DENVER (AP) — Denver Broncos starting receiver KJ Hamler lobbied to play in the preseason finale. Not just play, either, but play quite a bit so he could make a few blocks, catch a few passes, take a few hits.
All to clear one last remaining hurdle — that he was recovered from surgeries to repair his ACL and hip.
The 23-year speedster out of Penn State stayed in for most of the first half Saturday night against Minnesota, catching three passes for 18 yards. Hamler would’ve been in the huddle longer, too, if he would've been allowed. But new Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett — who held out his starters in the preseason as a precaution — had seen enough.
Hamler, in a game for the first time in 11 months, was indeed back. He showed he's up to speed and ready to be another reliable option for Russell Wilson heading into the season opener in Seattle on Sept. 12.
“I just let it all go and just let it flow,” Hamler said after a 23-13 win over the Vikings. "Just try to be the brand new me I could be. I’m just blessed to be back out there.”
The scene from last September was difficult to watch: Hamler hyperextending his left knee when he landed after trying to catch a long pass from Teddy Bridgewater down the Broncos’ sideline. Hamler, a second-round pick in 2020, stayed down for several minutes while teammates knelt beside him before he was helped off the field.
It was the end of his season.
In addition to having his knee repaired, he had his hip fixed. As he was healing, he lost his grandmother, who he described as his “rock.” He used to take her to get her hair done and deliver her meals whenever he could.
“She was my best friend,” Hamler said earlier this month. "That was probably the toughest thing for me. ... I won’t say that I’m out of that dark place, but I’m getting better. I can tell you that.”
On days he didn't want to go to rehab, he just thought of her.
“I knew she wouldn’t give up,” Hamler said. “So I didn’t give up.
“Now that I’m back on the field and now that I’m around all the guys and I’m being able to do a little bit of what I was able to do before—it’s been uplifting my spirits.”
The Broncos took it steady with Hamler in training camp and eased him into action. With Hackett electing not to play his starters in the preseason — he didn't want to risk injuries — it didn't appear as if Hamler would get his first taste of football again until the opener.
But Hamler insisted on suiting up. And once he took the field against Minnesota, the Broncos had a tough time getting him back on the sideline.
"When you’re in the game, you just lose track of time and you just want to play more,” Hamler said. “When you haven’t played in so long, you want to play more and experience more. It was Hackett’s call but I really want to stay a little bit longer.”
The Broncos have a core of receivers that includes Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and rookie Montrell Washington. But they will be missing Tim Patrick after he tore his ACL in camp.
A healthy Hamler gives Wilson another dependable target.
“For a guy that hasn’t played for as long as he had, it’s very encouraging,” Hackett said of Hamler's performance. "He’s feeling a lot better.”
Hamler's first catch Saturday went for seven yards over the middle on the opening drive. He hauled in another catch for five yards on the same drive, before it was eventually stopped when Brett Rypien was intercepted trying to thread a pass to Hamler at the goal line.
On his last reception of the night, Hamler hauled in a short pass and took a big hit from Vikings safety Myles Dorn, who drew a flag for unnecessary roughness.
Hamler popped right back up.
“Once you get the first hit out of the way, I think everything slows down and everything is fine,” said Hamler, who wore a brace to protect his knee. “I think that’s the worst part to get out of the way. It’s better now.”
No hint of nerves, either, in his first game back. Only elation.
“This is why I’ve been rehabbing those long, hard months,” Hamler said. “I’m glad I got the opportunity.”
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