ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Some NFL players start playing their sport in the Pop Warner leagues. A few had parents who made them wait until high school before they got permission to lace up the shoulder pads.
And then there’s Broncos inside linebacker Jonas Griffith.
Growing up in Louisville as a huge fan of the local college’s quarterback, Griffith was home-schooled until his senior year in high school. He took piano lessons as a kid and when he mixed in with other students as a senior, he was a member of the chess and book club. And yes, Jonas, you can play football, too.
"I grew up in a very structured household," Griffith said in a Zoom interview with 9NEWS this week. "My parents really wanted me to not put all my eggs in one basket. Focus on different things and figure out what I really loved. Whether that’s playing the piano, whether that’s chess. And then eventually football. And I think that was substantial in my growth in every aspect of my life. Which is huge for me now."
It took a while, and waiting for several other players to get their chance at the inside linebacker position, before Griffith got his chance. He is there now as a three-game starter and new leading tackler entering the Broncos final game of the 2021 season Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs at Empower Field at Mile High. Griffith’s 33 tackles with four tackles for loss by far leads the team in the past three games.
Not bad considering that after initial starters Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson went down early in the season with torn pec injuries, the Broncos gave playing time to Justin Strnad, Micah Kiser, Curtis Robinson, Baron Browning and Kenny Young at inside linebacker before Griffith earned a look through his effort and performance in practice.
"I don’t think it was frustration," Griffith said. "I was thinking it was more time to prepare. I was thinking, when my number’s called I’ll be ready. That was the approach I took. Every day was a chance to soak up as much as I could from the older guys."
Maybe because he wasn’t on college recruiters’ radar going into his senior year in high school, Griffith wound up at Indiana State, Larry Bird’s school and a Division I subdivision program where he redshirted as a freshman, then played four full years. Small school or not, he earned six All American honors and when his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame ran a 4.62-second 40 at his Pro Day, you’d think he would have been drafted.
So why wasn’t he?
"That’s a very good question," he said. "I still speculate to this day, me and my family, we talk about that all the time. I wanted to be drafted but at the end of the day everything happens for a reason. And I think it led me to the perfect place and that’s Denver. I love it here and I don’t think I would change anything, honestly."
He first signed last year with the 49ers as an undrafted rookie, spent time on their practice squad, then went to the Colts’ practice squad, then back to the 49ers’ practice squad. He stayed with the 49ers through the 2021 preseason schedule where Broncos general manager George Paton spotted Griffith flying around on special teams. With Denver’s special teams suspect during its own preseason, Paton traded for Griffith just as he was setting his season-opening, 53-man roster, with an exchange of late-round draft picks also part of the deal.
Initially, Griffith was acquired specific to special teams, but also as a project with a chance to eventually develop into an inside linebacker.
"Yeah, I had a pretty good idea," Griffith said when asked if he knew the Broncos wanted him for special teams. "But I went in and wanted to help the team any way possible and if that was special teams, it was special teams. If it was defense, it was defense."
Even before he started getting defensive playing time, Griffith fell in love with his new city.
"Man, it’s been one of the biggest blessings, I’ll tell you that," he said. "I love everything about Denver first and foremost. I love the views every day going to work. I love that. I love my teammates, my coaches, the front office, everyone here it just feels like family. It feels like home. It’s what I’m used to growing up in a big family and I feel like that’s what the Denver Broncos are all about."
One of his biggest thrills was meeting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the hero of his hometown university.
"I grew up a h-u-u-u-ge Teddy Bridgewater fan," Griffith said. "I think I even had his jersey in college. I think I was in about seventh or eighth grade when he was at the University of Louisville and I was a big fan and there were a few games that stuck out to me when he was there. And when I was traded here I think one of the first people I talked to was him. I told him it was nice to be a teammate and nice to finally meet him."
This Sunday, Griffith will have another pinch-me moment when he lines across Chiefs’ superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes II.
"I’m super excited to share the same field as him," Griffith said. "I feel like he’s a great competitor, one of the best quarterbacks in the league. And just to be on the same field and compete against him is a blessing. Hope I can get an interception."
Many board games are played in NFL locker rooms (at least as of pre-COVID times when the media was last allowed locker room access) but rarely does one have chess pieces. Griffith says he’ll play with his uncles and dad when he goes home to Louisville during the summer break. As for piano, he used to play some recitals with his friends at his church. So what’s the toughest song he can play?
"I can play a few songs but there’s one good hip-hop song I can play it’s 'Still D. R.E' by Dr. Dre," Griffith said. "That’s probably one of my favorite songs to play."
For older folks not familiar with the huge hit from 20 years ago, it’s a two-cord, rhythm repeating piano piece that after hearing it stays stuck in your head for hours.
But back to Griffith’s profession. His strength as an inside linebacker?
"Just flying around and hitting people and trying to be physical, just try to go out there and make plays," he said.
And parts of his game Griffith has to work on.
"The biggest thing is formation recognition probably and just recognizing the play quicker," he said. "Getting to my assignment quicker, I think that’s the biggest thing I can work on going into this week."
How would Griffith evaluate his three starts overall?
"I have mixed feelings about it," he said. "There’s a few plays I feel I’ve done pretty good on. And also some plays I can do better on. But the big thing for me is I want to help the team get a victory and I haven’t done that yet since I started and that’s one of the things that’s in the back of my head every day and every practice."
He gets one more game to work on his craft. The final game against the Chiefs may be meaningless to the Broncos in terms of playoff implications but it’s hardly meaningless to a player like Griffith.
"Oh, not at all," he said. "I think every opportunity I get to go out there and showcase my ability and help the team any way possible I think that’s an opportunity I need to take full advantage of. I want to go out there and first and foremost help the team get the win."
Broncos podcast: Klis' Mike Drop
Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS insider Mike Klis.
HOW TO LISTEN
> Top stories curated daily just for you! Sign up for the 9NEWSLETTER to get can’t-miss stories, Next and Broncos content, weather and more delivered right to your inbox.
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Sports
MORE WAYS TO GET 9NEWS
Subscribe to our daily 9NEWSLETTER
HOW TO ADD THE 9NEWS APP TO YOUR STREAMING DEVICE
ROKU: add the channel from the ROKU store or by searching for KUSA.
For both Apple TV and Fire TV, search for "9news" to find the free app to add to your account. Another option for Fire TV is to have the app delivered directly to your Fire TV through Amazon.