SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Light reflects off DeMarcus Ware’s head and he pauses for effect. He’s been around for 11 seasons, he's old enough to have been coached by Bill Parcells.
“When I first got into the NFL, I had hair," Ware said, "and then Parcells comes into the mix and I’m bald.”
His career has been a grind but the grind has now led the Denver Broncos outside linebacker to the Super Bowl. On a team fueled by hungry, weathered veterans seeking validation, Ware is the voice leading the league's No. 1-ranked defense. He's the 9-time Pro Bowler with 140 career sacks yet four postseason appearances that fell short.
On Sunday, the 33-year-old Ware reaches the pinnacle of his profession.
This week, he bumped into NFL great Tony Gonzalez who only reached the conference title game once in 17 seasons and never the Super Bowl. “You know,” Gonzalez told Ware, “I never had that opportunity.”
Ware grasps the significance of Sunday for his team, for himself. So, no, he won't regurgitate just-another-game clichés (re: lies).
“This right here, it’s big,” Ware said. “This is what all competitors, all NFL players look for and play for.”
Those two seasons with Parcells in Dallas set the course for Ware, an 11th overall pick out of Troy. The Hall of Fame coach laid a foundation of fundamentals, Ware says. Through college, this freak of nature mostly skated by on athleticism.
Parcells demanded Ware play the six-technique over the tight end, a lunch-pail assignment.
“That’s what he taught me,” Ware said. “It’s not about just making that big play. It’s how consistently can you make those plays?”
So Parcells used mind games. Ware would get two sacks, but it didn’t feel like two sacks. The coach would lure Ware with a virtual fishing line, telling the kid that once Lawrence Taylor proved he could play the six-technique, he let the pass rusher tee off from the nine technique outside the tight end.
Ware can still remember “graduating” to the nine-tech, sacking the quarterback against San Francisco and looking over to the sideline.
There stood Parcells with “those piercing eyes,” nodding, letting Ware know he had arrived.
From there, Ware posted incredible numbers — 20 sacks in 2008, 15.5 in 2010, 19.5 in 2011. His first step off the edge has been arguably the best in the business. His 28 multi-sack games and 32 forced fumbles were the most in Cowboys history.
Then, a contending team sensed the end was near for Ware. An owner who usually gets sentimental with his stars, didn’t want to pay Ware $12.25 million in 2014 and no compromise was made. Ware was released. And Denver, reeling from a 43-8 smackdown of a Super Bowl loss to Seattle, inked Ware at $30 million over three years.
Getting released was humbling, yes, and allowed Ware to send a message to everyone on his new team.
“I always tell the guys, it’s a ‘Not For Long’ league,” Ware said. “You don’t know where your career is going to end up. I’ve lived my life of people telling me what ‘you can and can’t do’ and let people motivate me to do something a lot better and go to that next level and the Denver Broncos were my next stop. So I sort of use that — they tell you ‘Oh you’re 31 or 32. You’re getting old. You can’t rush the passer.’ So you let those things sort of motivate you to play well."
Von Miller, the team’s No. 2 overall pick in 2011 has been the No. 1 factor in keeping Ware young.
“When the fire’s a little bit low,” Ware said, “he adds a little bit of gas on that to fire it up. And that’s what he did for me. … I can add my brain to his and make him a lot smarter player and be able to use his athleticism.
"Then, he sparks me.”
Just this week, the two held a race. Ware beat off him off the ball but admits Miller then blew him out. Trash talk is common between the two during the week of practice.
Game day arrives and Ware's words carry weight.
Before the 20-18 AFC title win over the New England Patriots, he took his team to a different level.
“I’ll tell you what,” end Derek Wolfe said. “I’m always pretty fired up anyways, but for the AFC Championship game, DeMarcus gave us a speech that I didn’t think could get any higher on a level — like, I didn’t think I could get any more focused that I was — and he took it to another level.”
For years, Ware told himself he’d never attend the Super Bowl unless he was playing in it. So here he is. He's still playing and still dangerous.
Back and neck injuries nagged Ware at various points this year but in the prose of defensive line coach Bill Kollar, he is “flat-(butt) rolling” now. To the coach, he looks 25 years old.
“Two weeks ago, guys knew they had to win to get to the Super Bowl,” said Kollar. “Well, you made it now. We’re here. You’ve got one more win. One more win and you’re world champs.”
Ware is delivering that message loud and clear.
“I never thought that I wouldn’t make the Super Bowl,” Ware said, “because it’s my goal every year. Now, it’s come true.”