The Meaning Behind a Former NFL Player’s Viral Quest for a Lion

He’d spent all day hiking the mountain, and his body was failing him when he stumbled and fell. There, from his back, Derek Wolfe saw the lion he’d been hunting.

It studied him from 30 feet away, above him in a tree. It was big, possibly even bigger than Wolfe himself. Earlier, when Wolfe found the lion’s tracks, they’d been bigger than his hands.

Wolfe’s hands are massive. His entire body is. The former defensive end stands 6’6″ tall and weighs some 285 pounds. With a scruffy beard and mohawk made of dreads that fall to his shoulders, he looks like a blue-eyed Khal Drogo by way of Appalachia.

Wolfe played eight seasons in Denver before ending his career with Baltimore.

Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

He didn’t have to be out there, an hour and a half outside of Denver in the mountains without cell service. At 32, he’d recently retired from football, ending his career after the 2021 season. He’d played 10 years in the NFL and made plenty of money doing it. He won a Super Bowl, too. His wife was back at home with their two daughters.

Yet he’d left his home south of Denver in Lone Tree at 4:30 that morning, packing his 1,000-horsepower Dodge Ram Mammoth Ram TRX and driving into the mountains to hunt a lion.

Towering green pines and firs and rock cliffs surrounded him up there. In the distance, more mountains stretched into the horizon. Words couldn’t quite capture what being out here gave him. He was in the wilderness, at risk of death by multiple factors—including the one staring him in the face—and yet he felt no fear, only alert and ready, and in that, calm. Being swallowed by the wilderness like this made him feel more fully alive. “Yeah,” he tells me as we hike that mountain two months later to revisit the moment. “It’s good for the soul.”

I visited him last spring in part because of what happened when he hunted the lion and in part because of what happened after the hunt. He posted to Instagram about it, and it went viral. Arguments over hunting raged. Some people threatened his life and the lives of his wife and daughters. Interview requests poured in. His appearance on Tucker Carlson’s now-canceled Fox News show supercharged the online cycle. Wolfe found himself at the center of a culture war.

He says he doesn’t care, though, about scoring points for or against one side or another of the political spectrum.

“I just want to hunt, man,” he says.

For Wolfe, hunting has been about something much simpler, and much more difficult, than a culture war. For him, hunting is about something much deeper, much more personal—and in many ways, much darker.

View the original article to see embedded media.

In the small, rural town of Negley, Ohio, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, 10-year-old Derek Wolfe entered a forest before dawn with his stepfather. The man sat him under a pine tree, handed him a .410 shotgun and gave straightforward orders: Stay here, don’t move, be silent and shoot any deer you see. This was Derek’s first hunt.

There, in the forest with the shotgun at the break of the dawn, Derek found peace, perhaps for the first time in his life. He felt as calm and alive as he ever had, all his senses focused on gathering his surroundings and all angles all at once for all possible danger—bears, coyotes and mountain lions roamed those parts—and for his prey.

Then, as the sun rose, two large bucks appeared in the clearing before him. Instead of raising his gun, he watched them, captivated and immediately in love.

They started fighting, crashing their antlers into each other, the cracking sounds echoing through the trees around him. They had no idea he was there.

“It was the best moment of my life to that point,” he says. “I think it might’ve been the first time I really felt happy.”

He never raised his gun. He just watched them.

His stepfather soon appeared, crashing through the brush, having been drawn by the sounds of battle. The bucks vanished into the trees.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” he barked.

“I don’t know,” Derek said. “I just liked watching them.”

Derek didn’t tell the man what had been on his mind before he saw the deer. As the sun had risen, Derek had played out a scenario in his mind: Deer appeared, Derek shot, but he missed and hit his stepfather instead.

For years, Wolfe believed the man was his real father. Then on the first day of third grade, in front of the entire class, his teacher berated him for not knowing his name during roll call. “My name is Wolfe,” he said. “No,” she said.

Wolfe recalls learning that his name on record belonged to one of his mother’s paramours. When Wolfe interrogated his mother about his real father after that, here’s how he remembers it going: She ignored him, he continued relentlessly, she told him his real father had been, say, a coked-out truck driver who’d f—-d her once in a bar and then vanished into the night, then she’d confess days later she’d lied to him and the whole cycle started again.

“Now that I’m a father,” Wolfe says, his voice vibrating with quiet rage, “I can’t fathom how she let me suffer like I did.”

The stories Wolfe shares of his childhood with his mother and stepfather paint it as a cursed time in which love was replaced by intoxication and all manner of emotional, psychological and physical abuse. He recalls having to survive the people raising him. “Just life in Appalachia, man,” Wolfe says. “It’s a forgotten part of America. Nobody gives a shit what happens there.”

To reach the NFL, Wolfe had to travel through darkness.

Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

Not long after the day when Wolfe chose not to shoot the two bucks, he killed a pheasant with the shotgun. He got a deer like that soon, too.

In middle school, a friend introduced Derek to a hunting bow. Archery came naturally to him, and he fell in love with it immediately. He and the friend spent the rest of that year bowhunting whenever they could.

They didn’t get anything. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Wolfe says. But the bow felt right for him. He loved its silence compared to a gun, and the skill and strength it required. A gun might better guarantee a kill, but a bow could provide similar assurance for the hunter with mastery who fired from the proper distance, within some 30 yards of a target. The bow demanded more of him, and he had more to give.

He practiced with it tirelessly. A year later, at age 13, he got his first big buck in his sights. He sent an arrow into its chest. The buck dropped clean. “And I was just hooked,” Wolfe says.

He wrestled for a while with the cognitive dissonance created by his love for the animals and his love of hunting them.

He squared it by accepting that all life must die, and it was O.K. for him to sometimes be a cause of death.

In so doing, he could give the animals he loved as clean and easy of a death as they could possibly experience.

“Nothing out there dies of old age,” he says.

While deer in captivity can live into their late teens, most in the wild die by 5 or 6. The always-fatal chronic wasting disease afflicts as much as 40% of North America’s roughly 23 million adult male deer in a given year, per a U.S. Geological Survey report from 2020, and various studies indicate that starvation kills a few hundred thousand deer every year. “It is sad as f— to watch a deer starve to death,” Wolfe says.

Predators such as mountain lions and coyotes will give deer a quicker death, albeit excruciating and terrifying. Elk suffer torturous deaths by wolves, which isolate one from a herd and pursue until the elk collapses from exhaustion, hastening its demise by biting its legs and heels to tear the tendons. “Terrible, slow, miserable f—–g deaths,” Wolfe says.

Wolfe says he came to see hunting as mercy for animals he loved. “As quick and clean a death as they’re ever gonna get,” he says.

The kills, he learned, must be ethical. “Looking for a big, mature bull … that has lived a great life, and it’s time to go,” he says.

Wolfe hunts only with a license, targeting herds ready for culling. Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer Kara Van Hoose says, “Hunting is part of conservation. … We study the habitats that these herds are living in, and a lot of times they are too large, and they are sucking the resources out, so these large numbers cannot be sustained in the same habitat. Sometimes we need even more licenses in certain areas for hunters to hunt deer and things like that. We’ll ask hunters to come in, and it’s a good marriage.”

The shots Wolfe takes must be precise and certain, too. “If you don’t think you can kill it clean,” Wolfe says, “then you shouldn’t take the shot. You have to make that decision. … You can’t force it. When you force it, you just wound the animal.”

He’s made mistakes that still haunt him. During one hunt he tracked a massive buck during mating season. The buck stalked a doe, pinned it against a fence until it was finished, then finally settled enough for Wolfe to take what he thought was a clean shot. The arrow went through the buck’s chest but missed the heart.

After tracking the buck for two miles, Wolfe lost it and agonized over the failure for a year, believing the buck had suffered a terrible death, likely so weakened that coyotes eventually tore it apart.

Instead, he saw the same buck on a trail camera a year later, alive and well.

Hunters often find deer filled with buckshot, bullets and arrowheads.

“These animals are so fucking tough,” Wolfe says. “Their will to live is off the charts.”

By age 14, Wolfe packed a bag and left. Some things would always follow him, however, such as the paranoia and hypervigilance and pain, the way elk and bucks carry those arrowheads and bullets from hunters past. But he would never feel like prey again. He chose to keep the last name Wolfe.

Being raised on violence and abandonment had also hardwired him to always be seeking out and eradicating all potential threats to both body and heart. “Most of the dudes I grew up with are in prison or dead,” he says.

He couch-surfed until landing on a farm with a friend in northeast Ohio. “It was a good time,” he says. “I learned how to work hard there.”

In short order, Wolfe had outgrown most adults he knew. Whoever his real father was, the man must have been a giant.

Wolfe began playing football at Beaver Local High School in Lisbon, Ohio. It’s like the sport was made for him. The older he got, the more rage Wolfe felt, but football gave him somewhere to put it. “God f—–g knows what would’ve happened to me without football,” he says.

He discovered a natural talent as a defensive lineman. Their whole job is to attack. This, he could do something with.

In his final season at Cincinnati, Wolfe tallied an eye-catching 9.5 sacks.

Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated

The older Wolfe got, the more rage he felt. Football gave him a place to put it.

He performed well enough to earn a scholarship to the Cincinnati Bearcats as a two-star recruit. In college, however, he would become overwhelmed for no clear reason. Anger burst forth from nowhere. He always felt on edge. His body lived in a constant state of tension, as though always prepared for an attack. When things went well and life felt calm, Wolfe could stand that for only so long before he would find himself doing something self-destructive, driven by impulses he didn’t understand, let alone know how to control. Asked to explain himself, he struggled to articulate any of it.

In time, finally, a doctor realized something that Wolfe had all but forgotten: He was living with ADHD. He was diagnosed as a young child, he says, but his condition went untreated for years. Wolfe chose to interpret it not as a disorder, but rather as a “genius trait” honed after years of surviving hell. He just needed to learn how to manage it.

The doctor prescribed Adderall. That helped. Wolfe felt calmer. Sometimes the medicine relaxed him so much he needed a nap.

After four seasons at Cincinnati, Wolfe entered the NFL draft and went 36th to the Denver Broncos. In the league, Wolfe felt his rage continue to grow. Watching film in preparation for games whipped him into a frenzy as he imagined his opponents doing the same.

During games, he allowed his rage to spill over.

This sometimes compelled him to tell his opponents that he was going to eat their babies.

This also, however, fostered his ability to be a consistent presence in the trenches of games as a defensive lineman.

“Thank you, Dad, for beating me,” he says, chuckling. “Thank you, Mom, for your lack of love. Thank you for filling me with rage.”

By adulthood, human behavior results from well-worn neural pathways, akin to tracks carved into a ski run. Wolfe, however, continued seeking means by which to improve himself as both athlete and human being—he kept looking for ways to carve better paths for his mind.

Early in the 2013 season, a friend introduced him to mushrooms. Scientists who study the psilocybin in them say that the substance is to the brain like fresh powder is to a mountain, giving the brain an opportunity to undo damage done to it by past trauma and carve new paths for itself.

Wolfe began taking mushrooms regularly before practices and games. He took too many sometimes and found himself blinded by stadium lights, but eventually he dialed in a proper dosage. They made his mind calmer and more focused.

He still struggled, particularly off the field. Sometimes his fear and anger won the day and his impulses took over, and he made choices he regretted later, unable to completely shed the parts of him that dealt with threats, or to stop those parts of him from creating threats when one couldn’t be found.

But this happened less as he lived more and experienced better things. He won Super Bowl 50 with the Broncos after the 2015 season. He fell in love with a beautiful woman named Abigail, whom he eventually married. She had a school-aged daughter from a previous relationship whom Wolfe came to love, and since then, Wolfe and Abigail had their own baby girl whom Wolfe adores.

Wolfe racked up 34 sacks in his lengthy NFL career.

Donald Miralle/Sports Illustrated

Football came to an end in July 2022, after he decided injuries and surgeries finally had taken enough of a toll. After two seasons in Baltimore, he retired a Bronco and retired to life in Lone Tree. He took a job with a local sports talk radio program, spending every afternoon shooting the shit with a longtime local host. He had his wife and daughters and memories. Life was, by all accounts, good.

Even retired, Wolfe still takes mushrooms once or twice a day, usually with breakfast and then again in the afternoon. (Colorado voters passed a ballot measure legalizing the use of psilocybin and psilocin in November 2022.)

But he still craves the wilderness and his bow and the hunt, in no small part because his body still felt his past.

Without a physical endeavor into which to throw himself, Wolfe had impulses that could still become destructive. He’d drink and party too much, pick “bullshit fights” and struggle to not be the worst version of himself. His football career had made hunting difficult due its conflicting schedule with hunting season.

Now, however, he had all the time in the world and hunts to go on that he’d dreamed about forever.

During a September 2022 elk hunt in New Mexico, Wolfe hiked 60 miles in four and a half days. At the end of each day, he set up camp, then the next morning he packed up and kept going until he got his prey. “It exceeded everything I ever accomplished in football,” he says. “Doing 12, 15 miles a day, waking up sore, tired, just doing it all again.”

The danger—miles from civilization, wild animals all around—was part of the point. His body craved something to survive. Bringing down game gave him a thrill that he says is similar to when he won the Super Bowl.

Part of that thrill is how hard it can be to accomplish. During his hunts, Wolfe can still do everything right and come away empty. “You fail more than you succeed,” he says. “Hunting elk or deer or anything else … it’s like they have a sixth sense. I’ve been up in a tree and have a buck coming in, like on a string right where I need him, and at the last second, he’ll just fucking skirt and run out. And it’s like, how the fuck did he know? He didn’t look up here. He didn’t smell me because the wind is blowing the other way. Something just told him, Don’t walk through that.”

Those moments when he gets his clean shot at them, though, and he takes one down, getting his kill and giving the animal a clean death—those give him the same feeling he felt at 14 when he got his first buck. “The highest high,” he says.

Sometimes he feels guilty for being apart from his wife and children when he doesn’t need to be. But then he remembers how much he needs this struggle to feel like a healthy man himself—to be the man they love, to be the father and husband he wants to be.

Neuroscientists and psychologists have learned that when someone suffers trauma, their nervous system requires a multitude of new, positive experiences to reach homeostasis, and that is a process that can require a lifetime of new, positive experiences. Simply understanding one’s trauma on an intellectual level doesn’t heal it. The mind can do only so much for the body. The body must experience good and beautiful things to move beyond the suffering it endured.

One minute, Wolfe will be fine, driving along listening to music—and the next, he’s back there, a child having to survive his parents, in every way.

“In a way,” he says, “it is like they killed the kid I could have been if I’d felt safe.”

The more he hunts, the more hunting gives him good memories to turn to—somewhere better to go in the dark, like when he was young, with those first bucks at dawn.

After Wolfe retired from the NFL, he hired a small crew to film and produce YouTube and podcast episodes about his adventures. It would help him finance his return to hunting as well as build something of his own in retirement.

Along the way he connected with Alex Nestor, a hunting guide who lives south of Denver. They became friends, and Nestor helped Wolfe learn how to hunt lions.

Hunting a lion holds different meaning for the environment’s ecosystem and for Wolfe personally. A region with too few lions would have some of the same problems as a region with too many, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife keeps a strict tally of the number of lions killed by the hour.

Hunters are required to undergo training every year to maintain their licenses, and they must check with CPW before every hunt to ensure the regional quota for lion kills has not been met.

“From a CPW perspective, [Wolfe] did everything right,” says Van Hoose, the agency’s spokesperson. “He took all necessary steps.”

Similar to hunting deer and elk, Wolfe and Nestor sought only the oldest and largest male lions. If they tracked a lion down only to discover that it was female, or a smaller and younger male than expected, they would leave it alone.

They wanted only, in Wolfe’s words, “the alphas.” Sometimes, such as in the case of the lion they were tracking, lions make their way into human communities in search of easier prey such as people, children and pets. Not far from the same spot, Wolfe says a lion recently attempted to take an 8-year-old boy from his backyard. The boy suffered injuries but others intervened in time to save him.

These alpha male lions even pose a threat to their own kind: As they grow older and larger, they murder younger males to reduce competition for food and they murder cub litters to keep females in heat. “They’re wild animals,” Van Hoose says. “You can never say for certain that’s the same for all male mountain lion behavior, but yes, those things happen.”

Until January 2023, however, Wolfe had never had the chance to kill a lion.

One morning around 4:30, Nestor called Wolfe to tell him he was running dogs in the mountains south of Denver, looking for lions.

Wolfe loaded his truck with his hunting gear and hit the road.

He drove more than an hour southeast until he reached a small village of simple homes and shops. He turned up a road that soon became nothing more than a gray slice of asphalt through mountains, wilderness and two feet of snow covering the ground. Cell service came and went. Gravel driveways and cabins appeared among the trees, but briefly, no more than a glimpse. “There’s a reason people live out here,” Wolfe says. “They don’t want to be seen.”

Soon he found Nestor parked on the side of the road with his dogs in the truck. Wolfe parked, loaded his gear into Nestor’s truck and rode with him from there.

Soon they saw a dead mule deer packed under a tree on the side of the road. They parked to inspect it, registering their altitude around 9,000 feet.

They found steam rising from the meat in the snow. A lion had just fed. They found its tracks nearby. The snow held the lion’s scent, and the dogs tracked it well. The dogs led Wolfe and Nestor to a cabin in the trees. There they found more tracks, matted dirt and earth, and an unmistakable stench—a lion’s den, right there under the porch of this home.

Wolfe and Nestor knocked on the door to inform the owner and ask permission to track the lion onto their land, but nobody answered. They called a number they found associated with the address online but had no luck there, either.

They went up and down the road to speak with other residents. One man told them his dog had just been killed, and he suspected the lion. A woman told them the lion stalked her dogs and cats, and she saw the lion looking through her windows sometimes, studying her pets. She had become afraid to step outside at night, and she begged them to find the lion and kill it.

On the other hand, another man down the road asked why they couldn’t just leave the cat alone. “It’s an emotional issue,” Wolfe says. “And if you don’t like hunting, that’s fine. But some people aren’t willing to look past their own feelings to see the logic behind it all.”

They returned to the dead mule deer in search of fresh tracks.

The man who lived across the road was out there and waved them down.

“Y’all hunters?”

“Yeah, man,” Wolfe said. “We’ve been trying to get ahold of you for two hours.”

“Was that you knocking on my door earlier? I thought it was the lion trying to get in.”

He said the lion, trying to get his dogs, would come on his porch and scratch at the door and walls and windows, looking for a way in. Wolfe and Nestor showed him the den under the cabin, and the man was shocked to discover the lion had made a home under his. “Please,” the man said, “get him outta here.”

They geared up and loosed the dogs. The dogs bolted to the den and then raced up the mountain behind the cabin, baying as they vanished into the trees. Using a GPS tracker tracing chips in the dogs’ collars, Nestor—“like a mountain goat,” according to Wolfe—quickly left Wolfe behind.

He followed as quickly as he could, scaling the mountain to some 11,000 feet, then down the other side. Slipping through the snow and what laid beneath it—rocks, branches, fallen trees—Wolfe found himself in a drainage area, wading through high, thick snow that was full of obstacles, “really struggling,” he says.

Making his way back up the mountain, he kept slipping and sliding down the terrain, which was nearly vertical in places.

That went on for hours.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain, the dogs treed the lion—that is, the lion had discovered them tracking, at which point its instincts drove it to climb a tree. There the lion expected to wait out the threat without a fight. Nestor waited, allowing Wolfe to make the kill. “I just love running the dogs,” Nestor says.

Nestor dropped a navigation pin to Wolfe’s phone, but due to the makeup of the terrain and unstable cell service, Wolfe’s phone struggled to identify Nestor’s precise location. Nestor told Wolfe to go straight to the top of the hill and make his way down the other side while moving toward the pin.

Wolfe climbed back to the top of the mountain and then made his way down the other side. That took an hour and a half. By then Wolfe appeared to be right on top of Nestor’s location, but there was no sign of him, the dogs or the lion.

Seeing a bar of cell service on his phone, Wolfe called Nestor. “Where are you?”

Nestor said 9,800 feet. “Come back up.”

“Oh, f—.”

View the original article to see embedded media.

Staring up that mountain, his body in the condition it was, Wolfe knew it would be painful. He had already crossed the mountain three times over the course of some four and a half hours, all while carrying his bow, arrows and a 20-pound pack. “I’m sweating bullets,” he says. “I’m dehydrated. We’re at high altitude. I’m starting to cramp.”

His body was giving out.

“Nothing I’m going to go through physically would hurt me as much as it would to quit,” he says. “To quit would give me the sickest feeling in my stomach. I just won’t quit because I don’t want to feel that way. I don’t want to feel that kind of regret.”

He started climbing again.

Those 900 feet took another hour and a half.

“It was physically the hardest thing I’d ever done,” Wolfe says.

Upon finally reaching 9,800 feet, Wolfe finally found Nestor and the dogs—and then his legs gave out, and he fell to his back under a tree.

When he looked up, he saw the lion looking back.

“Their eyes stare into your fucking soul, man,” he says.

Wolfe caught its hot scent, noxious and feral. “They smell like shit.”

His adrenaline spiked. He returned to his feet, drew the arrow, readied the bow.

The lion was some 30 feet up in the tree, a good distance for a shot.

Wolfe composed himself, breathed deep and lined up the shot, aiming right for the lion’s heart.

The lion sneered back at him, showing yellow teeth.

He released the arrow.

Its flight was straight, fast and quiet as a sigh.

It hit the lion in the chest with a thud.

The lion made a noise that began as a roar and ended as a moan as the animal fell.

It didn’t move again, “dead before he hit the ground.”

A good, clean death.

Wolfe held the lion up for Nestor to take a picture. The lion stood taller than Wolfe, and he says it felt heavier than anything he’d ever encountered before, including athletes in the NFL.

Nestor took the dogs back to the truck, and Wolfe carried the lion back down the mountain. After placing it over his shoulders, with his body near failure, Wolfe could find no more suitable way back down the steep mountain through the thick snow than by crawling backward on his hands and knees.

When Nestor saw him, he laughed and asked what the hell he was doing.

Struggling to breathe, Wolfe replied, “Dude, I can’t fucking walk.”

They heaved the lion into the back of Wolfe’s truck, then made their way back down the mountain.

Later, Wolfe posted the photo of him and the lion to Instagram. It quickly went viral. There’s one more way he knows the lion didn’t suffer. It’s one more reason hunters like him want a clean kill: If an animal is suffering when it dies, then adrenaline, cortisol and other stress chemicals flood its body before it dies. “Their meat tastes like shit,” Wolfe says.

After properly registering the dead lion with CPW, Wolfe had its carcass and skull sent to a taxidermist, and he harvested its 200-plus pounds of meat, from which he’s made breakfast sausage, burgers and meat sticks.

“Try for yourself,” he tells me later at his house, handing me a white packet.

I unwrap it to find several meat sticks made from the mountain lion’s meat. Their texture is surprisingly light, almost airy, and its flavor has a spicy kick. They taste good.

Wolfe accepted an invitation to discuss the hunt with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Although Wolfe anticipated blowback, he wanted the publicity for his new media ventures and says he’d hoped some people would still learn something about hunting and conservation.

Many opposed to his hunt said they were angry at him for making an innocent animal suffer. “I get it, man, if people just don’t want to hunt,” he says. “It’s an emotional issue, and some people don’t like to look at science.”

None of the tweets or news clips or posts—for or against him—could fully capture what hunting that lion meant to him, let alone every moment of his life that led up to it. This issue was almost perfectly designed for the unique flattening that social media levels on all issues, yet one so deep and complicated for Wolfe personally that the only way to understand it is to appreciate the totality of his life experience. Not that Wolfe gives a shit. Whether you understand him or not is a moot point to him. He just wants to hunt, man.

But then came … more. There came the threats, first to his social media inbox and then letters—somehow—to his house. Among them were death threats aimed at him, but also other threats, aimed not just at him, but also his wife and his daughters. He handled them with the proper authorities, and as quickly as the threats came, they disappeared. Still, it left him shaken and having seen a new side of the world, giving him a new fear after a life in which he thought he’d encountered all he ever could fear. “These people,” he says, “they’re like those fucking wolves, man.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *