DENVER — A stage, loud applause. Smiles dot the field below. Teammates flank him, the moment falling somewhere between remarkable and surreal.
Offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry, wearing a shirt reading "Legend Status," holds the National Championship Trophy and bellows in delight after LSU's win over Clemson.
Even with squinting this was hard to see four years earlier, for everyone but Cushenberry. He arrived at LSU as the last member of the 2016 class, told three days before a decision was required that his hometown school had a spot, leaving him to eschew a scholarship from Mississippi State.
Cushenberry was a three-star recruit, the type of player needed for the bones of a program, but not viewed as an NFL prospect.
Lost in the early assessment was Cushenberry's relentlessness.
"It’s always been there my whole career. People are always saying things and don’t really believe in me. So I have turned that into a positive," Cushenberry told Denver7 in the latest Meet The Picks segment that runs Monday at 6 p.m. "When I work out I am thinking about that, and I just want to prove people wrong. That’s how I have always been. I just let that fuel me and motivate me every single day."
Cushenberry's attitude and aptitude attracted the Broncos. With Connor McGovern's exit to the New York Jets in free agency, the Broncos dangled a vacancy sign at the center position. The Broncos selected Cushenberry in the third round with the 83rd pick overall.
Even in this upside down offseason absent of OTAs and a truncated training camp, Cushenberry expects to push for the starting spot.
"It’s a great opportunity. But I know I am going to have to put in the work. It’s going to be a challenge for me to win the job. First off, I want to come in and earn the respect of my teammates not by what I say, but how I carry myself and how I practice day in and day out," Cushenberry said. "I want to come in and earn their respect, show that I can do it and have the mental capacity to be a center at this level."
Cushenberry is no stranger to rolling up his sleeves. He redshirted his freshman year of college and played as a reserve and special teamer the following season. A conversation early in his career changed how he approached his position.
"We met with Oline coach on Saturday before the game. I would listen. But I wasn’t really locked in. My Oline coach and mentor pulled me aside and said this isn’t how it goes. I didn’t do well on (the written) test before the game. They said you can’t miss any questions at center," Cushenberry said. "I started locking in even though I wasn’t playing. I started preparing like a starter."
This is the type of discipline that translates in the NFL. Everyone is talented. Those who value brains over brawn not only make it in the league, but often prosper. Cushenberry transformed in ways that were breathtaking. He became the first Tigers offensive lineman to be awarded the No. 18 jersey (he wore a patch on his uniform during the game), given to the player who best demonstrates the character of a LSU football player on and off the field.
It began in 2004 with members of the athletic department viewing the No. 18 as a way to honor the contributions of quarterback Matt Mauck, a seventh-round draft pick by the Broncos who still serves as the team's dentist.
"It is a huge honor, especially because no offensive lineman had ever received it. It comes with a lot of responsibility," said Cushenberry, known for his toughness. "We have an 18 group chat, and we all talk. I look forward to meeting (Mauck) in person."
Cushenberry started his final 28 games. You might remember he had the same quarterback during that time. Some guy named Joe Burrow. The two were neighbors, both considered humble and quietly confident. Burrow posted the greatest season in college football a year ago, and he praised Cushenberry for his role in the offensive lava eruption.
"We wouldn't have done it without his leadership," Burrow said.
Twelve LSU players were drafted off the title team. I joked that Cushenberry, in some ways, already knows what it's like to face NFL talent. He laughed. It was a rare moment of levity from a player and a man who takes his craft seriously, leading to that moment on the podium and his prized opportunity with the Broncos.
"It’s about going out and competing. I just want to show Broncos fans that everyday, not just every Sunday, but everyday," Cushenberry said. "I want the fans to know they are going to get my best."