Safeguarded in DeMarcus Ware's Texas home is a shrine to "Wilson," a room filled with dozens of leather game balls and football trinkets he has received over the years for his big plays and big victories.
It's a trophy case on a much grander scale, but one only he visits. Others' admiration and praise aren't needed nor wanted.
With each year, that room grows smaller as game-day honors roll in. But after playing 11 seasons in the NFL, the biggest prize still is missing. Leather is nice. But diamond-encrusted Super Bowl rings are players' best friends.
Sunday, Ware will play in his first conference championship game after the outside linebacker's previous four playoff appearances — three with Dallas, one with Denver — failed to take him past the divisional round.
"I think when you talk to the young guys, you have to put things in perspective. They look at you and say, 'DeMarcus Ware, you've played for 11 years.' I look back at them and I tell them, 'When I was 13-3, I lost in the playoffs. When I was 9-7, I lost in the playoffs. When I was 12-4, I lost in the playoffs,' " Ware said. "I say, 'Guess what? I lost in the playoffs last year also. I've been in this thing 11 years and you've only been in this thing for one year and you have the opportunity to do something great.' They've asked me, actually, 'Are you ready?' I said, 'Are you kidding me? What do you mean am I ready? I've lost four times and I have an opportunity now to do something great.' "
This time, he's hoping, he will get that ring. At 33, a sixth opportunity to complete his quest for championship jewelry is never guaranteed. That urgency also is why he signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Broncos in 2014, joining cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in Denver's defensive shopping spree that offseason.
"I mean, playing 11 years and not being able to make the postseason like I've always wanted to — there's always a sense of urgency starting with working out, OTAs, minicamp and training camp," he said. "There's a sense of urgency, especially when I came here. When they brought Talib in, they brought T.J. Ward in and bringing me in saying, 'We have to have that defense.' We had the offense with Peyton (Manning). We can score points. This right here is that missing piece, so there was a sense of urgency last year. Now you can tell that the guys just have that grit of really just wanting and getting out there, playing and giving it all they have."
Ware, who was selected to his ninth Pro Bowl this season, played a key role in the Broncos' identity shift to a defensive-first group. He spurred Denver's rise from a good defense, in Jack Del Rio's 4-3 alignment, to an NFL-leading and historically memorable unit in Wade Phillips' 3-4. And despite missing five games to injury, he tallied 7½ sacks and 16 quarterback hits, second to Von Miller's 11 and 32.
But after this season, Ware will have one year left on his contract at a cost of $10 million, a figure that could be too large to swallow for a team with two young and promising outside linebackers riding his coattails, and 25 players with expiring contracts, including at least four defensive starters — Miller, defensive end Malik Jackson and inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan — due big deals.
As much as the focus has been on Manning's late- career playoff push, Ware's proverbial window isn't opening any wider. But his window is the same one faced by defensive end Antonio Smith and guard Evan Mathis, both 34 and on expiring, one-year contracts.
In his 11 NFL seasons, with five teams, Mathis has played in three postseason games. The Broncos' 23-16 victory over the Steelers last Sunday was his first playoff win.
Smith, a 12th-year veteran, is in his fourth postseason and, like Mathis and Ware, has lived the losses to heed warning to teammates playing in their first postseason. In 2009, he made it to the biggest stage, as a starting defensive end for the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The 27-23 defeat to Pittsburgh still stings.
"To this day it bothers me," he said. "This is what you sacrifice the whole year for. You might think it's not different, but once you get in the playoffs, it's a different type of vibe, feel, speed, everything. Some people get lucky. You land a team that's there every year. Some people go their whole career without even touching the playoffs. It's definitely an experience to cherish."