Sometimes, living in a small town gives you things that you have to wrestle with. In Eaton, Colorado, population 2,690, life is pretty much what it’s always been in small towns. They publish the school lunch menus in the local paper each week next to recipes from Eleanor’s Kitchen, and the yearly Eaton Days of early July are named after a pioneer in irrigation who used the waters from the foot of the Rocky Mountains to turn the arid plains into abundant farms and agriculture and who settled in that region.
The Farmer’s Market runs from June to early October and features all the normal events - sidewalk chalk art, foods both organic and otherwise and local musicians all are part of the annual happening. Not much changes, and little of it changes quickly. But the hard work ethic that permeates many of the small-town agricultural areas also infuses the young men who hail from there and the sports that provide much of the small town entertainment are as much a part of the landscape as the high-plains winds that scrub the fields and the crops that fill them in the summer and harvest seasons.
In Eaton, as in so many small towns, high school sports are king, and in his day, Mitch Unrein was reigning royalty. One of six children of Kay and Mark Unrein, Mitch was born into a very athletic family and his high school career proved that he was the best of them. During his senior year season of 2005, Unrein left as the State Champion in his wrestling weight class with an overall record of 34-4, including 31 pins.
He was in the 215 weight class that year, and the Eaton Reds team took third overall in the state. Like a lot of the larger wrestlers, Unrein also played on the football squad under Coach Bill Mondt, making All-State with 108 tackles (58 of them solo) and four sacks in only 6.5 games (The same paper that reported his 108 tackles would later claim that he had 125 tackles, which is the common media number). Unrein was also on the honor roll all four years of his HS career. He was pronounced a First Team member of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News All-State teams.
His upcoming graduation created something new for Mitch to wrestle with. Two of Mitch’s brothers had gone on to play at Northern Colorado, not far down the interstate, but at 215 lb, Mitch decided that he’d like to try shooting for a bigger goal. He went to talk to Coach Joe Glenn at the Division I University of Wyoming who had also coached Mitch’s older brother Michael as a linebacker at UNC. Mitch’s other older brother, Mark, had been a defensive end at UNC and their sister Natalie was an All-American swimmer in three events at the same school. Talking to Glenn convinced Unrein that coming to UW as a walk-on could work out to his best advantage, and it was a bigger challenge than following a a legacy to CSU might have been.
To follow this course of action, Unrein redshirted his freshman year and lived in the classroom, film room and weight room. By 2.5 seasons later (2007), he was 36 lb heavier and a starting DE for UW, who had an all-sophomore defensive front four that year. A win over Mountain West favorite TCU that year brought recognition to Unrein as the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Week with seven tackles, one sack and two TFL. He was making progress and breaking into the starting lineup. The following year would see him also starting every game and achieving All-Conference Honorable mention, as well as achieving 54 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for losses, one fumble recovery, and one pass defensed. Unrein went on to earn All-MWC Honorable Mention honors for the third consecutive season in 2009. He was the only defensive line player to play every game and ended his season with 35 tackles, two sacks and four tackles for losses.
At 6’4” and 276 lb, Unrein didn’t get an invitation to Combine, but at UW’s Pro Day, 14 teams sent representatives to watch him, fellow lineman John Fletcher and four other players. Mitch went on to run 4.89 and 4.90 in the 40-yard dash, have a 31-inch vertical jump, an 8'9"-broad jump, a 4.60-second short shuttle, a 7.41-second three-cone drill and 26 bench press repetitions at 225 lb. Over his time with UW, Unrein managed 162 tackles (67 solo) including 20.5 tackles for losses (75 yds.) and 10.5 sacks (75 yds.), with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 48 career games (38 starts) for the Cowboys.
Mitch went undrafted but never gave up, and he signed with the Houston Texans where he lasted through preseason. His next stop would be Denver, where he joined the practice squad on October 20, 2010. As per his usual approach, he dove into the training facilities, lifting, exploding into equipment and studying in the film room. By the beginning of this season, Unrein was up to 291 lb. and Denver was short on DTs. He had his first game with the Broncos against the Raiders on opening night and notched two tackles.
Whenever folks talk about taking this and that player off the practice squad, Unrein’s name (pronounced UN-rhine) seems to come up as someone they could waive or enter the process to move him back to the PS. However - Mitch is a tireless worker, Denver is short on DL players and while he may not start for the Broncos, Unrein has all the tools to be a decent rotational player for the Broncos.
The Dude watched Unrein play on several occasions, and he had something to say about Mitch:
I watched him play numerous times. Unrein worked hard at Wyoming, transforming himself physically, so it doesn't surprise me he finally made an NFL roster. You don't do what he did at Wyoming--going from 215 pounds as a freshman to 280 pounds as a senior without spending a lot of time in the weight room and paying attention to nutrition. So what you have is a guy who had some speed on a smaller frame, but didn't lose it when he added muscle. So he's not a guy who is unathletic either. In other words, perfect for a one-gap system.
With this kind of work ethic, you can bet he brings a motor to the field. He often just outworked guys for sacks. His big deal was using his rip move and penetration into the backfield. He's one of those "motor doesn't quit guys." He was always around the ball, almost like a linebacker that played end. His junior season was amazing. The Wyoming Cowboys were ranked in the top 40 in defense that year (They disappointed in his senior season, which I think caused him to drop before the draft. I had always considered him a fifth- or sixth-round guy going into his senior campaign, but then the team struggled and he dropped off the map a little). When he was in college he was teamed with Fletcher at the other end spot; when they were both going at the same time, they made it hard on defenses. Fletcher was incredibly strong, while I would say Unrein was quicker and was able to penetrate into the backfield. They played the 4-3. Unrein was very good at shooting the tackle/guard gap in college as well. He's pretty quick on his first step, but he's not an edge rusher.
While he’s not qualified to be an edge rusher, Mitch isn’t expected to be. Actually, Denver considered itself weakest at nose tackle, and that’s where Unrein’s gotten his snaps, despite being a lighter weight than you’re expecting at the nose. His ability to penetrate against players who are bigger and stronger than he requires a lot of leverage - the same kind of leverage that won him the State Championship as a wrestler back in 2005. While few think that Unrein will be a starter at DT/UT, he’s got the makings of a solid rotational player. Given the importance of both depth and player development (teams who are good at one are usually good at both), Unrein is an example of a player who was born with good skills and made them better through hard work, embracing a challenge and never giving up. Head Coach John Fox was direct in his assessment:
Obviously we thought enough of him to make him a part of the team. I don’t know what people on the outside expected, but he was evaluated just like everybody else that got a spot and we think he deserves a spot on the team.
I hope to see more of him as the season progresses. “I'll do whatever it takes,” Unrein has promised.
Let’s take him up on it.