Legendary Denver Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg was one of the best feel-good stories of the NFL in the early 1980s.
Mecklenburg, who was in the same 1983 draft class as quarterback John Elway, arrived in Denver with little fanfare.
Mecklenburg was a 12th-round draft selection who Broncos fans knew nothing about, but the man known as “The Albino Rhino” quickly made them believers.
Behind Karl Mecklenberg’s exemplary pass-rushing skills, Denver made three Super Bowl appearances in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Mecklenberg’s 79.0 career sacks still rank as the third-most in Broncos franchise history.
He’s also one of just six Broncos players who recorded 4.0 sacks in a single game.
It is little wonder then that he eventually earned six Pro Bowl berths and four First-Team All-Pro selections in his twelve-year pro football career.
This is “The Albino Rhino’s” remarkable football story.
Karl Bernard Mecklenburg was born to parents Fred and Marjory in Seattle, WA on September 1, 1960. Karl has three siblings: Eric, Fred Jr., and Carol.
Mecklenburg suited up for his first organized football game when he was nine years old in the fall of 1969, per his 2009 book, Heart of a Student Athlete: All-Pro Advice for Competitors and Their Families.
Back then, Mecklenburg was already a fan of two Minnesota sports teams: the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and NCAA football’s Minnesota Gophers.
When Karl played full-pads tackle football as a kid, he would imagine he was Gophers tight end Doug Kingsriter or Minnesota Vikings perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Alan Page.
Mecklenburg developed a fondness for Kingsriter after his father, an obstetrician, took him to a Minnesota Gophers game in 1970. Karl thought Kingsriter was the best player who took the field that day.
As soon as Karl Mecklenburg strapped on his pads and chinstrap in 1969, he developed the burning desire to smother the opposition.
“From day one, I loved the contact and the man-on-man challenge of football,” Mecklenburg wrote in his 2009 book. “The core of what made me a football player was, ‘I love to smash guys!'”
Karl Mecklenburg attended Edina West High School (now known as Edina High School) in Edina, MN. He played football for the Edina West Cougars (now known as the Edina Hornets).
This week's Blast From MN Sports Past: Karl Mecklenburg
Edina product spent 2 years at Augustana before transferring to Gophers as walk on. 2nd team Big Ten in 1982.
Drafted by Broncos, was 6 time Pro Bowler & 4 time All-Pro w/ 79.5 career sacks. Part of Denver's Ring of Fame. pic.twitter.com/XCh1USthb9
— Nate Tykwinski (@natetykwinski) August 29, 2019
Mecklenburg’s dad Fred Sr. became the Cougars’ team doctor prior to Karl’s senior season in 1978. Karl thought the Cougars were the only high school football team in Minnesota with an obstetrician as their team physician.
Karl gave credit to his dad for making him realize that parents should not live out their dreams through their children. Kids have their own dreams and aspirations.
When Karl became a dad himself many years later, he tried his best to support his children’s passions.
Karl thought that his dad taking him to a Minnesota game in 1970 was the key turning point of his life. That was when he realized his passion for football.
As his high school days wound down, Mecklenburg was an undersized defensive lineman who stood just 6’0″ and weighed 200 lbs.
Nonetheless, he felt sure that the Minnesota Gophers would dangle him a scholarship. He was so confident, he did not apply to other universities, per The Minnesota Daily’s John Hageman.
Unfortunately, Gophers head football coach Cal Stoll decided to give the scholarship to another player who had originally committed to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Stoll asked Mecklenburg to walk on at Minnesota instead.
An irate Karl Mecklenburg told The Minnesota Daily in 2011 that the Gophers misled him.
Mecklenburg put his dream of playing for the Minnesota Gophers on hold. He wound up playing in South Dakota for two years before he finally wore Gophers maroon and gold.
College Days with the Minnesota Gophers
Karl Mecklenburg began his college football career at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. He played for the Augustana Vikings from 1979 to 1980.
According to Hageman, the Vikings gave Mecklenburg a one-third scholarship with the knowledge that he would get a full one if he performed well on the gridiron.
By this time, Mecklenburg stood 6’3″ and weighed 240 pounds. He led the Vikings in sacks after his second season with the team.
Karl was confident the Vikings would keep their promise and give him a full scholarship.
Mecklenburg received the shock of his life when Augustana’s head football coach summoned him into his office one day.
The coach told him that the Vikings had decided to cancel their scholarship offer because they knew his dad, a famous doctor, could afford his tuition fees.
That was all Karl Mecklenburg needed to hear. He promptly packed his bags and returned to his home state of Minnesota.
Mecklenburg transferred to the University of Minnesota prior to the 1981 NCAA season. He walked on with two years of eligibility remaining, per The Minnesota Daily.
Mecklenburg would eventually emerge as one of the most underrated linebackers in the nation with the Minnesota Gophers.
After sitting out one season due to the NCAA transfer rules, a rejuvenated Karl Mecklenburg earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors for two consecutive years.
Mecklenburg’s shining moment in a Gophers uniform came in his final season in 1982.
He outplayed highly-touted Northwestern Wildcats offensive lineman Chris Hinton in a stellar Big Ten matchup that year. Mecklenburg recorded 2.0 sacks against Hinton in that game.
Ironically, Hinton was one of the players involved in an epic trade that sent highly-coveted quarterback John Elway to the Denver Broncos in the spring of 1983.
The Jackman with former Golden Gopher & Denver Bronco GREAT Karl Mecklenburg outside Folsom Field. Mr. Mecklenburg told us he spoke to the Gopher Football Team earlier in the morning. What an awesome gentleman. @KarlMecklenburg @GopherFootball @Broncos @mwsavage2010 pic.twitter.com/SjxIMIFcpG
— Savage (@MarkESavage5280) September 19, 2021
The Baltimore Colts sent Elway to Denver in exchange for Hinton, who the Broncos drafted fourth overall in 1983. The Broncos also acquired quarterback Mark Hermann and a 1984 first-round draft choice from the Colts.
Mecklenburg wound up becoming Elway’s teammate with the Broncos from 1983 to 1994.
Mecklenburg played so well, the Gophers handed him the Carl Eller Award as their best defensive player of 1982.
Not only that, but Karl also excelled in the classroom, earning All-Big Ten Academic honors that year.
Despite Karl Mecklenburg’s emergence as a capable pass rusher, the Gophers struggled mightily with a 3-8 win-loss record in 1982.
To make matters worse, NFL Draft organizers mistakenly listed Mecklenburg’s height at 6’1″ – a full two inches short of his actual height.
Two Denver Broncos scouts had two different opinions after they sized up Mecklenburg in his senior year.
One scout told him that his lack of speed made him a better fit as a defensive lineman. In contrast, the other scout told Mecklenburg that his height was more appropriate for a linebacker.
Little did they know that Mecklenburg would excel at both defensive positions in the National Football League.
Mecklenburg, a biology major who thought about enrolling in med school, was about to rise from the ashes and become one of the best defensive players in Denver Broncos franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Denver Broncos made Karl Mecklenburg the 310th overall selection of the 1983 NFL Draft. They selected him in the 12th round.
According to Ben Swanson of the Broncos’ official website, Mecklenburg skipped his classes at the University of Minnesota on draft day. He took the chance thinking he could answer the call of the team that drafted him.
The draft festivities began at 8:00 a.m. ET. Swanson was still waiting for NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to mention his name when midnight struck.
Swanson and his then-girlfriend (his wife now) were planning to drink a margarita to celebrate his drafting into the NFL. Since no call came by midnight, they just went to sleep.
Shortly after Mecklenberg and his girlfriend dozed off, the phone rang. He told ESPN’s Ed Werder (via DenverBroncos.com) in 1987 that Denver Broncos scouting secretary Jenny Anne Cary was on the line since the coaches had already gone home.
Cary told Mecklenburg that the team had selected him in the 12th round of the draft. Prior to the call, Mecklenburg and his girlfriend waited for approximately sixteen hours.
Cary also told him that the Broncos would mail him a plane ticket to the Mile High City. Mecklenburg went back to sleep after the conversation.
@Broncos Karl Bernard Mecklenburg (born September 1, 1960) is a former football linebacker for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Minnesota Gophers. In 1983, the Denver Broncos drafted Karl Mecklenburg in the 12th round with the 310th pick overall. pic.twitter.com/vwSihfRjPk
— Timothy C. Kulla (@TCKooo) September 1, 2019
When Mecklenburg arrived in Denver in the summer of 1983, he mostly flew under the radar.
In fact, Broncos vice president of public relations Jim Saccomano remembered the local press giving Mecklenburg the cold shoulder treatment.
“When he came to Denver for the first time,” Saccomano wrote on DenverBroncos.com in May 2021. “I can recall vividly that not a single member of the press was interested in talking to Mecklenburg.”
It was a stark contrast to the arrival of former Stanford Cardinal quarterback John Elway, who the Broncos acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Baltimore Colts.
Mecklenburg told Swanson in the spring of 2022 that he had to overcome the odds to make an impact with the Broncos.
Mecklenburg knew the odds were stacked against him. He was a late-round draft choice whose height, weight, and speed raised many question marks.
However, Mecklenburg did not pay attention to the doubters. He simply made the most of his opportunity.
“I found out early on in my career if you could take the first step in the right direction before anybody else did, all the angles would change in your favor,” Mecklenburg told DenverBroncos.com in 2022.
Mecklenburg took that all-important first step in his first Broncos training camp in the summer of 1983.
Broncos head coach Dan Reeves and his coaching staff got a glimpse of Karl Mecklenburg’s enormous potential.
Reeves made his offense square off against the lesser-known defensive players in the Broncos’ first scrimmage of 1983.
Mecklenburg somehow found his way to the quarterback on three or four consecutive plays, per the Broncos’ official website.
Reeves pulled Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier aside and jokingly told him it seemed Mecklenburg was just playing a game of “tag, you’re it.”
One massive turning point for Mecklenburg was Collier’s willingness to shuffle him around defensive positions.
Collier realized that Mecklenburg, who Denver drafted as a 240-lb nose guard, would thrive as a defensive end who could give the offense fits in third-down situations.
Mecklenburg eventually played defensive end in his first two years in the Mile High City from 1983 to 1984.
As Mecklenburg entered his third pro football season in 1985, Collier met with Broncos defensive line coach Stan Jones and linebackers coach Myrel Moore.
All three coaches unanimously agreed that Karl Mecklenburg would thrive at the linebacker position.
That’s exactly what Mecklenburg did.
The man known as “The Albino Rhino” racked up 289 tackles, 29.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and three interceptions over the next three seasons.
Although Mecklenburg earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 1983 as a linebacker, he was literally all over the field for the Broncos.
The undersized Mecklenburg even played both positions on the defensive line for head coach Dan Reeves in 1983.
Not only that, but Mecklenburg also played on both sides of the defensive line. Without warning, Collier and Co. moved Mecklenburg to outside linebacker where he had his way with opposing offensive tackles.
“There were games I played all seven defensive front positions,” Mecklenburg told Swanson in April 2022. “That’s something nobody’s ever done before and probably will never do again.”
Mecklenburg simply flourished as a linebacker with the Broncos. He earned three consecutive Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro selections from 1985 to 1987.
Back when we used to play tackle football at the Pro Bowl. pic.twitter.com/ua3NTHmxLM
— Karl Mecklenburg CSP, NFL (@KarlMecklenburg) February 6, 2022
The Broncos had an abysmal 2-7 win-loss record in the strike-shortened 1982 season – the year before Mecklenburg arrived in Denver.
After Mecklenburg and Elway donned Broncos blue and orange in 1983, Denver averaged eleven wins from 1983 to 1987.
The Broncos also won three division titles and made four postseason appearances during that memorable five-season time frame.
Mecklenburg singled out the 1986 AFC Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns – more popularly known in pro football history as “The Drive” – as his most memorable moment in the National Football League, per ESPN.
The rowdy Dawg Pound had made it impossible for Mecklenburg and his Broncos teammates to sleep at their team hotel the previous night.
Mecklenburg told ESPN in 2000 that the Browns fans honked their car horns, screamed, and hollered all night long.
When the Broncos arrived at Municipal Stadium, the fans pelted them with dog bones as soon as they disembarked from their team bus.
Despite the incessant heckling from Browns fans, the Broncos got the last laugh.
Denver quarterback John Elway, who tormented Cleveland and broke Browns’ fans’ hearts in the 1980s, led a desperate, 98-yard drive in the final five minutes of regulation.
Several plays later, Elway connected with Broncos wide receiver Mark Jackson for the game-tying touchdown.
Kicker Rich Karlis’ field goal won the game in overtime for the Broncos, 23-20.
After Karlis’ kick sailed through the uprights, Mecklenburg heaved a sigh of relief. Making a comeback and winning in a hostile environment was a moment he will never forget.
Denver had a chance to win two Super Bowl titles in the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, the Broncos lost on both occasions.
Lawrence Taylor’s New York Giants prevailed over Denver in Super Bowl XXI, 39-20.
Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams had the game of his life against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII one year later.
Williams completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 passing yards and four touchdowns in Washington’s resounding 42-10 rout of Denver on January 31, 1988. Williams easily won Super Bowl XXII MVP honors.
The Broncos went through several up-and-down seasons after consecutive appearances in the Super Bowl in the mid-1980s.
Denver averaged nine wins per season in the latter years of the Dan Reeves era from 1988 to 1992.
The Broncos won two division titles and made two postseason appearances during that five-season stretch.
Denver lost to Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV in humiliating fashion, 55-10.
It was the Broncos’ third Super Bowl appearance since they drafted Karl Mecklenburg almost seven years earlier.
Mecklenburg suffered a double whammy in Super Bowl XXXIV against the 49ers.
Not only did the Broncos lose by 45 points, but he also injured his knee in the first quarter and never returned.
Mecklenburg told The Denver Post in 2016 that he thought he was on the receiving end of a cheap shot.
Mecklenburg continued playing at a high level as the 1980s wound down.
After an injury-riddled 1988 NFL season where he missed seven games, Mecklenburg came back strong.
He had 29.0 sacks, 505 tackles, five forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, and two touchdowns off fumble recoveries from 1989 to 1992.
Consequently, Mecklenburg earned two of his six career Pro Bowl selections in 1989 and 1991. He also earned his fourth career First-Team All-Pro selection following the 1989 NFL campaign.
Mecklenburg suited up in all 32 games in Wade Phillips’ two years as Broncos’ head coach from 1993 to 1994.
Mecklenburg had 10.0 sacks, 157 tackles, three forced fumbles, and four fumble recovers in his last two years in Broncos blue and orange.
Denver was a mediocre squad that averaged eight wins per season from 1993 to1994. The Broncos lost to the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1993 AFC Wild Card Game, 42-24.
Karl Mecklenburg retired following the 1994 NFL season.
He finished his NFL career with 1,118 tackles, 79.0 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries, two touchdowns off fumble recoveries, and five interceptions.
At the time of Mecklenberg’s retirement, his 79.0 sacks were the third-most in Broncos franchise history, per the team’s official website.
Mecklenburg was also one of just six Broncos players in team history to sack a quarterback four times in a single game.
Mecklenburg did the other five players better, pulling off the impressive feat twice in his pro football career.
Karl Mecklenburg’s twelve-year tenure on the pro gridiron can be aptly summed up in one word: resilience.
“The resiliency that is absolutely necessary to be successful in sports has helped me many times in other areas of my life,” Mecklenburg wrote in his 2009 book.
Mecklenburg re-echoed this sentiment when he spoke with Broncos vice president of public relations Jim Saccomano twelve years later.
“Don’t give up; don’t quit,” he told Saccomano in the spring of 2021. “That is the difference between successful people and those who are not.”
Mecklenburg’s resiliency made him one of the best late-round draft selections ever in Denver Broncos team history.
His tremendous impact on the Broncos of the 1980s and early 1990s prompted many pundits, including the great Sports Illustrated football writer Paul Zimmerman, to consider him one of the greatest players of his era.
Former Denver Broncos head coach Wade Phillips even feels that Karl Mecklenburg, a first-rate pass rusher, is a worthy candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Karl Mecklenburg, his wife Kathi, and their three kids currently live in the Littleton, CO area.
Mecklenburg told DenverBroncos.com some twenty-seven years after he retired that he felt he would not have made it to any of today’s NFL rosters.
Mecklenburg felt his physical attributes – weight, height, and 40-yard dash speed among other things – do not leap out at scouts, coaches, and executives.
Pregame with family at Super Bowl 50! Missing you today Dad. pic.twitter.com/VgOseLiChV
— Karl Mecklenburg CSP, NFL (@KarlMecklenburg) February 7, 2021
He also said that teams’ heavy reliance on players’ college stats and achievements and even walkthroughs would have made him an ultimate dark horse.
Karl Mecklenburg, the unheralded “Albino Rhino,” became the 17th member of the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in the fall of 2001.
Mecklenburg also entered the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame that same year.
He established the REACH Foundation, an organization that promotes reading among kids in the Denver area, five years later.
Mecklenburg told The Minnesota Daily in 2011 that his struggles with dyslexia encouraged him to establish the foundation.
Mecklenburg coached the Kent Sun Devils, a high school football team based in Denver, CO during his retirement years.
Mecklenburg also became a motivational speaker in the Mile High City following his retirement from the National Football League in 1994. He has an estimated 45 speaking engagements every year.
“I talk about passion,” Mecklenburg told The Denver Post in the summer of 2013. “Desire. Wanting to get the most out of yourself you possibly can. Testing the limits.”
For Mecklenburg, his excitement for public speaking is on the same level as preparing for a game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Mecklenburg also admitted to The Denver Post that he has been battling health issues he feels stemmed from multiple concussions during his NFL playing career from 1983 to 1994.
Mecklenburg recalled repeatedly ramming his head against other players during practice and games. By his estimate, he had around twelve concussions when he played in the NFL.
He was one of 60 plaintiffs in former New York Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler’s concussion lawsuit against the NFL.
Mecklenburg played football with the knowledge that he was going to deal with several injuries. However, experiencing brain issues in retirement was not what he signed up for.
“I didn’t buy in to professional football with the understanding that I was going to have brain damage,” he told The Denver Post in 2013.
Nonetheless, Mecklenburg told DenverBroncos.com four years later that he still missed the adrenaline rush of the NFL gridiron.
Mecklenburg revealed to FOX 31’s Deborah Takahara in December 2021 that he’s a skin cancer survivor.
Karl Mecklenburg is a known philanthropist in the Denver, CO area. He has collaborated with Colorado Youth Outdoors, Taste of the NFL, For Mercy Sake Sackem, and Project Healing Waters during his retirement years.