(Eds: Adds background, quotes.)By ARNIE STAPLETONAP Pro Football Writer
When he was a teenager growing up in Fort Morgan, Joel Dreessen would grab a football, dart into his backyard and pretend like so many other Colorado kids that he was John Elway.
Now, the 29-year-old tight end in his seventh NFL season counts his childhood hero as his boss, too.
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Dreessen, a former Colorado State University standout, signed a three-year, $8.5 million free agent deal with the Broncos this spring after spending the last five seasons in Houston.
He and Jacob Tamme, who played in Indianapolis from 2008-11, are part of a revamped tight ends group that will give quarterback Peyton Manning big targets and extra protection as he makes his comeback in Denver after spending the last of his 14 seasons with the Colts sidelined by neck trouble.
”It’s a blessing to be back in Colorado,” Dreessen said this week during a break in the Broncos’ offseason conditioning program.
”I was the biggest Broncos fan ever, I really was,” Dreessen said. ”I can’t tell you how many times I threw the football up to myself in the backyard pretending I was John Elway. I did it so many times. I was a sophomore and junior in high school when they were winning the Super Bowl in `97 and `98, and I was skipping class to try to get down to Denver to go to the parades and all that.
”When I left CSU and I was a couple of years into the league, my best friend and roommate, Erik Pears, he played for the Broncos (in 2006-07). I remember joking around with him saying, `I’m going to be a Bronco someday. You wait and see.’ And it came full-circle.”
Dreessen’s pro career was nearly cut short long before he had a chance to cash in on free agency this spring. The New York Jets drafted him in 2005 in the sixth round, but cut him the following year. He spent 2006 out of the league.
”That playing in the NFL is a privilege and I don’t take a single day for granted,” Dreessen said of the main lesson he learned during his forced sabbatical. ”From that moment on – I’m not saying that I didn’t do it my rookie year – but after being cut by Eric Mangini and the Jets, I was like, `Man, this thing goes fast. You have to sacrifice everything to make it work.’ So, I don’t take a single day for granted. I try to come in as early as I possibly can and I try to stay late.
”At the same time, within those hours, you have to be productive. Whether you’re studying, learning the offense, whether you’re watching tape, whether you’re working out – it’s a matter of working smart.”
Dreessen hooked up with the Texans in 2007 but his career didn’t take off until 2010. Ten of Dreessen’s 13 career touchdown grabs came in the last two seasons, including six last year. Overall, he has hauled in 110 passes for 1,364 yards.
When he became a free agent, his phone buzzed with a text from Elway.
”He was like, `Joel, I hope you come here. I think you’re going to be wildly successful here in Denver,”’ Dreessen recounted. ”That was kind of a selling point for me.”
His first interaction with Elway had come several years earlier.
”I actually met him in college. We were playing a game against the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He was in the locker room, so I went up and introduced myself then,” Dreessen said. ”I don’t know if he remembers that, but I do.”
After all, he’d emulated Elway so many times, along with all the other greats of those Broncos teams that won back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s.
”I was all those guys: Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis, I loved them all, I really did,” Dreessen said. ”I think I’ve still got T-shirts in my bedroom back home in Fort Morgan with those guys’ picture on it, so I might have to go wear one of those and be funny.”
Dreessen has worn Broncos gear his whole life, but he had to put aside his emotional ties when he went to work for his favorite team.
”I have to get over that real quickly, because I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got a whole new offense to learn, and I’m studying my tail off to get that squared away,” he said. ”I want to find another level to my career, and that was the big reason I left Texas.”
Now that he’s back in Colorado, he knows all those phone calls home aren’t going to cut it anymore.
”I have not been out to Fort Morgan yet. My mom is going to kill me,” Dreessen said. ”I’m thinking about going there this weekend, but the CSU spring game is Saturday, so I don’t know. She might have to be mad at me still.”
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton