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Mitch Unrein

Mitch Unrein of Wyoming goes after UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton during the first quarter of action of their game in 2009.

LARAMIE — Growing up, every young athlete has dreams of someday playing for his favorite pro team.

The reality is that almost never happens.

One of the exceptions is former University of Wyoming standout Mitch Unrein, now a backup defensive lineman for the Denver Broncos.

Unrein grew up in Eaton, Colo., where he became a big Denver Broncos fan at a young age. Among his first heroes were guys like John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis.

Unrein was a fifth- and sixth-grader in Eaton when the Broncos posted back-to-back Super Bowl victories over the Green Bay Packers (1998) and Atlanta Falcons (1999).

"Growing up in Colorado, I was always watching the Broncos and being a fan," Unrein said. "I'd always go up and watch them in camp when they came up to Greeley.

"I had dreams, but I never thought that I would grow up and perform for them on Sundays. It has been unbelievable. My dreams came true, and I'm just thankful for what the Lord has given me."

Unrein's trip to wearing a Broncos uniform was a long, laborious journey. He had to prove himself all along the way.

Although he was a first-team All-State selection his senior year at Eaton High, Division I recruiters weren't exactly beating down his door. He talked to Wyoming, Colorado State and Army before deciding to walk on at UW in the fall of 2005.

Unrein redshirted his first year at UW and was so impressive in practice that the Cowboys coaching staff put him on scholarship during the spring of 2006.

He played in all 12 games for UW as a backup his redshirt freshman year before moving into the starting lineup the following season as a sophomore. He closed out his Wyoming career by making 37 consecutive starts.

It was déjà vu all over again for Unrein in getting an opportunity at the next level.

Unrein went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft before signing a free-agent contract with the Houston Texans. He made it all the way through camp before the Texans released him on the final day of cuts.

The 6-foot-4, 291-pound Unrein then returned home, where he took a job with a pipeline maintenance crew in Greeley, seven miles north of Eaton. He also continued to lift weights and work out.

"My agent told me I needed to stay in shape and be ready to go because a lot of guys get injured the first couple of weeks of the season," Unrein said.

The call he was hoping for came six weeks after Unrein had returned home. And as fate would have it, the call was from the Broncos.

Unrein was on the Broncos' practice squad for 11 weeks in 2010-11 before making their active roster after camp this past fall. He was able to take advantage of a situation where the Broncos were short on D-linemen even before suffering a couple of injuries.

"I thought I practiced well, and they must have saw something in me. It all worked out because they decided to keep me when the final cut came," Unrein said. "I now know that I can play at this level, and I'm just trying to stay there."

Unrein said he was on the field for almost 100 plays this season as a backup to Marcus Thomas.

Following a 1-4 start, the Broncos went on to finish the regular season at 8-8.

"Once we started winning, a lot of people were saying how good we were. But we didn't listen to that either. All season long, we have taken an approach of just working hard and trying to get better every day. We have really embraced that."

After ending the regular season with three straight losses, the Broncos surprised everyone by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 last Sunday night in an NFL wild-card playoff game.

The victory came on the first play of overtime when Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on a slant pattern that went for 80 yards and a touchdown.

Unrein was sitting on the bench with a couple of other Broncos when the lightning bolt hit, the quickest end to an overtime game in NFL history.

"After Demaryius went in for the touchdown, I ran over to where my parents (Mike and Kay Unrein) were sitting and waved at them. It was an unbelievable feeling to be a part of that. It is something I will never forget, that's for sure."

The ending sent Sports Authority Field and Tebowmania to yet another level, which is something the Broncos have had to deal with all season long.

"The fans and the media are so obsessed with Tebow. It's pretty funny to see how people have put him up on a pedestal," Unrein said. "The way he plays brings a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to everybody around him, which has been really good for our team.

"Nobody resents it because Tim is just a regular guy in the locker room, the lunch room and in our meetings. For me, it's been great to know him as a person, and not just seeing him on TV or reading about him in the media."

Unrein and his Broncos teammates now travel to Foxborough, Mass., where they have a Saturday night date with the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs in Gillette Stadium.

Like last Sunday's game with Pittsburgh, the Broncos are given little or no chance against Tom Brady and the explosive Patriots.

"That's OK, because nobody gave us a shot of beating the Steelers either," Unrein said. "But we know what we can do when we go out and execute like we know we can. That showed last Sunday."