Matt Paradis started every football game of his last two college seasons with the Boise State Broncos, but nobody could have fairly expected him to start for the NFL’s Denver Broncos, too.
He was only a sixth-round draft pick, after all.
Stuck on the practice squad his entire rookie year.
And just as he was gearing up to take another shot at making the team’s active roster, the Broncos traded for a veteran former Pro Bowler to play ahead of him.
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Yet by the time training camp was over and the season was set to begin, there was Paradis — a hard-working son of a cattle rancher, he grew up baling hay and playing eight-man football in tiny Council — in the starting lineup and snapping the ball to one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Peyton Manning.
Not only that, but now the Broncos are the most surprising kind of 6-0, heading into a showdown with the unbeaten Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
“It’s been a long road that’s kind of uncharacteristic of a typical path traveled,” Paradis said. “It’s not what you’d expect, for a walk-on defensive tackle to make it here.”
Not even close.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Paradis never had anybody’s idea of an elite football pedigree.
Although he was named the top eight-man player in Idaho as a senior at Council High in 2008, Paradis had no major-college scholarship offers — and a torn ACL in his knee.
He postponed surgery so he could play on it during the state playoffs, then had to walk-on at Boise State as a defensive tackle and work a job at the university’s Stueckle Sky Center at Albertsons Stadium while attending classes. He eventually switched to offensive line and worked his way up the depth chart enough to finally earn a scholarship two years later.
“He’s such a great kid,” said Chris Petersen, his former coach at Boise State, who’s now the head coach at Washington. “Tough, tough, tough.
“There are so many guys who get things done just because of their mentality, their makeup,” Petersen added. “You know, their disposition. And Matt has all those things. He was always one of those guys who was so awesome just to see out at practice, because he was going to work his tail off and always had such a great demeanor about him.”
Ultimately, Paradis worked his way into the Boise State lineup, starting all 26 games his final two seasons while the Broncos went 19-7 and played in two bowl games. He was named All-Mountain West twice, yet was chosen only in the sixth round of the NFL Draft — perhaps in part because the NFL Broncos had enjoyed such success with Boise State Broncos.
Paradis was the seventh Boise State player drafted by the pro franchise.
“He has a chance to be a really good player,” first-year Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. “He’s well on his way, and hopefully continues to get better. … I think he has a bright, bright future.”
Paradis credits his upbringing on the 500-acre family cattle ranch for his perseverance in the face of long odds. He and his two brothers and a sister quickly grew accustomed to a dawn-till-dusk work schedule, doing everything from fixing fences to feeding cows to stacking hay.
“I was taught a work ethic from a young age,” he said. “Always working, helping out on the ranch … that helped instill that ability to work hard that I feel like not everyone has.”
Paradis wasn’t even bothered when the Broncos traded for veteran center Gino Gradkowski last April, intending for him to anchor an offensive line as Kubiak remodeled the offense for perhaps one last run at a Super Bowl with the 39-year-old Manning.
“It’s a business,” Paradis said. “I was confident in my ability.”
And that was before training camp.
“We went into camp, Gino was here with him, battling,” Kubiak said. Paradis “continued to progress each and every day. It was obvious when he got his opportunities with the starters, he led the group the right way. We were making progress. I mean, he earned his keep. He’s there for a reason.”
Just like that, Paradis had a clear path to a storybook ending. He doesn’t have to worry about the “back-up plan” that his teachers in Council had always urged him to formulate, in case playing pro football didn’t work out.
“I just went through it with that same attitude I had when I was young at BSU,” he said, “just trying to keep working, keep my head down, keep grinding every day. Prove myself. I didn’t really think about if it didn’t work out. … I was confident in myself that I had the ability to get where I am now.”
It hasn’t all been a smooth ride, however.
Although Paradis is flanked by former All-Pro guards Evan Mathis and Louie Vasquez, he’s one of three inexperienced players on the offensive line — the “Baby Broncos,” as they’re known locally — including rookie tackles Ty Sambrailo and Ryan Harris.
What’s more, Sambrailo missed the last three games with an injury, and the young makeshift line has played a significant role in the Broncos ranking 23rd in the league on offense and only 27th in rushing. Kubiak said coaches have wondered whether they’ve been asking Paradis to do too much at times, and that they might have to “limit some of the things we’re asking him to do.”
“We’ve had some struggles,” Paradis acknowledged, “but we’re getting better every week, and we’re going to keep getting better.”
The Broncos will face their biggest test of the season so far when they meet the Packers, the only team in the league whose defense has allowed fewer points than they have.
That figures to be a huge challenge for an offense that’s averaging only 18.5 offensive points per game — the Broncos have been winning with that elite defense, and special teams — and an aging quarterback who has looked startlingly pedestrian in what could be his final season.
Nevertheless, Paradis is trying to enjoy the ride.
“Undefeated so far,” he said with a smile. “We just have to keep that going and keep winning.”