Dan Light has one of the most important jobs on the Denver Broncos roster this week - playing first-time Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert (or his potential backup Tyler Kroft) against the Broncos starting defense.
As the 10-4 Broncos host the 11-3 Bengals in an AFC showdown on Monday Night Football, the rookie tight end is very aware how important it is that the Broncos' defense be fully prepared.
"It's a huge challenge," says Light, who was signed to the practice squad on Dec. 2 after having been waived by the Broncos in August. "Obviously a guy like Eifert is a mismatch for defenses and probably one of the best I've been asked to play. It's a pretty good challenge every week...a tall task."
But it's definitely one the 6-foot-5, 265-pound tight end from Sutton, Mass., is up for.
Tough road to the NFL
After all, being on an NFL team is a dream for the 2015 Fordham graduate who wasn't too sure last December if his professional dream could even be realized. Fordham's top pass-catching tight end in school history tore his ACL against Army on Nov. 22 during a kickoff return and had to watch the final games from the sidelines as his team went on to capture the Patriot League title and advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs.
"It was definitely upsetting," Light told telegram.com last May as he was looking toward undrafted free agency and worried that his dream of the NFL was over. "I was let down that I worked so hard to build myself to where I was and I got cheated a little bit."
I don't feel pressure, I apply it (Joe Moorhead)— Dan Light (@AFTANOON_DLIGHT) November 30, 2015
But after some reflection, Light realized the dream wasn't over. "It's just your road there might be a little different."
Light ended up getting an invitation to the Chiefs rookie mini-camp and then was invited to the Broncos for a workout in late August. He was signed to the Broncos' 90-man roster Aug. 28 but waived four days later when the team trimmed to 75.
"You kind of roll with the punches, and in life, 10 percent is what happens to you, 90 percent is how you respond to it, so that's kind of where I come from," Light said back in May. "Whatever hand you're dealt, you play."
That mantra couldn't be more appropriate for how Light has approached both football and life. "Rolling with the punches," in fact, is nothing short of an understatement for his past three years.
While Light's fellow Broncos teammates will be looking forward to a little time off this week to celebrate Christmas, it's no doubt a bittersweet time of year for Light and his family. Three years ago during their family vacation over the Christmas break, Light learned his father had been diagnosed with ALS, a crippling sickness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease with no cure.
Dan Light Sr. had actually been diagnosed in September but Light's parents didn't want to interrupt a sophomore football season that was going superbly well as the Fordham Rams wiped away a 1-10 record from the previous season by going 6-5 under new head coach Joe Moorhead. Light had also earned first-team All Patriot honors.
After flying back to school in New York, Light knew he had only one choice for the upcoming semester - to go home.
His parents weren't particularly happy with the decision at first, but Light had no intentions of being anywhere other than at home with his dad.
"I didn't buy any books, I just met with the dean, took a leave of absence and told my parents, ‘I'm coming home,'" Light recalled. "It turned out to be the right decision."
The point was to just spend time with his dad, and the two Lights took advantage of that opportunity. Sometimes it was living it up on their motorcycles - such as the three-week trip they took to Key West, Fla. - and sometimes it was just enjoying watching movies together at home (family favorite being "Trading Places").
"I'll never forget our night out on Duval Street [in Key West,]" Light said, starting to explain that he and his dad had "had a few..." but changing his comment to, "well, we lived it up."
The Light boys got lucky that night too when they wandered into a bar that sounded like an outstanding Kenny Chesney cover band was playing. As it turned out, it was actually Kenny Chesney playing an impromptu concert.
"It was a very cool experience," Light said of those three weeks traveling with his dad. "It was an awesome trip."
But some of those times while at home weren't as fun as Light helped his mom take care of his dad when the elder Light's motor functions began to deteriorate over the next several months. Not an easy task but one Light absolutely wanted to do for the man who had always been his biggest fan.
His dad was such a big football fan, in fact, that he insisted on wearing the same cargo shorts to every St. John's High School game Light played his senior year because the team kept winning.
"We went 12-1 that year, and my dad thought the shorts were bringing us luck, so even in December he wore them," Light laughed. "That last game, the temperature was single digits. He was diehard."
Like father, like son.
Light returned to Fordham over the summer following his semester off and reported to the Rams' 2013 training camp on Aug. 1. He went home the morning of Aug. 8, and his father died that evening. Coach Moorhead brought the entire team by bus to the funeral in Sutton.
"He's really something special," Light said of his former college coach, who was recently named the new head coach of Penn State. "Not just offensively, but the whole locker room culture. He's just something special."
Light returned to school the next week and had the best season of his college career, registering 66 receptions for 588 yards and leading all tight ends in the FCS. His 66 catches were a school record for tight ends, and the 588 yards in a season was the second-best for a tight end in school history.
Although Light had been showing promise for that kind of success since his freshman year, he and his mother believe the cargo shorts still had something to do with it.
"Before my first game, my mom texted me and I met her outside the stadium," Light recalled. "She gave me a small piece of my dad's lucky cargo shorts and kept a piece too and told me it was so I could have a piece of my dad with me. It was an emotional moment. And really cool."
Dawn Light and her son have kept that tradition every game since. As soon as he makes the active roster, he anticipates another piece of those shorts.
I love you dad. Our dream came true. I am an NFL football player— Dan Light (@AFTANOON_DLIGHT) August 28, 2015
Light is not on the active roster yet - and may not be this season - but the tight end has been approaching each week like he is.
Despite growing up a diehard New England Patriots fan, Light couldn't be happier being part of the Broncos, which he calls a "first-class organization."
"The dream is the active roster," Light said, adding that he's at the beginning of the dream right now. "I'm facing the starting No. 1 defense in the NFL, I get to simulate all-pro tight ends, and I'm with the Broncos' starting tight ends for meetings, etc. I can't complain. I'm just trying to enjoy it every day."
Since joining the Broncos just three weeks ago, Light has had to simulate some of the top TEs in the NFL - Antonio Gates, Lee Smith and Heath Miller.
'Gronk of the Bronx'
Light laughs at the irony of being brought to Denver just after his favorite team was beaten at Mile High.
"I wonder if that was by design," says the tight end, who earned the nickname "Gronk of the Bronx" while at Fordham.
But Light is also not afraid to admit he'd definitely enjoy it a little extra if he gets to "play the real Gronk" on the scout team should the Broncos face the Patriots again in the postseason. And though the 22-year-old would truly want to ask for Rob Gronkowski's autograph, he promises not to. "I'd don't think that would go over too well."
Perhaps even more ironic is that Light dons No. 84 (his college number) that also belonged to none other than Broncos' greatest tight end and Patriots' nemesis, Shannon Sharpe.
"It is cool to wear [No. 84] in a Broncos uniform especially with everything Shannon Sharpe did; hopefully I can carry on the tradition of excellence. Likely in a quieter way," Light says, adding he's unlikely to pull a stunt like Sharpe's "emergency call to the president" when the Broncos were "killing" the Patriots." But Sharpe always backed up what he said, so more power to him."
But Light isn't looking ahead to a potential matchup with the Patriots or down the road of his career. Right now he's focused on next week's opponent - the Bengals - and that's all that matters.
"We need to go 1-0 this week, and we realize for us the playoffs have started," Light said, emphasizing that the team will be kicking and screaming. "The next two games are crucial, and we've got to come together as a team."
Noting that some "soul-searching" needed to be done by players and coaches to understand why the Broncos fizzled in the second half the last three games, Light believes this team is not that far off from being great.
"We've got the best defense in football. The offense just had one of the most explosive halves I've seen," Light said. "I'm confident we can get it done."
So although it's Christmas week, Light is busy studying a Bengals' Pro-Bowl tight end like crazy so he can be a big reason this Broncos team does get it done.
And it will be a step closer to getting another piece of his dad's cargo shorts.
"Hopefully," Light says, as though he were never a fan of that world champion team out East, "that will be at Sports Authority Field."