PARKER — One of the final and most lasting images from David Bruton’s seven years as a Bronco was taken the evening of Dec. 20, 2015, in the bowels of Heinz Field. His arms draped around linebacker Danny Trevathan and the team’s head physician, Bruton hobbled back to the visiting locker room wincing in pain after playing nearly an entire game on a broken leg.
That image was as much a badge of honor and summation of Bruton’s NFL career as it was a reminder of the game’s physicality. In his eight years in the league, Bruton was the subject of so many of those photos; his big plays were met with bigger hits. One from 2014, when he lay on the ground and held his head in agony after getting popped by Oakland’s Denico Autry, still circulates in reports of concussions.
“I need to talk to the NFL about that one,” Bruton said with a smile. “They’re using my likeness.”
Bruton is done being the star of those moments. The former safety and special-teams ace is retiring from the NFL because of his health and others’. Since January he has been taking prerequisite courses at the University of Colorado-Denver to be able to apply to physical therapy school.
“A lot went into it. A lot of thought, a lot of communication with my family, talking about it with my friends,” Bruton, 30, told The Denver Post in a recent interview. “At the end of the day it came down to health and being able to still get up and play with the kiddos or take the dog on the run or go do hobbies. I just lost passion to continue playing. I felt like it was the best route for me to hang it up and pursue a different route.”
Doug Pensinger and Patrick Smith, Getty Images; Joe Amon, The Denver Post
David Bruton suffered many serious injuries throughout his eight-year NFL career, including a broken leg (left) and, by his count, six concussions.
Bruton didn’t give much thought to the physical toll of football when he played. He couldn’t. Any hesitance on the field could result in more injuries. Worse injuries. But he thinks about it now, with a 13-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter, and a list of hobbies that includes reading and mountain biking (his reprieve from studying for his upcoming chemistry final was a 77-mile ride at Copper Mountain for the first leg of the Courage Classic on Saturday).
“I like to consider myself a smart guy. A bit of a nerd,” he said. “So I like to have my brain functioning when I get a little older. That was a big reason.”
Bruton’s final minutes as an NFL player were spent on the ground of FedExField surrounded by trainers after he suffered, by his count, the sixth concussion of his career, in a Redskins win over the Browns last October. Washington placed him on injured reserve and later released him, just seven months after they had signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract.
Bruton’s decision to leave the game altogether was sealed following a December workout with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I didn’t do well, nor did I have the passion to work out and really get back into shape or anything,” he said. “My agents hit me up about a couple other teams for the playoffs who wanted me to come work out and I was just — no.”
Bruton, a fourth-round pick by Denver in 2009, finished his pro career with 141 total tackles (120 solo), two sacks, three interceptions, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Bruton tries to evade a tackle after intercepting Lions quarterback Matt Stafford in a Broncos win at Detroit in 2015.
He helped the Broncos to their third Super Bowl title (although he couldn’t play in Super Bowl 50 because of his leg injury). He earned a massive diamond-studded ring in reward, shook hands with former president Barack Obama months later (a photo of that moment signed by Obama still hangs in Bruton’s home office), was voted a team captain in each of his final three seasons, was a regular at community events, launched a foundation and his Bruton’s Books program to improve youth literacy in Denver, and later received a grant from the NFL Foundation that was used to expand his footprint into Dayton, Ohio.
Part of his legacy with the Broncos remains engraved inside the their Dove Valley headquarters, on a plaque honoring his selection as the team’s 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
“Bruton was a great teammate,” cornerback Chris Harris said. “He was extremely smart. He was just one of those guys who was very impactful on special teams for us and was a great leader. Just his intelligence and just the way he led by example.”
In March 2015, Bruton left an offer on the table to return as a reserve safety in Denver and accepted one to start in Washington. It was a decision he doesn’t regret. But not longer after making it he realized where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do for the long-term.
“I missed it out here, I did,” he said. “It was definitely a change. Washington was run a lot differently than out here in Denver and just how guys are was a lot different. … I don’t feel like I was as welcomed there as I was here in Denver.”
No More Tuesdays
Hanging from a steel pole in the two-story living room of Bruton’s Parker home is a life-size plastic skeleton named Fred. For now, Fred guards the hallway closet stuffed with Bruton’s No. 30 game-day jerseys, and stands above a near-3,000-square foot basement decorated with Broncos memorabilia and a pool table that bears the logos of Super Bowl 50 and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Football has not left Bruton, but it has moved to the background — behind Fred, Bruton’s teammate in his next phase.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, since I was in high school,’” said Bruton, a political science and sociology major at Notre Dame. “I’ve always wanted to help people and get them back on their feet, get them back to work. I did a lot of job shadowing when I was in high school and did a lot of work at a hospital, so I got to see some. And of course I did a lot of it while playing football.”
Twice a week, Bruton has been traveling some 35 miles to Denver for three courses — Chemistry II and its accompanying lab, and an introduction to psychology class. Next semester, Physics I and Biology II and their respective labs will consume his days and evenings.
“No Tuesdays,” he said of the NFL’s usual off days. “God, I miss Tuesdays.”
On most Fridays, Bruton treks to Golden to shadow the physical therapists at Next Level Sports Performance, a clinic owned by former Broncos assistant athletic trainer Jim Keller. Bruton must accrue 45 hours of observation with a physical therapist for his application. But he’ll log many more.
With three years of physical therapy school slated to follow, Bruton is on pace to be licensed by 2022.
“I have always said that if there was ever a pro athlete that could go back to school and get their PT degree, I think they’d be fantastic,” Keller said. “The physical and the mental — he understands the coaches’ desire to have a person be healthy but to also have them play. That’s why I think he could be great in this type of world and help a lot of people.”
But first he will make a cameo back at Dove Valley during Broncos training camp this summer to observe team director of sports medicine Steve “Greek” Antonopulos. And if his agents call again while he’s working on the sidelines, Bruton is adamant his answer will still be “no.”
“I’m A-OK with my decision,” he said. “I’m already continuing on with my life and moving forward.”
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Bruton with his dog Ni’cko and skeleton Fred at his home in Parker.