GREEN BAY – There are four large, rectangular tables inside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, but the one nearest the defensive linemen’s lockers has become the place to be.
That’s where roughly 150 chicken wings wind up every Wednesday, courtesy of the big guys up front – something the linemen used to do years ago and have brought back this year upon the return of veteran defensive end Johnny Jolly from a three-year NFL suspension.
“It’s definitely made a comeback. It was a ritual we had,” said defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who was a rookie in 2009 when the group had their post-practice wing parties. “Guys were half-joking, half-serious about, back when we were doing it, we had the No. 1 rushing defense in franchise history.”
That’s true, but in the weeks since the chicken wings returned, it hasn’t been merely the defensive linemen partaking. This week, wide receiver James Jones, guard T.J. Lang and safety Sean Richardson were among those who moseyed over for a post-practice snack – and chat.
“If I see some wings, I’m going to go get some,” Jones said with a laugh.
So often, players and coaches talk about the importance of team chemistry, but it’s always been hard to define or quantify. Teams know when they have it, and they certainly know when they don’t. It is something that has to come naturally, and it can’t be manufactured or bought.
Although, $100 worth of Kentucky Fried Chicken wings seems to be working quite well.
“That’s what we’re talking about,” Jones said. “Just the locker room camaraderie, you build relationships with guys. And that’s how you become closer as a team. Those are the little things. We’re all around, eating wings – that’s one of the little things that brings you together. It’s like a family in here.”
The chicken is supposed to be a family secret, much like the Colonel’s original recipe of herbs and spices. When the subject was brought up to Jolly recently, veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett quickly interceded. “The chicken? You can’t talk about that, man!”
Whether Pickett was worried about how head coach Mike McCarthy or strength and conditioning coach Mark Lovat, a stickler for healthy eating, might react to the news is unclear. But it appears that the bonding that goes on is well worth the calories and cholesterol. Plus, the linemen have instituted a rule on when they’re allowed to get their wings.
“It’s after they weigh in,” Jones said, likely spilling another family secret. “They weigh in after practice on Wednesday, and if they all make it, they get wings.”
(Meanwhile, the folks at KFC are secretive about more than just their recipe. The manager on duty Thursday afternoon, citing company policy, refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, although the manager did say that the players “are always super nice when they come in.”)
While Jolly is credited with bringing the tradition back this year, rookie defensive linemen Datone Jones and Josh Boyd are the ones dispatched to pick up the buckets each week. Raji said one of the veterans will call in the order to the KFC on Oneida Street, then send one of the rooks to pick it up.
“Those are the rookie duties you have to do,” Boyd said Thursday, smiling. When asked if the more well-compensated veterans pick up the tab, the rookie fifth-round pick’s smile disappeared. “No, I have to pay for it,” he replied. “It’s all part of being a rookie.”
It’s also part of the reason why players like Jones, Raji and quarterback Aaron Rodgers went to bat for Jolly when Packers general manager Ted Thompson was mulling whether to give him another chance after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell lifted the substance-abuse suspension he gave Jolly before the 2010 season.
“With Johnny’s personality, Johnny’s vocal with some things and he’s got a great sense of history of the league and hierarchy of players. ‘You take this rep, you’re a rookie,’ that type of thing. Or, ‘You go get the chicken.’ Like I’m sure the vets did when he was a rookie, they made him go get the chicken,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, another of Jolly’s advocates. “Johnny’s real big on that. Which is good. He’s going to make sure you don’t lose that. As these younger kids keep coming up, it’s different. Sometimes you need a guy like that to say, ‘Hey, you’re still a rookie.’ And Mike doesn’t allow us to do a lot of hazing and stuff like that, but there’s still certain things you want to make sure everybody understands their role.”
For now, Jolly’s role – in addition to stuffing the run in the base defense – is to continue to help build that locker-room chemistry. Rodgers has gone out of his way to credit Jolly for the different vibe he’s brought to the room, saying that his attitude is “infectious” and that his passion for the game is rubbing off on others.
“It’s not even about the chicken. It’s a group of guys coming together. The chicken, that’s not what it’s about. It’s us having fun,” Jolly said. “That’s what I missed. From 5 years old, I came up playing football, that’s all I’ve really done. Being around teammates all my life, they’re like your family. And being away from those guys, it’s tough. Now, I’m here, and I’m blessed that I’m here to take advantage of it. I thank God for that every day.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.