NFL’s loss was Pitkin County’s gain
The Aspen Times
Mike Kraemer still remembers the very first time he walked onto the Baltimore Ravens practice field. The sun was shining as he lifted his helmet over his head and the world was perfect in that moment. As Kraemer joined the other players heading for practice, he thought, “Wow … I’m really here.”
The Ravens gave Kraemer, an undrafted rookie, a non-guaranteed contract and an opportunity to become a long-snapper in the NFL. He was walking alongside Matt Stover, the veteran placekicker of the Ravens, with the other kickers and long-snappers.
The players were preparing to stretch out before practice began when Stover told the rookies to hang out with him in the back of the stretching line.
Kraemer had other ideas.
“I wanted to go to the front of the line,” Kraemer said. “So I did. Then I looked around and I was surrounded by veteran players, including several All-Pros.”
Kraemer was in awe of the players around him when he heard a deep voice yell, “Get out of my spot, rookie.”
Before he even knew who he was talking to, Kraemer replied, “I’m stretching, find your own spot.”
It was at that point that Kraemer realized he was barking at 6-foot-9, 350-pound Jonathan Ogden, a nine-time All-Pro offensive lineman, and one of the biggest players to ever play in the NFL.
“I don’t think he liked that response,” Kraemer said. “I was 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, but he was way bigger than me.”
Ogden greeted Kraemer’s response with a straight-arm blast into Kraemer’s shoulder.
“He knocked me back with those huge paws,” Kraemer said. “The next thing I knew, we were grabbing each other’s facemask and we locked up for a few seconds. That was my official introduction to the NFL.”
Kraemer, 34, is now the Pitkin County planner and still cherishes the memory of his football experiences that almost landed him on the roster of, at that time, the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
“Football was very poignant in how I developed as a young man,” he said. “The lessons I learned about dedication, teamwork and discipline are still with me.”
High school and college
Mike Kraemer and his twin brother, Matt, were outstanding prep athletes and both earned all-state honors as seniors at Pulaski High School in Wisconsin. The Pulaski team made the state tournament all three years the brothers played there.
In high school, Mike was a lineman and played on both offense and defense, while Matt developed into one of the top prep running backs in Wisconsin and still holds the single-season rushing record at Pulaski High.
The brothers continued their football careers together as both enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, a Division III football powerhouse with a history of sending players to the NFL.
“In high school, Matt was the star and rightfully so,” Mike said. “He hurt his knee in college but refused to redshirt so we would graduate together.”
In his four years at Wisconsin-Lacrosse, Kraemer competed against 10 other players who ended up in NFL camps.
“We played in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference,” Kraemer said. “It wasn’t a big D-I conference, but there were some really talented athletes that played there.”
Kraemer’s main position was defensive end, and as a senior in college, he earned all-conference honors. He had also developed long-snapping skills in high school and was the team’s long snapper all four years he attended Wisconsin-Lacrosse.
“Mike played with amazing tenacity,” Matt Kraemer said. “As big as he was, he was still faster than most linemen he played against. He really was athletic and strong. Mike could dunk a basketball with two hands when he was a freshman in high school.”
After his senior season of football, Kraemer knew he wasn’t likely to get drafted by a NFL team. Several teams had sent scouts to Wisconsin-Lacrosse that year and showed some interest in his long-snapping skills, so he figured he had a chance as a walk-on free agent.
The Big Show
In April 2002, Kraemer accepted a non-guaranteed contract from the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, meaning he needed to make the final 53-man roster to earn his contract.
“It was, for a 22-year-old kid, extremely overwhelming,” Kraemer said. “The intensity was so thick at every meeting, every practice. The ante was up 10 times in the NFL to what I was used to. I still remember the first time I saw my name on one of the lockers. I literally couldn’t believe it. ”
Kraemer found himself under the NFL microscope. Every move he made on the practice field was videotaped and scrutinized. He also had to adjust to the competitive nature of pro football as he lined up with the Baltimore veterans and the college players that were drafted that year.
“There were a lot of adjustments that had to be made,” Kraemer said. “The speed of the game at that level is extraordinary. It’s hard to capture it if you haven’t experienced it, but it was overwhelming at first.
“There’s also the constant jawing going on. You wouldn’t believe how much talking and yelling goes on every play. Every snap is so intense. Most of the guys are great off the field, but on the field, those guys are natural killers. You have to be to play at that level.”
There were several rounds of cuts between April and August, and after surviving the first round, Kraemer began to really believe he was going to play in the NFL. But when the team had to reduce its roster prior to the first preseason game in August, Kraemer was released.
“It was extremely disappointing,” he said. “A large part of my life was dedicated to the sport and all of the sudden there was this void.”
Kraemer talked to several other NFL teams but wasn’t offered another contract. He probably could have played in the Canadian Football League or a semi-pro football league, but he wanted to leave his football experiences at the highest level he reached.
“After Baltimore, I told myself I would never put the pads on again,” he said. “I knew it would never be the same. I had an amazing crescendo. I also had academic goals that I hoped would lead to my career, and they did.”
Life after football
Kraemer had to leave college halfway through his senior year and always intended to return. He went back to Wisconsin-Lacrosse and earned his degree in economics and sociology. He then went to the University of Wisconsin and in 2005 graduated with a master’s degree in Science in Urban and Regional Planning.
“A lot of college athletes get criticized for leaving school early to play sports,” Kraemer said. “But when the call comes, you have to take it. It’s very difficult to tell a pro sports team to wait. You have to take the opportunity when it comes.”
Kraemer accepted the first job offer, which happened to be in Aspen, and he’s been here since.
“Mike is awesome,” said Cindy Houben, the director of community development for Pitkin County and Kraemer’s boss. “I’m so glad he picked this profession. He really understands our community, and as a person, he would help anybody. Mike truly cares about what he’s doing here.”
Matt came to visit him six months after he moved to Aspen and soon moved to Colorado as well. He now lives in Glenwood Springs and works for the Parks and Recreation Department.
“It’s great to have family so close here,” Mike said. “Matt and I have been close all our lives. We still hang out together.”
Matt Kraemer says he misses the days of playing football with his brother, but appreciates the path that led to them still being part of each other’s lives.
“I have a great job, a beautiful wife and two great kids,” Matt said. “I was dealt a new hand of cards and now I apply my energy there. I cherish these times as much as the football days.”
These days, Mike Kraemer is content where his life is. He loves working for Pitkin County and can’t think of a better place to live right now than Aspen. He still enjoys watching football and appreciates the lessons he learned through sports.
“I can see many of the skills I developed as an athlete correlating with what I do now,” he said. “It was fun getting all the attention when I played football, but really, it doesn’t matter if you’re a football player, a county planner or a waiter at Little Annie’s. If you work hard and do a good job, the recognition comes.”
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Aspen Sister Cities members dedicated a plaque in Sister Cities Plaza to Don Sheeley, who served as president of the organization from 1998 until his death in 2017.