Nathan McCrary still hasn't told the Denver Broncos that he could beat all of them in a 5K running race. But they do respect his wheels. The 40-year-old can run like an NFL wide receiver.
He proved it at the Broncos' practice about a month ago, running stride for stride with a receiver and defensive back as they sprinted after a deep pass.
"I was booking it down the sideline, staying with the players," McCrary said. "They watched the practice film that night and [defensive back] Bradley Roby came up to me the next day and says, 'Man, you were running fast.' He complimented me. That felt pretty good."
So what is a father of four from Colorado Springs doing at a Denver Broncos practice? He has his eyes on the players, and nothing they do escapes him, at least not on the practice field.
Once a week during the season, McCrary drapes himself in black-and-white stripes, stuffs a yellow flag under his belt and takes the field as one of several Broncos practice referees.
Runners and cyclists in the Pikes Peak region know him well. McCrary is often among the lead pack in area runs and bike races. Charging up the hills, hamming it up for the photographer, he's a regular participant at Ascent Cycling Series mountain bike events.
Longtime Manitou Springs residents may remember him as the lanky center on the Manitou Mustangs' 1990 state championship football team. More recently, McCrary has worked as an area high school football referee for 15 years. He just finished his fourth season with the Broncos.
It's a tough but fun job, he says, officiating the Denver players during their midweek drills. And it can be a little intimidating. The Broncos don't like to draw penalties, not even in practice.
"If I'm getting yelled at, then I'm doing my job," McCrary said. "Coach [Gary] Kubiak told us at the start of the season, just do our jobs and don't worry about the players. That was good advice."
It still feels strange, though, when Peyton Manning has choice words for you. McCrary said he drew Manning's attention during passing drills when the all-pro quarterback felt a pass interference call was in order.
"He yells at me, 'Where's the flag? It's not that hard,'" McCrary says. "And he reaches for his belt and says, 'all you do is pull it out and throw it, just pull it out and throw it.' So now I joke around that Peyton Manning taught me how to throw my flag."
McCrary specializes in the defensive backfield play, where pass receivers and defenders battle for position and the ball. Every play is meaningful, as the players compete to earn or keep their starting positions, and there are multi-million dollar contracts on the line. McCrary's honest split-second judgment is important because clean play equals more wins.
"There have been times when I've seen something and I hesitated to throw a flag," he says. "I've worked hard to make sure that I throw it because if I don't, then I'm not helping the team."
He received some welcome affirmation from team owner Pat Bowlen two seasons ago as the team prepared to play in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks.
"We were at practice and I said that I hoped that in a small way I had helped the team, and that I was grateful for the opportunity," McCrary says. "And he said, 'No, you guys have been a big help.' That made me feel good that he would even thank me."
McCrary noticed a difference in this year's Super Bowl championship team. There was less talk and more concentrating on the task at hand.
"I never did sense that they were taking it for granted," McCrary said. "They just stuck to their business."
He carefully watched last week's Super Bowl and he smiled a little as the team played clean football with no penalties throughout the second half. The Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 and brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Colorado for the first time in 17 years.
And Nathan McCrary, the referee whom Peyton Manning taught to throw his penalty flag, played a small part in all of it.
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