You might wonder why an NFL player keeps a full-size plastic human skeleton in the hallway of his home.
For David Bruton, Jr., a member of the Denver Broncos Super Bowl 50 team and now a student at CU Denver, “Fred the Skeleton” is a daily reminder that Bruton’s interest in medicine in general – and his own health in particular – will long outlast his desire to play football. In fact, concerned about the toll football was taking on his body, Bruton recently made a clear-headed decision to step away from the game he loves.
New teammates at CU Denver
In transitioning to a different profession, Bruton’s new teammates are the faculty, students and staff at CU Denver. He started taking prerequisite science classes at CU Denver in January and plans to apply to physical therapy school at CU Anschutz.
“I see myself as more than a football player and wanted to do more outside of football,” he said. Still, he loved every minute of playing for the Broncos. “From the top down, they are A-plus people. The love from the community was an added bonus.”
The return to academia has been both exciting and challenging, said Bruton, an Ohio native who studied sociology and political science at the University of Notre Dame. He credits his CU Denver professors, fellow students and the support staff for making the venture a success so far.
‘Big learning curve’
Chemistry and biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were the first hard-science classes Bruton has taken since his junior year of high school, and they were whoppers.
“I had a big learning curve, and I had to work my butt off these past two semesters,” Bruton said. “But with my professors and tutors here at CU Denver, and some YouTube videos, I’ve definitely used the resources that are available to learn what I had to learn.”
At age 30, Bruton leads a busy and fulfilling life as a father, son, brother, philanthropist and advocate for educational reform. As if he needed any more reinforcement about leaving football, just a day after he announced his retirement the news broke that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, was found in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated to scientific research.
“I’m at peace with my decision,” said the former strong safety and special teamer. “I know I can play in this league. I played eight years (seven with the Broncos), which is four times longer than the average NFL career. I have no regrets and no doubt that I made the right decision.”
PT as a second career
His academic interests bubbled up, quite literally, over time – with each of Bruton’s many dips in the therapy tubs after games and practices. “I was constantly having physical therapy work done to me in high school, then college and then in the pros,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always viewed as rewarding work.”
Bruton keenly understands how the mental side of being a pro athlete – the intense competitive drive – constantly runs up against the physical realities – the inevitable fact, especially in football, that you will be sidelined by injury, often very serious injury.
He’s very familiar with walking this mental-physical tightrope, as well as watching the maestros of the treatment room – trainers and physical therapists – carefully guide injured bodies back to health. “I’ve seen these physical therapy specialists work so hard to get us back on the field after what seemed to be insurmountable situations – Achilles, knees, ankles, shoulders, all kinds of injuries,” he said.
Thinking about retirement
After the Broncos’ championship campaign in 2015 – a season in which he famously played through most of a game in Pittsburgh with a broken leg, which, unfortunately, kept him on the injured reserve for Super Bowl 50 – Bruton became a free agent and signed with the Washington Redskins. In the fourth game of the 2016 season, he suffered his sixth concussion.
“I had two previous concussions that put me in the hospital, so this was not my worst one. I cleared protocol in a couple days,” he said. Nonetheless, “it definitely got the ball rolling (on thinking about retirement).”
Bruton has always been viewed as a leader – on the field, in the locker room and in the community. He was a three-year captain of the Broncos’ special teams, and in 2015 he received the team’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for outstanding service in the community.
The David Bruton Foundation partners with Mile High United Way in Denver and United Way of Greater Dayton in Ohio to promote childhood literacy. Bruton’s Books has donated 20,000 books to those communities, as well as refurbished community reading boxes and established reading nooks geared toward youth.
“I want to help kids to keep reading and keep learning,” he said. “I was always reading in the cold tub or the hot tub and reading through training camps.”
Bruton will keep up his philanthropic work in Colorado, his adopted home. CU Denver’s proximity to his home in Parker and to the mountains is a major plus. “I can go to campus, do homework and go to the mountains and do something there,” said Bruton, who enjoys mountain biking. “Even though I’m from Ohio, I feel more at home here because I fell in love with everything about Colorado.”
‘We all have a goal in mind’
Bruton is focused on studying for his classes and on shadowing professional physical therapists. Each week he spends a day with the professionals at Next Level Sports Performance in Golden, which is owned by Jim Keller, former assistant athletic trainer of the Broncos. He’s also shadowing trainers at the Broncos’ preseason training camp.
Several staff members at Next Level graduated from the Physical Therapy Program in the CU School of Medicine, Bruton said. “They tell me which classes to get ready for,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve heard nothing but great feedback about the program there.”
For now, at CU Denver, he’s enjoying professors like Tod Duncan, PhD, clinical assistant professor of integrative biology, and Priscilla Burrow, PhD, senior instructor of chemistry, as well as his fellow students. “I hang out with a lot of students my age. We’re all looking for a second career and taking different steps,” he said. “We all have some sort of goal in mind. It’s been very welcoming for sure.”
Getting people back on their feet
Hoping to fly under the radar in his new academic pursuits, Bruton had his trademark dreadlocks shorn before starting class. One day, a classmate approached him in biology lab and said, “David, do you have a cousin who played for the Broncos?” The classmate showed him a picture from a Broncos’ charity event, which captured the student standing with Bruton, both smiling.
“I said, ‘That’s me, when I had dreadlocks,’” Bruton said.
While he’s changed his physical appearance a bit, Bruton still carries the single-minded focus and determination that made him a force in the NFL. It will undoubtedly carry him through to his next goal, which is to provide physical therapy to the general population – especially recreational athletes who, like him back when he suited up in orange and blue, just want to get back out and play.
“The biggest reward of practicing physical therapy is getting people back on their feet and back to doing what they want to do,” he said. “The desire to help people get out there to do what they love is my biggest motivation.”