-Pro, Karl Mecklenburg rose from being a college walk-on and 12th round NFL draft pick to a pro career that included six Pro Bowls and three Super Bowl appearances. Considered the NFL’s most versatile player, Karl played all seven defensive front positions.
Since retiring from pro football in 1995, Karl, a devout Christian, divides his time between motivational speaking and his ongoing charity involvements. Karl and his wife Kathi have three children, still live in Littleton, Colorado and attend West Bowles Community Church. Karl was inducted into the Denver Bronco Ring of Fame in 2001 and the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
I had a chance to interview Karl on my Good Sports Magazine Show on GraceFM about his new book, Heart of a Student Athlete, All Pro Advice for Competitors and Families, and how God is now using Karl’s faith and football platform to inspire young athletes and their parents.
CF–First off, Karl, what is your story about His Glory in your life? How did Jesus get a hold of you?
KM–In high school, my girl friend, who is now my wife of 27 years, Kathi, asked me to go to church. At the time, I would have gone anywhere with her. If she asked me to go to Iowa or Egypt, I was there. We listened and learned from the pastor and I learned about forgiveness and accepting Christ as my Savior. It made perfect sense for me to do that but I missed the part about having a relationship with Jesus. I sort of took it as an insurance policy. I wasn’t a bad kid – I was getting good grades while being respected in the community. I respected my parents and my friends and really didn’t rely on Jesus. I relied on myself and I worked and struggled – that’s all I knew how to do. I played football all through school but really wasn’t that good, but kept playing until I was able to get a partial scholarship at a small school, Augustana College, in South Dakota.
After two years, they knew my dad was a doctor and that I could afford the school, so they took away my scholarship. I decided to leave and walk on to the University of Minnesota and earned a scholarship there. A week later, I tore up my knee and they tried to take the scholarship back.
CF–How did you ever think you would one day make it to the NFL?
KM–I was actually the 310th player selected in the NFL draft, only a few spots from the bottom and the last pick, “Mr. Irrelevant.” Then I made it and made it big. After a couple of years I was a Pro Bowl linebacker and then ‘pride’ got a hold of my life. This is something I know people really need to look out for as we start buying into what other, people are saying about us. I was reading the clippings about how good I was and not paying attention to the loved ones closest to me.
CF–What do you say to Christians that say football is such a physical sport where you’re smashing people as hard as you can? Is this really what men of God should be doing?
KM–I tell people that God made me this way and gives us choices on what we want to play and eventually turn into a career. Nobody forces us to play football. Both sides go at it the same way trying to hit each other as hard as they can to win the game. Christians are just as competitive as the seekers and we always prayed before and after the games asking for God’s grace and protectiveness to act and compete in a Christ-like fashion. I didn’t have a problem with that at all.
CF– Was there a major turning point during your NFL career where Jesus came calling again?
KM–In 1987 the NFL went on strike. I was the Player-Development rep for the Denver Broncos and I got involved in an incident while we were picketing down at the stadium that really changed my life in a lot of ways. It was a Monday night game against the Oakland Raiders and the players wanted to picket to let the fans know our cause. Some fans brought their kids and asked us for autographs. I started signing and then after a few I stopped, ripped up the last one, and gave it back to the little boy. I told him “We can’t do this, we are picketing the game.” I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time as they left and went into the stadium.
Well, the next day they wrote a letter to the Newspaper editor about what I did and my whole world went upside down. I was getting death threats instead of fan mail and it was unbelievable how the negativity took me by storm. It was so bad that there was a group called, MAM, “Mothers Against Mecklenburg.” I tried to turn to my family and friends, but I had already alienated them by my pride.
Finally, I turned to God. It had been 10 years since I accepted Christ as my Savior, and the amazing thing about the God I serve was that He was still there waiting for me. I started praying, reading the Bible again and recommitting myself to Christ in a different way than the first time. This was more of a real relationship and the love spread through my family. I got my friends back and things have gone much better since that time.
It’s all about the relationship with Jesus – day in and day out – and I hadn’t realized that for ten years.
CF–What are some of the great memories you had during your career?
KM–I have so many with those championship teams of the 80’s, but really what I remember most is that we were a TEAM. There are only two Broncos in the Hall of Fame and that’s really a tribute to show that we succeeded all those years with teamwork that lead to our success. Those hard fought playoff games with the Cleveland Browns were always unforgettable.
CF–How did you replace that Sunday game-time adrenaline rush after you left football?
KM–It has been great medicine for me to do public speaking. What I missed most was the pre-game excitement and the adrenaline rush on Sundays. The only way I found to replace that feeling was to get up in front of crowds and speak. I love showing my highlight films and sharing biblical principles.
All my talks are faith based. The audience and the topic determine how I relate the Word. Everyone knows that I am a Christian and who my Savior is.
I’ve had the chance to speak in most of the States and even South Africa. I’m speaking in churches, in businesses, in the workplace, at FCA huddle groups and always with a Christian message. I talk about universal principles of success and God’s truths that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s amazing to me how God uses our platform in our lives. It all comes back to what He has planned for us and to follow that plan.
CF–Finally, what is God calling you to pursue with your book and speaking engagements?
KM–To make a difference in people’s lives using the platform of football – the game I played and was blessed to excel at for so many years. My father was a doctor and my mother was in social services and leading the anti-abortion movement. I was raised that I was someday going to be able to make a social difference in the world and I was just playing a game. Now I have the ability to take the recognition I developed in football to go outside and try and make a difference. I feel God has called me to this and it’s a joy to me. It’s my gameday now!
Carl Foster is the sports director and host of "The Good Sports Magazine Show," every Monday on GraceFM 90.3FM from 12 – 2 pm. Carl also hosts 'The Road Show" M-F from 4-6:30 pm. www.gracefmradio.com.