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Former Gopher remakes himself with Broncos

Associated Press Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker (87) comes down with a catch against the Cincinnati Bengals in a Sept. 18 game in Denver. Decker scored a touchdown on the play.

By Arnie Stapleton

AP Pro Football Writer

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before Eric Decker's rookie season in Denver last year, about all he could do to stay in shape was pump iron at the gym while he recovered from an operation on his left foot.

It paid off with a buffed torso and thick neck that made him look more like a linebacker than a wide receiver.

He said he was too top-heavy, however, so he spent last offseason reshaping his body to become leaner and quicker, losing seven pounds off his 6-foot-3 frame and 2 inches on his chest, neck and waist.

Now, those toggled, hooded, heavyweight duffel coats he modeled for the photo shoot with GQ in 2010 don't fit him anymore.

"Oh yeah, I got my shirts refitted, my neckline was too big, my chest was too big," Decker said. "My legs are probably a little bit bigger but my upper body is smaller."

Suiting him perfectly this year is his newfound role as one of quarterback Kyle Orton's top targets.

Decker leads the Broncos with 20 receptions for 270 yards and four touchdowns. He also returned a punt for a touchdown, making him the first non-running back in team history to score five TDs in the first four games of a season.

Decker scared teams away when he missed the last half of his senior season at the University of Minnesota after tearing the ligament that holds the first two toes together in a game against Ohio State in October 2009. Called a Lisfranc injury, it requires a long and arduous rehab with no guarantee of success.

"I couldn't do anything. All I did was pool workout and really upper body lifting, which I think got me a little too top heavy," Decker said. "So, I was behind the 8-ball a little bit at that time, and this year's just is night and day."

Decker caught a-half dozen passes as a rookie, one of them for a touchdown.

Although this year's lockout kept him out of OTAs and minicamps for the second straight season, Decker worked out with a nutritionist and Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald in Phoenix and in Minneapolis and also participated in Brian Dawkins' organized workouts in Denver, catching plenty of passes from Orton over the summer.

He also ate better and worked out smarter, he said.

"Yeah, it was the first offseason I've ever had to just focus on football and develop myself and my skills," Decker said. "As far as health-wise and body goes, I leaned out a little bit, I was a little top-heavy the last couple of years, which affects you as a wide receiver in being quick and being fast.

"I did a lot more core stability, a lot more (leg) stuff, there's certain muscles you use to be more explosive and I just focused on that and at the same time just had the time finally to run a lot of routes and get in the weight room and do a lot of run, which made a big difference."

Coach John Fox praised him for being a true pro in both mind and body.

He said he didn't notice Decker was too thick in his upper body his rookie season, "but I see a different guy than I saw on tape -- for the better. He's a fierce competitor and he has a lot of the football character that you're looking for and the way that he went about his business he's reaping those investments now."

What impresses his coaches is Decker's propensity to make up for mistakes with big plays.

In a win over Cincinnati last month, he overcame an early lost fumble to become the first wide receiver in team history to score twice and top 100 yards receiving in his first career start, grabbing TD catches of 25 and 52 yards.

That followed his 90-yard punt return for a touchdown against Oakland in the opener.

On Sunday in Green Bay he rounded off one of his routes, allowing Charles Woodson's pick-six, but he bounced back to score on TD catches of 5 and 33 yards before the game got away from the Broncos.

"If you play receiver and you haven't dropped one or you haven't fumbled one, you haven't played," Fox said. "To be able to have that mental toughness and be able to overcome that is key, and that's something that's very impressive."

Decker, who played baseball in college, said it's easy for him to put aside a mistake just as he used to have to forget about a strikeout right away so he could clear his mind to play center field and focus on his next at-bat with a clear head.

"You can't control everything. You can't be perfect. But it's how you bounce back, it's how you react to something like that that tests your character and the kind of player you are," Decker said.

It's a lesson young players have to learn to make it in the NFL: one bad play doesn't have to make for a bad day.

"I've been through that. In college, I had my times where you're so hard on yourself, it affects your whole game," Decker said. "You've just got to learn from it and learn from it and know what happened and bounce back."

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