Denver Broncos' KJ Hamler 'getting better' after injury rehab, loss of grandmother put him in 'dark spot'

The loss of his grandmother on top of a difficult recovery from leg and hip injuries has been tough for KJ Hamler, but the Broncos have been impressed with his effort. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith once framed the struggles of a player returning from injury as a fight that reached well beyond physical pain.

Smith talked about wrestling with the constant reminders that such a major investment of time, effort and emotion was often met with little return.

"All you know is playing football, being in the locker room, interacting with people, jokes, arguments, whatever," Smith has said. "Then you get hurt, and it's like you're the night watchman. When you work, everybody else is somewhere else doing something else. If you're in the training room, they're at practice, if you're rehabbing, they're in meetings. You show up, work, go home and you might not talk to your teammates for days. You can't lead, you don't have impact and you don't even know when you're going to get back. That can mess you up."

Nobody has to tell current Broncos wide receiver KJ Hamler any of that. Hamler, a second-round pick by the Broncos in 2020, last played in Week 3 last season when, late in the second quarter of a 26-0 win over the New York Jets, he leaped for a Teddy Bridgewater pass and landed awkwardly on his left leg.

After doctors evaluated the damage, Hamler had torn the ACL in his left knee and had a hip injury. Both needed surgery, and Hamler soon entered recovery.

Teammates tried to keep him engaged along the way, but two months after hip surgery, his grandmother, Ethel Gooding -- the person he had described as his "best friend" -- died at 83.

"I was in a dark spot for a while going through that," Hamler said. "That was probably the toughest thing for me. 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. I won't say that I'm out of that dark place, but I'm getting better. I can tell you that.

"... No one has taken care of me more than her besides my actual mother," he said of his grandmother. "I used to take her to get her hair done and get her food every time I came home. She was going through struggles. She had Parkinson's disease. There were days where I didn't want to show up to therapy, but I always thought about her. She was doing therapy, so I had to go do it. I knew she wouldn't give up, so I didn't give up."

The closer Hamler got in his rehab to football drills, to catching passes as part of the daily grind, the better it got.

Then, in March, the Broncos signed quarterback Russell Wilson. Hamler has already done some limited workouts with Wilson and the team's other pass-catchers in San Diego and spoken to him about his potential impact in the offense.

Hamler has also talked to Seattle Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett -- who has caught 45 career touchdown passes from Wilson -- on life with Wilson behind center. And that's helped motivate Hamler through his recovery.

"I couldn't be [more] impressed with anyone in our building than KJ Hamler," general manager George Paton said earlier this offseason. "Significant injury. ... No one fights, no one works, no one has more passion."

The Broncos will continue to manage Hamler's workload as they move through the Phase 3 of their offseason program, which began this week. It is the first time the team can run 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.

Coach Nathaniel Hackett hasn't committed to a recovery timetable for Hamler but says what he's doing is "unbelievable." Hamler has used some of the time away from the game to create more of a life portfolio outside of football, too, perhaps one upside from not playing for most of last season.

"I'm in a good spot," Hamler said. "Sometimes they hold me back just to play it safe and be on the safe side, just be smart with every decision I make. I just listen to the trainers and the strength staff. I take advice from them.

"... Just playing ball again. When you take something that you love away, you have to figure out what you're going to do ... [I'm] just trying to find an identity out of football as well. That was probably the hardest part for me because all I know is football. Picking up new things, new hobbies and being around positive people that bring light and energy to your life is a big difference."