How Phillip Lindsay Went from Undrafted to Pro Bowl—Without Ever Leaving Home

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistDecember 27, 2018

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 25:  Running back Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos stands on the field during player warm ups before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 25, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

A delivery truck from a local appliance store pulls up to the Lindsay house. On the truck are a refrigerator, a stove and a microwave.

The appliances are Christmas presents from Phillip Lindsay to his mother. Another delivery truck will come soon with a brown La-Z-Boy recliner. That's for his father.

It is, Lindsay knows, the least he can do. After all, the 24-year-old Broncos rookie running back must be the only player in the NFL who is still living in mom and dad's house.

Lindsay himself arrived home Christmas morning at 4 a.m. after the Broncos' Monday night loss in Oakland. In the first quarter of the game, he surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the season, becoming the third undrafted running back in league history to top that mark. But then in the third quarter, a silver helmet struck his wrist like a mallet on a crab shell. He was done for the game, and done for the season.

"When he got home, I looked at his arm," his father, Troy, says. "I knew there was something wrong. He got a little sleep. At 10, we took him to get an MRI. Then he went down to the facility."

By the afternoon, the news was out. Lindsay was done for the year and could be facing a lengthy recovery. But in the evening, Christmas was celebrated in the Lindsay house as it should be.

Normally, it's just Phillip and his parents in their modest ranch home in Aurora. But this week, the house is bustling as Lindsay's two sisters, Sparkle and Cheri, and two brothers, Zach and Marcus, join the group. Phillip is giving up his bed to Cheri and sleeping on the couch.

Diane Lindsay has been knocking herself out. She has dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease that slows her but does not deter her. For Christmas, there was turkey and ham—enough for the family to eat for a few days. For New Year's, there will be meatballs with potatoes and homemade rolls.

Phillip is 5'8", 190 pounds, but he eats a lot of what he likes. And he likes those meatballs.

Then there are the desserts she makes—rum cake, chocolate chip cookies, Hello Dolly cookies (the Lindsays call them magic cookies), fudge, toffee, brownies and turtles. Every year, Mom has to hide the turtles from Phillip or they will be gone before Christmas. This year, they were in the trunk of her car.

Gifts have been exchanged (Phillip got a silver bracelet from his parents). There are games being played—Battleship, Old Maid and Clue. And it's loud. "Very loud," Mom says.

It's all OK, though. This is how Mom and Pops—that's what they call Troy—like it. "We're a happy family," Pops says. "We still understand how important it is to laugh."

Mom is a psychotherapist by day and Mom by night. How she does it, nobody knows. Pops wakes up faithfully at 2:30 a.m. to drive a bus. He is the one who taught Lindsay how to be a running back. How to be a man.

How to be the type of person who won't let even a season-ending injury ruin his family's Christmas.

"Phillip pretty much did everything he had to do this year," Pops says. "So it's time to rest. His spirits are good."

If not for this place, Lindsay never could have accepted so much disappointment after so much delight. He never could have gained more scrimmage yards than anyone in the University of Colorado's history. He never could have become a Denver Bronco. He never could have become the first undrafted rookie offensive player to make a Pro Bowl.

Home is what made the whole thing possible.

Except for the five years Lindsay lived in an apartment in Boulder while at college, he has known only one home since he was four years old.

That's about the age when he started taking handoffs from Pops. Troy Lindsay knows something about handoffs. He was a running back, too, and he played at Colorado State. Then he coached his son for four years in youth football.

Phillip played in the Broncos' Futures Football middle school program and became the first alum to make it to the NFL. The Lindsays couldn't afford to attend Broncos games, but they always watched their team on television. Phillip once was given a jersey of Quentin Griffin, who played in 2003 and 2004. Griffin, a 5'7", 195-pound running back, was a player Lindsay could identify with.

When he was in eighth grade, Lindsay met then-Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and got his autograph. Last spring, he became his teammate.

At Denver South High School, Phillip wore the same number his father wore, 22, and he broke Pops' Denver Public Schools career record for rushing yards. His coach was Tony Lindsay, Troy's brother. Tony was a running back, too, as were three of his four sons. Phillip's two younger brothers were running backs as well.

"It's just something that runs in the blood," Pops says with a shrug.

Lindsay never could forget a phone call of encouragement he received from Broncos running back Willis McGahee after Lindsay tore his anterior cruciate ligament when he was a senior in high school.

He needed all the encouragement he could get. At Colorado, Lindsay took a redshirt season, and it took him a few years to get his burst back. In his junior season, he started showing flashes of what he once was. By the time he was a senior, he led the country in rushing attempts.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

That wasn't enough to entice NFL teams, however. The combine committee invited 32 running backs—but not him.

When Lindsay started preparing for the draft, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds. He worked on improving his speed with personal trainer Loren Landow, who since has become Denver's strength and conditioning coach. At Colorado's pro day in front of a Broncos contingency that included general manager John Elway, head coach Vance Joseph, player personnel director Matt Russell and personnel adviser Gary Kubiak, Lindsay ran a 4.39 40—faster than 25 running backs at the combine. Then the Broncos asked him to stay a while to catch passes.

Still, he was passed over 256 times in the NFL draft—10 times by his hometown team.

After the final pick, his phone blew up. The Broncos, Ravens, Colts, Falcons, Texans and Chargers wanted him.

Lindsay was at home with his parents, brothers and sisters. His agent, Mike McCartney of Priority Sports, was on the phone.

The Ravens and Broncos each offered $8,000 guaranteed and told him he had 15 minutes to decide. The Broncos had drafted two running backs—Royce Freeman in the third round and David Williams in the seventh. When they chose Williams, who had rushed for fewer yards in his entire college career than Lindsay had rushed for as a senior, Lindsay was triggered.

"That's f--king bullshit," he yelled after their pick. "F--k the Broncos!"

There was vigorous debate in the house—fighting might be a better way to put it—about where he should sign. His siblings argued against the Broncos.

"I was not going to choose the Broncos," he says. "I was pissed at everybody. But mostly at them. I was like, 'I ain't never heard of David Williams.' It was disrespectful. I was real close to choosing Baltimore."

McCartney advocated he sign with the Broncos because he thought Lindsay would have his best opportunity there. McCartney asked the Broncos for more money. They increased their offer to $15,000 guaranteed.

And then Diane, who had been quiet, spoke.

"Phil, I feel you need to stay home," she said. "I feel like Denver is the right spot for you, and you will excel."

When Mom speaks, the Lindsay kids listen.

"I listened to my mother about it mainly because I would get to stay home and be at the house," he says. "If I didn't make the team, at least I'm home. I didn't have to find my way back home. I thought, Baltimore, damn, every time I go out the door, I'm going to get robbed. I never really have been out of the state. To be someplace I didn't know anything about would be kind of hard."

Elway and Joseph called back, needing an answer. Lindsay was resigned to becoming a Bronco but still salty.

"I'm coming," Lindsay told them tersely. "But mark my words: When I get there, and we are done, I'm going to be the starting running back."

And with that, he hung up the phone on his new bosses.

After taxes, Lindsay figured he could be sure of making $12,000—hardly enough for a home purchase. Renting a one-bedroom apartment would cost about $1,300 a month, and he did not know for certain where he would be working—or if he would be working—come September.

Living with Mom and Pops was the only reasonable choice. He could have the whole basement at home to himself, save for the laundry room. "My basement," he could call it.

He could even have his pride. "I didn't want to be that person who came back to the house and didn't have a job," he says. "I chose to stay because it's financially better. But I wasn't going to come back unless I had a job."

He had a job, and he did everything he could to keep it.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Lindsay drove 20 minutes from home to Broncos headquarters for his first OTA practice. It was then that outside linebacker Von Miller got his first look at him, wearing No. 2. "I didn't think much," Miller says. "I can't sit here and lie. I was like, Who is this guy?"

In addition to being one of the game's superstars, Miller is king of the Broncos locker room. If you are going to be a denizen of his kingdom, you need to prove your worthiness.

And so Lindsay did.

"He was like the fourth running back on the roster," Miller says. "The first play he's on the field, they threw him a screen, and he takes it the distance. The second play, he takes a slash play the distance. So I'm like, He can play outside the tackles and take screens, and run between the tackles, too? This guy's a player. It was instant. Then training camp came, and it was more, more, more. Every single day, he reassured me he was the guy we needed."

Before the pads went on, his position coach, Curtis Modkins, noticed unusual vision, patience, burst and an understanding of blocking schemes. During training camp, Lindsay went from being looked at as a player who at most was expected to be a special teams contributor to one who could have a significant role in the offense.

In his first game, he got 17 touches—more than any other running back—and scored on a 29-yard reception. The next week, he had his first 100-yard rushing game. By late October, he was a starter. In early December, he was named Offensive Player of the Week after he rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 25:  Running back Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos celebrates after a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on November 25, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stock
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Of course, he made the long runs that have trended on Twitter. And he has made the short, tough runs that moved chains that were mostly unnoticed publicly but appreciated just as much by his coaches.

It was as if someone forgot to tell him he was an undrafted free agent.

"He just walks around like he's 6'4", but it's not like he has little-man syndrome," Miller says. "He's just a big guy at heart, and I thought that was really dope."

After the first practice of rookie minicamp, it was Lindsay who stepped forward to break down the film. During media training, Broncos executive vice president of public relations Patrick Smyth asked for a volunteer to do a mock interview. Lindsay's hand shot up to show the team how it should be done.

When Lindsay knew he'd made the squad, he needed to swap his No. 2 for a running back's number. Instead of wearing a number that carried no expectations, Lindsay asked Hall of Famer Terrell Davis for permission to wear his No. 30.

He has worn it well.

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has been showing up at Broncos headquarters at 6 a.m. every day to get treatment for his fractured fibula. He finds Lindsay there at the same time. "I see that work ethic," he says. "He's proved himself every day with hard work, being consistent and having no fear. He's a dog. The vets respect that."

He is as popular on the town as he is in the locker room. Miller says more fans approached Lindsay than him at Temple Night Club after a recent game. "He's probably a bigger star than I am," he says, laughing. "It's great. It's the hair and everything. They notice him."

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Lindsay has a prodigious brown/blond afro with curls and shoots spreading in all directions. "I'm noticeable," Lindsay says. "Kids love to see it. How about this wild hair? I like it. It's who I am."

This isn't just another good running back to the people of Denver. They don't start GoFundMe campaigns to pay the Pro Bowl expenses for someone they don't feel a larger connection to.

Lindsay is one of them.

Memories are everywhere in this old house.

The living room is where Lindsay watched Batman on TV and then ran around dressed like the Caped Crusader.

The basement window is where burglars broke in on the day he committed to Colorado. They turned the house upside down, took all of his mom's jewelry, including her wedding ring, and beat their German Shepherd mix, Rambo, with a stick.

That switch by the front door wouldn't turn on the lights a few times when money was tight and bills weren't paid.

In the garage, they made up a game called Ghost. Pops would put a blanket over his head and in complete darkness try to catch the kids.

There were some mean games of cops and robbers in the backyard.

Lindsay takes some teasing from teammates for living at home. He laughs along because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

He can never forget who he is as long as he's in this house.

He bought new beds for everyone. When his playing-time bonus money comes in, he plans on buying new carpeting. And he will pay off some of the bills.

Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was Lindsay's teammate at Colorado, and they remain the best of friends. Awuzie understands Lindsay as well as anyone.

"That ferocious spirit he has comes from his upbringing—his mom, dad, two sisters, two brothers," he says. "They are all the same. They are very honest with each other. They point out faults, always in a joking manner, always from a loving place. There is a lot of profane language. It comes with it. They are so open."

Tattooed across Lindsay's chest is Family First. The same tattoo can be found on the chests of his brothers, his sisters and his cousins.

A day does not go by when Phillip doesn't talk to Mom and Pops, even if he's traveling. He talks to his sisters and brothers, too, often playing Call of Duty.

But there's nothing like a face-to-face at the kitchen table. "He'll talk to his father daily about the team," Mom says. "This is what happened in practice. This is what's going on. He gets the continued support, the emotional support and the backing."

When Mom's disease flares up and calcium deposits start rubbing nerve endings, it can bring her to tears. Phillip is a comfort, helping her put on shoes, setting the table or bringing up the laundry.

Autoimmune diseases often are activated by a traumatic event. In Diane's case, it was her third pregnancy—with Phillip—that was the onset of many problems. But that pregnancy, she will tell you, also was the onset of many blessings.

Mom still washes his clothes and picks up after him. She also makes sure he dresses appropriately for whatever function he's heading out to, and she prepares him for what's next on his schedule. He will lie next to her at times for a head rub.

Mother and child share an irrepressible determination—something that will serve Lindsay well if the diagnosis of a scaphoid fracture and lengthy recovery hold up. "Once he gets his mind on something, he's pretty much gonna do it," Pops says. "He's just like that."

Someday, this may be a football documentary. It will be a better bedtime story.

Lindsay won't be in the basement forever. Money, as it inevitably does, will change things. Before long, he will be living in a condominium in a trendy neighborhood. There will be high ceilings, granite countertops and hardwood floors. Maybe a view of snow-capped mountains.

After that, who knows where life will lead?

Some things, though, are forever.

"Money comes and goes," he says. "But having love for each other, that will never end."

Phillip Lindsay never will be far from where he came from.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.


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