It was a moment when he thought he'd finally get his shot. Through a twist of unfortunate circumstances, it appeared as if this would be his defining moment.
All the years of being a team player, keeping his mouth shut even when he thought he deserved an opportunity to prove his mettle, seemed as if they finally were going to pay off. After working with intensity for years as the understudy to an All-Pro, Byron Chamberlain figured his call had come at last.
Teammate Shannon Sharpe suffered a season-ending injury in Denver in 1999. The tight end whom the Broncos relied so heavily upon was on the shelf. Sharpe, who was such a fundamental cog in the Denver Broncos offense, was out for the season and coach Mike Shanahan needed to find a replacement.
This, Chamberlain figured, was it. But rather than give Chamberlain the ceremonious starting nod, Shanahan opted to explore the tight end-by-committee route. "To tell you the truth, I had no earthly idea why," Chamberlain said. "Shanahan decided to go with a committee of tight ends."
Chamberlain had reason to be upset. As Sharpe's backup, he had proven — during limited playing time — that he was capable of contributing. His hands were soft, his legs were powerful, his body bucked would-be tacklers play after play. But it wasn't enough to convince the Broncos coaching staff that he could be an every-down tight end.
At that point of Chamberlain's career, it was a crossroads with an uncontrolled intersection. He could take the easy route. He could have shown his displeasure with the coaching staff, pouted like a toddler and robotically walked through the motions, finishing out his contract. Or he could be the ultimate team player, bite his lip and reroute the disappointment to serve as fuel to feed his competitive fire.
Anyone who has met Chamberlain doesn't need to read on. Even though that disappointing moment with the Broncos appeared to be a crossroads to outsiders, Chamberlain knew immediately there was only one road he would travel — that being the high road.
"I consider myself the ultimate team player," Chamberlain said. "Although it was frustrating, I would do anything for my team and do my role to help the team win. Between the three of us tight ends (on the Broncos filling in for Sharpe) we caught 99 passes, so it worked out."
Hang around Chamberlain long enough and you'll notice that theme.
It more than worked out for Chamberlain. Even splitting time with two other tight ends in 1999, Chamberlain managed to reel in 32 catches for 488 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, in a more conservative role, Chamberlain caught 22 passes for 283 yards and one touchdown. Even though Sharpe defected Denver for Baltimore well before Chamberlain left Denver for Minnesota, it was clear Chamberlain capitalized on the opportunity of starting his career behind one of the great tight ends in the game.
"I understood the situation when Shannon was there and I accepted that well," Chamberlain said. "I knew what kind of player Shannon was. I was a sponge and I soaked up all the information and learned from him, and it helped my career."
After spending six years in Denver serving mostly as Sharpe's backup, Chamberlain came to Minnesota this season well versed in his tight end duties. Chamberlain is a capable blocker and a dynamic receiver. At 6-foot-1, 242 pounds, Chamberlain has already demonstrated he not only can make the most difficult of receptions, but he can run with authority after the ball is in his hands, too.
Being a tight end on an offense with weapons such as Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Michael Bennett would — at face value — seem as if you would be nothing more than a run blocker, a pass-rush blocker and a last-second passing option. Running routes would seem meaningless, expecting balls thrown your way hopeless. Playing with Moss, Carter, Reed and Bennett, the tight end could literally expect to be nothing more than a fifth wheel. Maybe even a sixth wheel considering Daunte Culpepper's ability to tuck the ball away and scamper for first downs.
Surprisingly, through three games, Chamberlain was the Vikings' leading receiver. Granted, Moss and Carter started the season slow, but consider where this team would be without the contributions from Chamberlain. Against Carolina, Chamberlain caught five passes for 50 yards. Against Chicago, he had four catches for 88 yards. Against Tampa Bay, he had a season-best seven catches for 83 yards.
Chamberlain rarely has been Culpepper's last option. On many plays, Chamberlain has appeared to be Culpepper's main target running vertically down the field. "That's why the tight end is going to be more and more of a factor," coach Dennis Green said. "He works the middle of the field. We knew that we needed a counter, particularly with us having a newer back (Bennett). We needed a tight end who could make plays in the middle. He can have that (big) game virtually every week. He is really a great receiver."
One need look no further than the end of the Tampa Bay game to believe that. With the Vikings attempting to execute a game-winning drive with the clock winding down, Culpepper threw toward Chamberlain. With three Buccaneers pass defenders blanketing him like a home-made quilt, Chamberlain tipped the ball to himself and scurried down the sideline. It was the biggest play of the game.
Almost as impressive as his hands is his ability to run after the catch. In Chamberlain, the Vikings have acquired not only another talented receiver, but a bruising ball carrier as well.
"Byron is really a good runner," Green said. "He has tremendous speed and can run after the catch. He has a strong body and can take hits. Guys hit him and kind of bounce off him. He is a very effective runner after the catch."
Through three weeks, Chamberlain had 16 catches for 221 yards — leading the Vikings in both statistical categories. Obviously, he couldn't have imagined such an exceptional individual start to a season, but the Vikings, Chamberlain insists, told him he would play a vital role on this offense.
"A lot of times (teams) tell you anything to get you, but to actually work you into the game plan and get plays for you makes it a great situation," said Chamberlain, who was also being courted seriously by New England, when he chose the Vikings during free agency. "The upside here is Daunte's young. He's very athletic. He makes plays when things break down in the pocket. He's steadily improving and he's learning. He's only going to get better."
So is the relationship between Culpepper and Chamberlain.
"He's felt comfortable with me and the way I run my routes," Chamberlain said. "He knows that he can get me the ball and I'll catch it."
Off the field there is an intangible that makes Chamberlain stand out among most of his Vikings teammates. Look around the Vikings locker room and — like most professional teams — there is a jewelry store full of multi-carrot earrings, necklaces, bracelets and watches. Absent in most locker room stalls at Winter Park is any sign of the glamour or the glimmer of a Super Bowl ring.
That's where Chamberlain stands out. Spending the previous six years with the Broncos, Chamberlain has a pair of Super Bowl rings. He has been on a team that has accomplished its ultimate mission, not once but twice. He has been in the Super Bowl champion Denver locker room. He has been in the Vikings locker room. Happily, he sees many similarities, but he sees differences as well.
"It really doesn't come down to talent," Chamberlain said. "Both the Vikings and Broncos were talented. I think this team has more talent than our first Super Bowl team in Denver. The only thing we had in Denver was an incredible togetherness. What we lacked in talent, we made up for by playing as a team."
Hopefully, the Vikings will listen to Chamberlain.
"You have to stop reading the papers and watching TV," he said. "You have to focus on nobody but us. Nothing else should matter but us. As long as we are one and on the same mentality then I think we'll get it done." VU
Getting to Know: TE Byron Chamberlain
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