It's hard to imagine one NFL franchise being more burdened with untimely deaths than what the Denver Broncos have endured in the past three-plus years.
Promising young cornerback Darrent Williams being shot dead on the streets of Denver in the early-morning hours of New Year's Day 2007. Reserve running back Damien Nash collapsing and dying a few short months later, following a charity basketball game in St. Louis. And now, in the latest Broncos tragedy, second-year reserve receiver Kenny McKinley was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound late Monday afternoon at his home in suburban Denver.
The Broncos organization has had to cope with three deaths involving three young players -- all in stunning fashion. Since early 2009, the Broncos have been led by a new regime under head coach Josh McDaniels; but the franchise's pattern of tragic loss apparently did not end with the Mike Shanahan era.
We know very little about McKinley, who was only 23 and one of the more low-profile players in the league. I don't believe I ever saw him play in the NFL, and if I did, I don't recall it. We think of the NFL and the headline names and faces readily come to mind, but the reality is, there are plenty of the league's 1,600-plus players who toil in relative obscurity, as McKinley did. The stars and superstars are vastly outnumbered by the bit players that help fill out every NFL roster. Special-team performers, like McKinley, rarely grace magazine covers.
McKinley, a fifth-round pick of the Broncos in 2009, was on Denver's injured reserve and out for the year with a knee injury that he suffered early in the preseason. He played in just eight games last season a rookie, seeing only special teams duty -- seven kick returns for 158 yards -- before being placed on IR with a knee injury in late December.
Clearly, McKinley's NFL dreams of glory had not yet come true. Who knows if that frustrating reality contributed to his apparent suicide, but for a young man who was the University of South Carolina's all-time leading receiver during a standout collegiate career, perhaps the lack of NFL success was a demoralizing development.
Reports say McKinley reported to Broncos camp this summer optimistic that his time had come and that he'd be a healthy and contributing member of Denver's receiving corps. But that was not his fate, and he was placed on IR Aug. 5, ending his season almost before it began.
In the kind of statement the Broncos are becoming all too familiar with in recent years, McKinley was remembered as a great teammate and a young player whose future in the game was considered promising. McDaniels hailed him for a "smile and personality (that) could light up the room,'' and called it "a tragic loss for our football team.''
A source in the Broncos organization who knew McKinley told me late Monday night that he was "a great kid. Always friendly, with a smile on his face. He was fun-loving, and it was impossible not to like him. Impossible.''
Perhaps it's equally impossible to believe that such tragedy has befallen the Broncos once again.