As dusk falls on North Scottsdale three months into another football season, Brock Osweiler wheels his new equipment away from his driveway. He has packed a shiny red wagon with essentials: pizza, water, diapers, toys. Ten months into “retirement,” his new teammate refuses to wear anything except tutus. Pretty pink bows protrude from her shoelaces. “Come on, Blakester,” Osweiler says to his two-year-old daughter, as she skips down the street.
The Osweilers arrive at Brock’s new stadium, the playground in their gated neighborhood. Brock takes Blake there most days with his wife, Erin. He’ll cram his 6' 7" frame down plastic slides, throw Blake high into the air and chase her through the bed of woodchips underfoot. He’ll do everything he couldn’t do in previous autumns, as his pro football career unfolded.
“Remember you were supposed to not whine for a whole night and you’d get a car?” he asks.
“A pink car!” she screams back, after whining.
Brock is still sorting through the end of his career and the start of his new life. There are the 32 teams that didn’t call, the backups with worse statistics and less talent who signed contracts, even a former teammate, Ryan Tannehill, who would help elevate the Titans to the AFC championship game. All Tannehill needed was the kind of chance Osweiler sought while his family settled into its 10th home in seven years. He outfitted the backyard with patio furniture and a fancy grill out by the pool. There’s plenty of space to assemble all of Blake’s toys, plenty of friendly neighbors with whom to share homeowner tips (see rattlesnake, whack rattlesnake) and plenty of time to do everything except what he wants to do most.
There are also plenty of reminders, mostly good but occasionally bad, of the life from which he was forced out, of the career that he left behind, of the $72 million contract he signed with Houston that changed his life in the best ways (swelling his bank account) and the worst (ramping up the scorn). On the same week that Osweiler wheeled that wagon down his street, he had cable installed in his new home. The installer not only recognized him but happened to be a Texans fan living in Arizona. “I don’t like you,” he told Osweiler, and he wasn’t joking.
It’s not like Osweiler wanted to struggle in Houston, not like he wanted to be ranked among the worst free-agent signings of the past decade, not like he welcomed all the ridicule and hatred cast his way on social media. He wakes up every morning with a sore back from a herniated disc he suffered while playing for the Texans, and a chronically pain-ridden shoulder that he separated at least five times during his career. These are remnants of his other life, and despite the pain, despite the mockery, he’d wade back into the fray this second if a team called.
He can’t watch football, can’t observe Tannehill tearing opposing defenses apart, can’t settle into the couch to see the Steelers lose a playoff berth with their backups throwing interceptions. It still hurts that bad, almost a year out. Well-meaning strangers like to stop him in the supermarket and say things like, “What do you mean you’re done? You’re too young to be done.” (Gee, thanks, person I’ve never met before.) He knows that. On Sundays, he and Blake don matching blue-and-white aprons and make omelets, the TV tuned to anything but the NFL. He can’t work out in his head why he’s unemployed. He’s 28, he’s healthy and he believes he played his best football in his final season, 2018. While a new crop of dynamic quarterbacks—Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, most prominently—have ascended to the top of the NFL, there are still plenty of less-talented passers than Osweiler taking up roster spots across the league. Remove the stench that lingers from the contract and it’s easy to argue that he belongs in the NFL.
All that in mind, his daughter rides down the slide with a piece of pizza in her hand.
“She’s living her best life,” Erin says.
That’s the other thing: They all are. Over a career that lasted just seven seasons, Osweiler went from an unsung hero of a Super Bowl winner to a punchline, mocked for failing to live up to his second contract. He was set up to be a future star, then became a franchise QB, and in one season—with that contract hanging around his neck—it all washed away. When players leave football behind, the game so often spits them back into society, battered and broken. In Osweiler’s case, the game left him behind, revealing a new dichotomy. There are days when the contract and the lost opportunities it led to torture him—and days when he looks at the life that contract afforded him, and the relative health he enjoys because of the forced early retirement, and feels something else: peace.
* * *
Life in Early “Retirement,” Part I: At Silverleaf Country Club, where Osweiler recently became a member, he runs into another athlete who recently called it a career. Just two young dudes still in their prime years hacking it around the golf course, trying to fill their competitive voids.
“What’s up, Mike,” Osweiler says.
“What’s up, Brock,” the man says back.
“Michael Phelps,” Osweiler says.
* * *
The Broncos drafted Osweiler in the second round in 2012, a seemingly perfect place for a still-developing quarterback who had concentrated more on basketball growing up in Montana and had started only one season at Arizona State. He wanted to play for Denver more than any other team. He thought the vibe of the city fit him, and he desired to learn from a future Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback, and develop under John Elway, the team’s Hall of Fame quarterback turned general manager. He knew he needed to grow; he asked for extra drills and individual instruction.
From the start of the 2012 season to late in ’15, Osweiler served as Manning’s backup, and he treated the position as a full-time apprenticeship. He never told Manning this, but he took notes during every meeting, scribbling down whatever Manning said, studying the legend closely, examining his cadence, command and presence.
Osweiler points out that he’s a Scorpio, loyal to a fault. Teammates would tell him to lighten up and remind him that he sat behind an icon who rarely missed games due to injury. Instead, Osweiler was usually the second person to arrive at the facility, after “The Greek,” longtime trainer Steve Antonopulos, who opened the building before sunrise. Osweiler would finish meetings around 5 p.m., drive home, take a 30-minute break for dinner and retreat to his office to study more. When friends visited, he rarely saw them. Coaches started to notice that Osweiler began to share some of Manning’s mannerisms, like how he pointed out protections and the way he lumbered to the line.
Life was simpler then, before he signed the blockbuster deal, when most considered him a faceless vessel for quarterback potential, albeit an outlier in the changing landscape of NFL offenses. Osweiler could see the game changing around him, shifting to more mobile quarterbacks, not taller, more traditional dropback ones. He would set up behind center like the last tree that hadn’t been chopped down in a forest, and his body screamed long, as if his legs, torso, arms and fingers expanded, go-go-gadget style, when he played.
Some nights, after he finished studying, Osweiler would call his agent, CAA’s Jim Denton, in a panic, all sweaty and worked up. “Am I ever going to get to play?” he’d ask. “Should we look at a trade?”
“‘Brock, please calm down,’ Denton would say. “You’ll get your chance eventually.”
* * *
Life in Early “Retirement,” Part II: “Don’t judge me,” Osweiler says, as he reaches into his golf bag on the driving range one November afternoon. He pulls out one of those goofy bands that duffers place around their knees to stop from swaying. He had purchased this band after another, more experienced player had watched him practice the week before. Osweiler has taken up golf only recently. “You’re doing it all wrong,” the player said.
Everyone’s a critic.
* * *
Osweiler’s chance came in November 2015, as Manning’s body began to fail him. The Broncos had fallen behind the Chiefs in Denver, and Manning had thrown his fourth interception early in the third quarter. Denver’s first-year head coach, Gary Kubiak, tapped Osweiler on the shoulder as he studied images on an iPad. “Hey, Peyton’s done,” he said. “You’re in.”
Osweiler was ready. He knew the stakes, especially after a Broncos assistant had told him, “When Peyton is done playing, my job security is in your hands.” He started at Chicago the next week, on his 25th birthday, against one of the league’s most feared defenses, and threw for 250 yards and two scores in a victory. “I just remember my heart racing so fast, like it was just gonna beat out of my body,” Erin says.
In Pittsburgh four weeks later, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier drove Osweiler into the turf on the last series of the first half, separating his throwing shoulder. Osweiler didn’t come out. Instead, he asked Kubiak not to call handoffs to the right, because the momentum of the running back sent excruciating pain through his left arm. At halftime he took a shot to numb it and finished the game. Despite the injury, Osweiler won five of his seven starts, completed 61.8 percent of his passes and threw 10 touchdowns compared with six interceptions. He brought the Broncos back from a two-touchdown deficit against the Bengals on a Monday night. He threw for 270 yards in a Sunday-night overtime win over the Patriots, a key victory in securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs. He walked into Shanahan’s Steakhouse in Denver one night to a standing ovation. Many of those cheering were calling for the once unthinkable, begging for Osweiler to finish out the season, for the Broncos to keep Manning on the bench. The best stretch of Osweiler’s life had yielded serious sports talk chatter that he might “Wally Pipp” old Manning, replacing him the way Tom Brady did Drew Bledsoe.
Instead, Kubiak benched him in the second half of the regular-season finale against the Chargers, after Osweiler had thrown for 232 yards but had two passes intercepted. Even now, four years later, he describes that moment as “terrible” and “devastating.”
“I went from the top of the mountain to below ground,” he says. “It crushed me. I wanted to just vomit it hurt so bad.” With Manning back under center, the Broncos mounted a comeback win.
Still, he remains forever grateful to Kubiak. The coach called Osweiler into his office and hugged him for 10 seconds that night, then said, “I love you like a son, and I’m so proud of you.” Osweiler broke down, sobbing in Kubiak’s arms. Kubiak tried to comfort him, noting that he had spent most of his career backing up Elway. Then he pointed to the fridge. “That’s filled with beers,” he said. “Have as many as you want.” Osweiler pounded “several” in a row—he can’t recall how many—showered, changed, and did his press conference.
“All I know is I wouldn’t have that ring without him,” Kubiak says.
Osweiler flipped his perspective right away. Kubiak checked in on him for weeks. But before Osweiler left that night, he found Manning. “What do you need from me this week to get ready?” he asked. “Let’s go win the f------ Super Bowl.”
They did, toppling the Panthers, and Osweiler came to discover the key to the happiness he found that season, back before the contract, when everything got complicated. He was happy because he had decided to be happy, because he saw his wife hold the Lombardi Trophy and rode in the parade. He focused on what he had done, what he had won—and now, in 2019, he had to do that with the rest of his life, for the rest of his life. It only sounded simple. It was not.
* * *
Life in Early “Retirement,” Part III: Osweiler still gets his body worked on every week, at Balunsd recovery center in Scottsdale. As he climbs into a 45-degree cold tub in November, he all but shrieks. “It’s just not that serious anymore,” he says. “I’m not even getting hit now!”
He waves at an older woman who usually gets treatment at the same times. She’s also a new teammate. Her name is Lynn. She’s 76.
* * *
Osweiler might have become beloved if he had stayed in Denver. And, even back then, he never wanted to leave. He figured that Manning would retire, limping into the sunset after securing another ring, and he knew the Broncos would return their impenetrable defense. Teammates told him they wanted him to stay as free agency kicked off. Osweiler responded by saying he wanted to start for the Broncos for 15 years, and he obsessively checked his phone, waiting for a call from Elway.
For weeks, Elway didn’t call. Kubiak did, telling him, “Dude, I know you’re our guy,” and “I want to coach you for a long time.” The quarterback’s agents eventually told him not to answer any call from Elway after a certain cutoff date near the start of free agency. Osweiler wishes he hadn’t listened. While out at dinner one night, he saw Elway’s number blink across his home screen. His thumb lingered over the “talk” button, but he let it go. Elway left a message, saying he wanted to come to Scottsdale and talk. He sent an offer to CAA: three years, $39 million.
“F--- yeah,” Brock said.
“That’s embarrassing,” he says one agent told him. “We’re not even going to respond.”
Free agency started. The Texans called. So did the Browns, but they would guarantee only one year. “Then Houston went there,” Osweiler says. The Texans offered that princely sum, with $37 million guaranteed. That was more than anyone expected, even Osweiler. So he did what any reasonable human being would do, taking the money, forever attaching the contract to his name. He wishes he had made other choices. “I wouldn’t even have picked up John’s call,” he says. “I would have called John two weeks before that and told him, Listen I want to be a Bronco until I die. If you want me, let’s get this done.”
“We might have won the Super Bowl the next year,” he adds, wistfully.
Osweiler never tried to explain to people what should be obvious. Like, say, a UPS worker had been offered one job in Houston for $70,000 a year and another in Denver for $35k. “I’d ask Mr. Fan, what would you do?” he says.
The online hatred started immediately. One Broncos supporter sent a picture of Osweiler’s dogs and said he knew where the quarterback lived and planned to euthanize them.
He started 14 games for the Texans, winning eight, falling short of 3,000 yards and registering more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15). The contract came to define him in ways he never expected. He still needed to develop, but the emphasis on instruction in Houston wasn’t the same as in Denver, and perception turned quickly, with the contract’s size serving as an accelerant. Critics lambasted Osweiler for not attending the Broncos’ ring ceremony. He tried but didn’t want to miss practice. When he didn’t visit the White House with his former teammates, some of his more adventurous skeptics suggested that Osweiler was making a political statement. He was not; he didn’t want to miss practice, wanting the same thing as those who spewed venom his way online.
After one season, Houston shipped him to Cleveland. The Browns, in the midst of tanking, didn’t even want Osweiler; they desired the second-round pick they received in the deal as compensation for taking on his contract. Osweiler didn’t know that. He hired a new trainer and prepared obsessively for that 2017 season, like a certain fictional boxer readied for the Russian in Rocky IV. He told his agent, “Jimmy, mark my words. This is going to be the best 30 for 30 that has ever happened.” His family moved into a house near the Browns’ facility, only to find black mold in the washing machine and bugs, spiders and flies all circling everywhere; they moved into the only room available, at a Holiday Inn, sharing it with two adopted pit bulls and three-month-old Blake. “But yes, life is good, roof over your head, air conditioning and heat,” Osweiler says. “It’s just like, that’s what you do, chasing your dream.”
When the Browns cut him before the season started, Osweiler signed with Denver, for the veteran minimum, as a backup. This turn, he says, marked one of the best days of his life, after his wedding and the births of his children and the Super Bowl. It felt like going home again. That lasted for one season. He lost all four of the games he started, then signed with Miami, again for the league minimum. The online scorn only increased, bolstered by those who seemed personally offended that Osweiler had not played to the value of his contract. Says Erin: “That stuff hurts.”
* * *
Life in Early “Retirement,” Part IV: While playing in a golf tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, last September, Osweiler sails a drive into the rough. Walking toward his ball, he sees another golfer hit a shot into his fairway. “Feel free to give me some s--- if you want to,” he says. “That shot was terrible.”
“I don’t think you want that,” the man responds. “We’re from Houston.”
Not missing a beat, Osweiler says, “Oh, how did you like your division championship in 2016?”
“Touché,” the man says.
Everyone’s a critic.
In Miami, Osweiler began working with a sport psychologist, who emphasized to the QB that he could control how he defined himself. He didn’t have to agree with the lists that ranked him atop the worst free-agent signings of the decade. He was an NFL quarterback, one of the best at his job in the world, the owner of a Super Bowl ring, which even most elite NFL players would trade body parts for. This idea that he had failed? Says who?
The game had changed, and not in ways that benefited him, as offenses incorporated college concepts like run-pass options that didn’t suit his skill set—and he had still proved that he could play and, more importantly, that he could win.
On one mid-October morning in 2018, he found out that he would play again. Tannehill was injured, and Osweiler would get the nod against the Bears, the same team he had faced in his first career start. He had not taken even one rep with the first team, but he wasn’t worried. He climbed in his Porsche and sped toward the stadium, cranking Bon Jovi’s greatest hits at full volume. He decided he wouldn’t hold back that day, wouldn’t worry about making mistakes, the way he had once he signed that massive deal. He knew this might be the last time he started a game in the NFL. He tossed one two-point conversion to tie the game early in the fourth quarter on an adjustment he had learned from studying Manning all those years earlier. “Don’t forget about the backline guy,” Manning had told him, meaning his third option, who would be running across the back of the end zone, which is where Osweiler found wideout Kenny Stills.
The movie-like symmetry was not lost on Osweiler, who threw for 380 yards and three scores in an overtime victory. “I could have died a happy man that night,” he says. “It was like I had proved the world wrong.” He was one of five quarterbacks to defeat those 12-win Bears, joining Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Nick Foles.
Still, that offseason, the Dolphins would move on from coach Adam Gase, who was also Osweiler’s position coach in Denver, and the new regime chose Ryan Fitzpatrick to bridge the gap to their next quarterback. At that point, Osweiler figured he would entertain offers all spring. “Way to ball out last year,” other players told him everywhere he went. But only a few teams even looked into his availability—the Falcons, Jets (where Gase landed) and Colts, who he worked out for after Andrew Luck’s retirement but didn’t sign with. Manning even called Indy to put in a good word. The lack of interest didn’t make sense to Osweiler then and it doesn’t make sense to him now. “You have no idea of the scratching and clawing it took just to get the Miami job,” he says. “Then to play like that …” He trails off.
Osweiler finished his career with a 15-15 record as a starter, 7,418 passing yards, a 59.8 completion percentage, 37 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. Plus, of course, the $41.4 million that he made just in football salary. That dichotomy continued to define him: solid career, bad contract. He heard from dozens of former teammates and coaches. All told him he should still be playing, that if he couldn’t land a starting gig he should easily nab a backup one. “He proved he can play in this league,” says former teammate Brandon Weeden. “He’s smart enough, talented enough and one of the toughest guys I ever played with.”
The worst of social media ignored all that, gleefully adding up the math, noting that Osweiler had made $1.4 million per start, $1.1 million per touchdown and more than $35,000 for each time he threw a pass. The theme: We should all be so lucky, a sentiment that lacks empathy but isn’t wrong. He’s asked how he can reconcile getting more than most can dream of but not everything he wanted, having a decent career but not a transcendent one, being defined by money earned more than any other metric. He stares off into the distance, eyes not blinking.
“I don’t know if you ever can,” he says.
* * *
Life in Early “Retirement,” Part V: Osweiler tees off at Silverleaf on a November morning. There’s not a cloud in the sky. He’s bumping old-school hip-hop, crushing drives, draining putts. The leg band is helping smooth his swing. The football stuff still bugs him, the backups who signed for $2 million this year with half his résumé. Yet, he points to a bunch of workers, toiling on the roof of a nearby house. “How can I complain when I see that?” he says. “I’ve got a great f------ life.”
This is Osweiler’s life now, the f------ great one: golf; meetings with private equity companies for a potential partnership, where he’d be paid, essentially, to show up and shake hands and tell stories; more golf; pilates, yoga, body work; more golf; summer vacations in Idaho, weekend trips all over the country to sample food and drink from New York to San Francisco; building a weight room at his old high school; more golf. He’s learning how to cook, making homemade pasta. He’s serving on charity boards. He’s hanging out with Blake, every day, not sometimes on the weekend. “She’s totally a daddy’s girl,” Erin says. “They’re best friends.”
Osweiler decided against coaching, scouting or broadcasting for now. He doesn’t need the money, and all of those pursuits would eat too heavily into his newfound free time. Maybe down the road. He will not play football again other than in the NFL; he won’t risk a broken neck to throw a few XFL touchdowns. “I’m NFL or bust,” he says, knowing that bust remains the most likely option. He’s not expecting a team to call, but he would answer if one did.
It helps that he’s not the ruffled type, that what bothers him is the internal nagging that he’s better than his statistics suggest, that he could have done more, if only he had the chance. Erin says she’s never seen him flustered, not even when he carried her down some rocks while taking wedding pictures, slipped, maintained possession (of his new wife) and ripped his pants from crotch to ankle. “F--- it, I guess I’ll be dancing in my underwear all night,” he said. (Fortunately, he didn’t have to; the photographer pulled out a sewing kit.)
He saw the anger that surged through former teammates when football was gone. How they couldn’t let go of the games, or seasons. The pain they dealt with. The limps in their walks. The headaches. Most didn’t choose to leave the game; they were forced out, just like him. Outside of not being able to play in the NFL anymore, what most bothers him these days is entitlement, “people who act like douchebags, who are not good human beings, who ruffle their popcorn in the movie theater.” Fair enough.
Osweiler did not arrive at that mind-set overnight. He was angry at first. He needed to remember that he decided how he felt. Not the keyboard warriors. Not the pundits dragging his name through the gutter. The teammates and coaches who told him he deserved to play, they helped him inch toward closure. He wasn’t wrong. He had accomplished more than most. He buried his confusion and anger over how his career ended under the wisdom he gained from his season away. It hurt. And it helped.
“There are people fleeing countries for their lives, trying to get their kids out to a better situation, and I am complaining about not having an NFL contract?” he says he came to realize. “Are you kidding me? No way. No way would I ever do that. That’s just not who I am.”
That’s the thing about everyone who’s joking about Brock Osweiler. He’s the one who’s laughing. For all the negative ways the contract impacted his life, the money changed his existence for the better, too. Life is good. He drives a Porsche. Goes to Happy Hour. Lives in a house that could comfortably fit the Brady Bunch. Downs a vodka soda or three when time permits—and these days, time always permits.
After the round, he heads home, wraps Blake in a hug, trades a cookie for a kiss and asks whether she wants to head back over to the park. Someone had hacked into his Postmates account that day, ordering a bunch of sushi in Orlando. He laughs. There are worse things.
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