BY MIKE VANDERMAUSE — Green Bay Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga normally is unflappable.
But when the former Iowa Hawkeye suffered a season-ending knee injury barely a week into training camp at the Packers’ Family Night scrimmage on Aug. 3, it threw him for a loop.
“It took probably a good month to mentally clear that hurdle,” said Bulaga, who appeared in the Packers’ locker room last week for the first time since suffering a partially torn ACL.
Bulaga was poised for a breakout season protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side at left tackle, where he had been moved during the offseason.
Entering training camp last summer, Bulaga was completely healed from a fractured hip that kept him out of the final nine games of the 2012 season. After missing four games in 2011 with two different knee ailments, Bulaga was champing at the bit to play a full season for the first time in his career.
That’s why the Family Night knee injury felt so devastating. Bulaga didn’t want to believe the injury was serious at first.
“I didn’t think too much was wrong with it,” Bulaga said. “I finished out the scrimmage. I thought maybe I tweaked something. I didn’t think too much of it, to be honest with you.”
The injury occurred on the first series of the scrimmage, but Bulaga wound up playing all 30 snaps with the starting offense.
Clinging to any shred of hope, Bulaga originally thought he might avoid surgery and salvage the season.
“I wanted to see if it was something where I could put a brace on it and go,” Bulaga said. “That’s what I really, ultimately wanted to see.”
But Bulaga soon was faced with the harsh reality that he would need surgery and miss the entire season.
The mental anguish was excruciating.
“You work for six months getting ready for something, and to have it gone in two weeks of training camp, it’s difficult,” Bulaga said. “It was a terrible feeling. … It was frustrating. It was difficult, but that’s football. That’s the way it goes.”
It hurt so much that Bulaga asked coach Mike McCarthy for permission to conduct his rehabilitation program away from the team facility.
“It was just something that I felt I needed to do and kind of mentally clear my mind of being here every day and seeing these guys and not being able to help them out,” Bulaga said.
He stayed in Green Bay during the second half of the 2012 season after injuring his hip and couldn’t bear the thought of putting himself through that again.
“I know how it would have been,” he said.
Bulaga never lost touch while rehabbing at the IMG Academy in Florida. For the first time in his life, he bought the NFL Sunday Ticket package to watch Packers games, and he regularly texted and called his teammates.
His injury paved the way for rookie David Bakhtiari to become established as the starting left tackle. When Bulaga returns, there’s no guarantee a starting job will be waiting.
It’s possible he could move back to right tackle, where he started 33 games in his first three seasons, to compete with incumbent Don Barclay and Derek Sherrod.
“Wherever they need me to play, I’ll play,” Bulaga said. “That’s not something that’s even on my mind currently.”
Packers offensive line coach James Campen said last week that it’s too soon to speculate on where Bulaga will land.
When asked how he planned to sort out the competition at tackle, Campen said: “The better question is how they will sort it out. The best player will play, and the best players will be here.”
At his season-ending news conference, McCarthy praised Bakhtiari for developing a strong on-field relationship with left guard Josh Sitton. That could be an indication the Packers aren’t inclined to move Bakhtiari.
“I thought David had a good, solid season for us and I’m excited about him growing because he’s a young man,” McCarthy said. “He’s got a lot of growth in front of him.
“Talking to both Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga, I told them both that as we go through this evaluation process, as soon as we decide how we’re going to set reps as far as positions and the identity, that I’d get back to them. But I don’t have an answer for you right now.”
Bulaga is four months into his recovery program and said it would be a “nice goal” to be ready for the start of training camp.
“Everything has gone smooth so far with the rehab, and as of right now, I haven’t had any setbacks,” Bulaga said. “We like where we’re at right now.”
Bulaga has put the initial shock of the injury behind him.
“Once I got past it, it was just knowing you have to go through the rehab and the same thing day after day after day to get your body and what you need ready to go for the next season,” he said.
Bulaga said he is taking the same approach to the offseason as in the past, with no training restrictions and a positive mindset.
“I’m not worried about (the knee) at all,” he said. “The way I’ve been progressing and the way I feel, I’m not even slightly worried about it.”
Bulaga isn’t feeling sorry for himself despite his recent injury history.
“I don’t look at things as bad luck or good luck,” he said. “It’s just what happens, and everything happens for a reason, so I’m kind of dealing with it that way and just moving forward.”
Campen has no doubt the experience will make Bulaga stronger.
“He handles adversity very well,” Campen said.
“As soon as that kid is ready to go, he’s Bryan Bulaga. He’ll be better than what he was.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football