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MAGAZINE: Denver Broncos Offensive Lineman Dalton Risner Has Faith Up His Sleeves

This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine. To read the rest of it, and for more in-depth feature stories like it, subscribe to our quarterly magazine for only $18.

Dalton Risner

Fall 2021 issue

Broncos offensive lineman Dalton Risner is living the dream playing for his lifelong favorite team, and he’s using any chance he gets to spread the Gospel. Sometimes that means talking about his dozens of tattoos, most of which are favorite Bible verses.

***

You might guess by looking at him — standing strong at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds — but Dalton Risner enjoys himself some food. He takes his cooking very seriously at home, often dropping slabs of meat on his Blackstone flat-top grill in the backyard of his suburban Denver home. When his NFL playing days are done, his many pursuits will likely include opening a restaurant, Big D’s, serving “really good bar food, so like loaded tots, the good stuff.”

When he thinks back to his youth in the small northeastern Colorado town of Wiggins, he remembers Mom making pigs in a blanket and buffalo chicken dip — “that’s maybe why I became an offensive lineman” — as the family put Broncos games on the TV. On the occasions he and Dad drove 65 miles down Interstate 76 into Denver to watch the Broncos in person, Risner recalls the chicken tender boxes and Diet Cokes he’d devour in the stands, “just dreaming about what it would be like to be a Denver Bronco some day.”

So it’s only fitting that when he received one of the most life-altering phone calls of his 26 years, he was enjoying a spread — sliders, dip and a bunch of appetizers.

It was April 26, 2019, and Risner wasn’t his usual jovial self. The food was delicious, but his thoughts were elsewhere, wondering why he didn’t yet have a job. In his mind, he was a first-round pick, anywhere from No. 20 to 32 in the NFL draft. When his lifelong favorite team traded up to get the 20th selection, he thought that might be it — his dream of becoming a Bronco was happening.

Instead, Denver selected tight end Noah Fant. And every other team in the first round on April 25 passed on the All-American offensive lineman from Kansas State.

The next day, still in Denver with family members ready to celebrate his entry into the NFL, Risner opted for dinner at the upscale Elway’s restaurant in downtown Denver. In the middle of the meal, the owner of the restaurant called Risner. But Broncos general manager John Elway — the legendary quarterback the Risners cheered on during all those Sundays in Wiggins — didn’t care to know how the sliders were.

“I was already down in Denver, in downtown, eating at John Elway’s restaurant, when John Elway called me, offering me a job to be an employee of the Broncos,” Risner recalled this summer from the comfort of his living room. “Man, it’s one of those moments that you will never forget, especially being able to have my family and my brothers there, people that I love there.”

With the 41st pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos selected the homegrown kid. The next day, Risner drove to the south end of town to the Broncos training facility and was introduced for the first time as a Denver Bronco.

“Pick 41 didn’t even register because I didn’t think I’d make it there. So I didn’t even think about pick 41,” he says. “I just knew as soon as they picked Noah with the first-round pick, ‘OK, I’m not going to be a Denver Bronco.’

“And you think if I would’ve gone to a different team — which is what I wanted and I had planned at that time, was to go earlier — where would I be today? I’m so blessed to have a home, a fiancée and I’m by my family. I get to play for my childhood dream program with the Broncos. I mean, how cool is that? Talk about Jesus’ Word lighting a lamp to your path. I think that was His plan for me all along was to go to the Denver Broncos. I might not have known that at the time, but it ended up playing out really well for me.”

As Risner talks about Jesus’ Word lighting his path, he’s pointing to his right forearm. That’s where Psalm 119:105 is tattooed. It sits among dozens of other tattoos making up double sleeves. Not all of the ink is Scripture, but most of it is. Risner says it serves as a daily reminder of what he needs to remember, and a personal expression of his faith in Christ.

“The cool part about being a follower of Jesus is you get to have your own unique relationship with Jesus, and no one can take that away from you,” he says. “That’s one thing in life that you can have to yourself. … And for me and my walk with God and as I’ve grown, something that was laid on my heart was like, ‘Man, I want to wear Him on my sleeve. I want to wear Him on my body and be able to look down and have a reminder every single day … Jesus Christ is why I’m where I’m at today.’”

Naturally, his study of Scripture began with food.

***

“When the NFL ends and football is over, I find my identity in Christ because I’m worthy for Him. Just because I play a sport of football down here, that doesn’t mean anything.” — Dalton Risner

Dalton Risner

Dalton Risner (Photo by Leah Montgomery/Sports Spectrum)

***

Raising five boys in Wiggins (population 1,200), Mitch and Melinda Risner introduced Jesus to Dalton and his four brothers at a young age (Dalton is the middle child). They were in church every Sunday and youth group during the week. On those youth nights, students were often offered slices of pizza for citing Bible verses. “You better believe I memorized like 10 every week,” Dalton says.

But he didn’t truly know Jesus. That came in college.

When Risner arrived on campus at Kansas State in 2014, he weighed 321 pounds, the “heaviest I’ve ever been in my life,” much of which was baby fat. He’d always been the biggest, strongest guy on the field, but not so at K-State. He wanted to quit within the first three weeks. Mitch, who was also his high school football coach, wouldn’t let him.

Dalton redshirted his freshman year to work on his strength. He also worked on his faith after meeting Morgan Burns, who at the time was a junior defensive back and kick returner. And he was the rare upperclassman who lived in the dorms. Burns had such a relational personality that he loved meeting new people and being around for the younger football players. One of the freshmen he bonded with that year was Risner.

“You don’t meet a lot of just generally nice people anymore, and I feel like he was one of the most generally nice people, to the point where I was like, ‘Is it real?’” Burns recalled recently. “So he was just always nice; he’s kind, always smiling.”

Burns also remembers Risner being open to conversations about God. In the midst of their time hanging out in the dorms or going out to get food, their discussions would often center around faith. They’d even read the Bible together.

Burns, who aspired to be a pastor after college (he earned an NFL contract after a rookie camp with the Tennessee Titans, but turned it down to enter ministry), would often talk about hearing Jesus. When Risner said he’d never heard Jesus speak to him, Burns encouraged Risner to open the Bible.

“That was everything for me. I actually started to open the Bible and read it not just to memorize a verse but to get to know Jesus,” Risner recalled. “And some days I’d have fun, I’d just open to any page and man, God would just be speaking to me. He would just be speaking to me in so many ways, whether it was in the good times or the bad times, He always found a way to do that.”

Risner continued hanging out with Burns, who would hold Bible studies in the dorms (and is now a pastor in Wichita, Kansas), and continued to pursue a personal relationship with Christ after Burns graduated. Risner became a full-time starter as a redshirt freshman, started every game the rest of his career, was a three-year team captain, and an All-American by the time he graduated.

He developed a platform due to football, and used it, despite still being in college, to start a non-profit. The RisnerUp Foundation is based on 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (also tattooed on his right forearm).

“I started this foundation to glorify Jesus Christ with the platform that I’m blessed with,” he says on the foundation website. “I have discovered who I am and want to be; a man that spreads love and kindness to everyone. I want to change the world. The RisnerUp Foundation seeks to spread the message of Jesus, love, and kindness to ALL.”

He’d become firm in his faith, and loved talking about Jesus. He’d also developed into a top NFL prospect. As he thought about making the jump to the next level, he wondered if his outspoken belief in Christ would be welcomed. Would the GM be OK with him talking about his faith? Would his teammates be OK with it? Would it affect his job security?

He’s had no issues with the Broncos, for whom he’s now started all 32 games of his NFL career at left guard. Risner participates in team Bible studies led by chaplain Reza Zadeh, and he says the team prays together in the locker room before every game.

“My time in the NFL with having more fame and more people around me and watching me, that has pushed me to be even stronger in my faith, so that if someone does talk to me, I have the ability to really dive in as to how deep my faith is and things that I think are important,” he says. “It’s been really good for me, man. I feel like I’ve continued to grow year after year.”

Dalton Risner

Denver Broncos offensive tackle Dalton Risner. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Risner feels he’s currently growing in his identity. He aims to make sure his worth is found in Jesus Christ, not the game of football or the fame and attention that comes with it. He seeks identity in something that is everlasting.

“I’m not Dalton Risner the football player. When the NFL ends and football is over, I’ll find my identity in Christ because I’m worthy for Him,” he says. “Just because I play a sport of football down here, that doesn’t mean anything.”

Yet, the sport does allow opportunities he might not have otherwise. Such as this past May when he gave his first sermon. He’d spoken at churches before, but usually it was a quick 10-minute speech followed by a question-and-answer session with the pastor. At Passionate Life Church, however, he was given the pulpit for a full hour in back-to-back services.

“That was a really cool moment for me. I grew in my faith a ton to be able to get up there for an hour and actually preach about words straight from the Bible, and not preach what I’m wanting to do,” he said. “That was a huge step for me because of course when I get up there, I want to preach what Dalton Risner thinks and what’s going around in this head. But I thought about it, and what a great opportunity — I want to speak what Jesus wants me to talk about. How can Jesus speak through me? How can I glorify God?”

His message that day was based on the same verse as his foundation: 1 Peter 4:10.

“We each have been given a gift. Some of us know it, some of us don’t, but I think the coolest thing is to utilize that gift to glorify God each and every day…

This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine. To read the rest of it, and for more in-depth feature stories like it, subscribe to our quarterly magazine for only $18.

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