‘I’ve always been a sleeper guy:’ River Cracraft carries message of hope as he fights to make Broncos roster

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- River Cracraft has plenty to prove.

"I feel like that's kind of how it's been my whole career, I've always been a sleeper guy," he says of being underestimated throughout his life.

The Broncos wide receiver is currently fighting for a spot on the final 53-man roster. He has turned heads throughout training camp thanks to his consistency, and he has been one of the first players on the practice field every single day.

"He just wants it so badly, he's not going to let anything stop him," adds his mom, Tracy. "When he was in high school, his coach asked a few of the boys, 'do any of you want to play in the NFL?' This has been the vision. He's never changed, never faltered or anything like that."

Cracraft has battled through injuries, from a torn ACL that ended his college career in 2016 to a hamstring injury that kept him off the field after the Broncos signed him to the practice squad last fall.

"It's tough not being able to do what you want to do," Cracraft says of missing nearly two years of game action. "From what happened last year to where I am now, it's a huge difference."

Now that he is back on the field, Cracraft is playing for much more than just a roster spot.

"We're playing for him," Cracraft says of his former college teammate, Tyler Hilinski. "There's no doubt about that. We miss him.”

Hilinski took his own life back in January.

Through their heartbreak, Hilinski's family started a foundation with a mission "to educate, advocate, and remove the stigma associated with mental illness for student athletes" called Hilinski's Hope.

"This is moving along something that is so important in sports, in the world right now," Tracy says of the current conversation surrounding mental health. "So many people are coming out and saying 'I struggled.' I hope that the boys who are in college and NFL and everything can just say 'I'm struggling, right now, it's real.'"

Hilinski's Hope wristbands can be found across the country, including on the Broncos practice field.

“You see me with Hilinski's Hope, I'm always wearing it every day," River says as he shows off his blue wristband. "I haven't taken it off since his funeral. I've got a picture of him in my locker. That's my guy."

“It makes everybody realize that there is hope on the other side,” adds Tracy.

From heartbreak to hope, River Cracraft has played through it all this year. And with so much to play for, he’s determined and hopeful that he’ll get his chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.

"This is what I do. I don't want to do anything else. I want to play football and be a Denver Bronco. That's what I'm trying to do right now."

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