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Published April 13, 2024

From standout to speaker

Former Gopher and NFL player Karl Mecklenburg has found a new career post-football.
From standout to speaker
Image by Photo courtesy Karl Mecklenburg

When Karl Mecklenburg retired from the NFL in 1995, he realized that he was qualified to do one of two things: coach football or become a bouncer.

A six-time Pro-Bowler with the Denver Broncos and former Gophers defensive standout, Mecklenburg was more than a decade removed from earning his biology degree at the University of Minnesota and was looking for a new direction.

He briefly coached his sonâÄôs football team, but before long, traded the football life for a microphone and a podium.

Today, heâÄôs making about 50 appearances a year as a motivational speaker at corporate functions and universities. Unlike some former athletes who may use their name and status to earn some extra cash as a speaker, Mecklenburg sees it as his second career.

âÄúThis is what I do,âÄù he said. âÄúI love it.âÄù

And after a football career full of obstacles, Mecklenburg has plenty of stories to share.

Twice misled

In his 2009 book, âÄúHeart of a Student Athlete: All-Pro Advice for Competitors and Their Families,âÄù Mecklenburg recalls playing football with the neighborhood kids while growing up in south Minneapolis, blocks away from Lake Harriet, pretending he was former Gophers tight end Doug Kingsriter.

Mecklenburg fondly remembers when his dad took him to Memorial Stadium on Saturdays, a ritual that sparked his interest in football. From an early age, Mecklenburg knew he wanted to play for the Gophers.

Years later, he realized that dream âÄî but not before some setbacks.

Coming out of Edina West High School, Mecklenburg was just 6-feet tall and 200 pounds âÄîundersized for a defensive lineman âÄî but was still recruited by the Gophers. Mecklenburg was so confident that he would get a scholarship from Minnesota, in fact, he didnâÄôt apply anywhere else.

He got a surprise on signing day.

The head coach at the time, Cal Stoll, opted not for Mecklenburg but another player who was once believed to be heading for Notre Dame. Stoll asked Mecklenburg to walk on.

âÄúIt angered me,âÄù Mecklenburg said. âÄúI felt I had been misled.âÄù

Instead of walking on, Mecklenburg scrambled to find another school and landed at Augustana College, a small private school in Sioux Falls, SD. He received a one-third scholarship with the understanding that he would get a full ride if he played well.

Mecklenburg grew three inches and added 40 pounds in his first year at Augustana, then led the team in sacks as a sophomore.

But instead of getting the full scholarship, Mecklenburg received another bit of shocking news when his coach called him into his office after his second season.

âÄúI thought he was going to say, âÄòMecklenburg youâÄôre the cornerstone of this thing, weâÄôre going to build the team around you.âÄô All that type of stuff,âÄù Mecklenburg said. âÄúInstead he said, âÄòKarl, we know your dadâÄôs a doctor and he can afford this school, so weâÄôre going to take away your scholarship.âÄôâÄù

Upset, Mecklenburg looked back to Minnesota.

With Joe Salem taking over the program, Mecklenburg made a few calls and was invited to walk on to the Gophers with two years of eligibility remaining, just in time for MinnesotaâÄôs final season at Memorial Stadium.

âÄúA lot of guys wouldnâÄôt have done what he did,âÄù Salem said. âÄúI think he knew what he wanted.âÄù

After sitting out for a year upon transferring, as is required by the NCAA, Mecklenburg made the most of his two years at Minnesota. He was named Second Team All-Big Ten both years at Minnesota, to the All-Big Ten Academic Team in 1982 and received the Carl Eller Award as the top defensive player on the team.

Although Mecklenburg was somewhat undersized, he ran through linemen rather than around them. According to Mike Wynn, MecklenburgâÄôs defensive line coach at Minnesota, MecklenburgâÄôs instincts, combined with his raw talent, made him dangerous.

âÄúHe seemed to do things that werenâÄôt even coached,âÄù Wynn said. âÄúI said, âÄòWell, weâÄôre going to go with this technique because heâÄôs doing it well.âÄôâÄù

Despite MecklenburgâÄôs success âÄî Salem said he was easily the best player on the team âÄî NFL scouts didnâÄôt seem to take much notice. Part of that may have had to do with the Gophers lack of success, winning just five Big Ten games in MecklenburgâÄôs two seasons there.

With a degree in biology, Mecklenburg planned to follow in his fatherâÄôs footsteps and go to medical school if his playing career didnâÄôt take off.

His backup plan proved to be unnecessary.

From 12th round to 6 Pro Bowls

Mecklenburg wasnâÄôt picked until the 12th round of the 1983 NFL Draft, 25 picks away from being remembered as Mr. Irrelevant, the last player chosen in the draft.

Players drafted so late are generally considered disposable âÄî Mecklenburg was not.

Occasionally playing all seven defensive front positions in a given game, Mecklenburg recorded 13 sacks and five forced fumbles in his third season in the league, earning him a spot in his first of six Pro Bowl appearances and First Team All-Pro honors.

Former Broncos head coach Dan Reeves, who coached Mecklenburg for his first nine years in the league, said Mecklenburg reminded him of Hall of Fame tackle Bob Lilly.

âÄúHe was extremely strong,âÄù Reeves said. âÄúAnd he didnâÄôt look like it … Bob Lilly was the same way. He could never touch a weight in his life and still be the strongest guy on the team.âÄù

Reeves had his own struggles making it in the pros. After going undrafted he had several solid seasons with the Cowboys in the 1960s.

âÄúNobody could outwork Karl,âÄù Reeves said. âÄúI knew what he was going through and how important it was for him to make something of it and to prove to people that he could do it.âÄù

Mecklenburg played in three Super Bowls in four years alongside John Elway. He retired in 1995 with a battered body and a handful of concussions, but no rings.

âÄòSit down, pull up a chairâÄô

A member of the National Speakers Association, an organization of certified public speakers, for the past five years, Mecklenburg uses stories from his playing career at Minnesota in the early 1980s and his 12 seasons with the Denver Broncos to inspire leadership and hard work.

Mecklenburg was reluctant, however, when first approached about doing motivational speaking. It was never his style to lead his teammates or deliver rousing speeches.

His coaches remember Mecklenburg as quiet, even shy, but it didnâÄôt mean teammates didnâÄôt look up to him.

âÄúI tried to lead by example,âÄù Mecklenburg said. âÄúIf you’re not motivated in the NFL, somebody else is going to have your job in a minute.âÄù

Although he isnâÄôt as connected with the football program as other players, Mecklenburg was invited by former Gophers head coach Tim Brewster to speak to the team before its last game in the Metrodome in 2008, a game it went on to lose 55-0 to rival Iowa.

âÄú[My speech] wasnâÄôt very effective, obviously,âÄù Mecklenburg said with a laugh.

Although his pregame speech didnâÄôt help Minnesota avoid an embarrassing loss, his career has been successful otherwise. Last year, he spoke at the Global SpeakerâÄôs Summit in South Africa.

David Law, director of student activities at Regis University in Denver, said MecklenburgâÄôs demeanor makes him an effective speaker. Mecklenburg spoke to students and their families at Regis in 2008, and Law is currently trying to get him back to campus.

âÄúHe’s much more of a, âÄòsit down, pull up a chair and tell some stories with a pointâÄô type of guy rather than a motivational speaker like Tony Robbins,âÄù Law said in an e-mail.

Today, Mecklenburg lives in Littleton, Colo. with his wife and three children. In 2006, Mecklenburg founded the REACH Foundation, a program that encourages Denver-area children to read.

Mecklenburg said his and his familyâÄôs struggles with dyslexia helped inspire him to found the organization. But like his brother, whoâÄôs a writing professor despite having the disorder, Mecklenburg hasnâÄôt let dyslexia slow him down.

âÄúI know itâÄôs a challenge for kids with learning disabilities and issues to keep up,âÄù Mecklenburg said. âÄúIt can be overcome.âÄù

Through a career thatâÄôs been anything but predictable, a common thread in MecklenburgâÄôs collegiate and professional life has been his drive to learn and overcome, something he carries with him in his current career.

âÄúI still think itâÄôs one of the characteristics that allows me to thrive in what IâÄôm doing,âÄù Mecklenburg said. âÄúMy overcoming was in football. But it was lessons that I needed to learn.âÄù

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