GREEN BAY – A.J. Hawk should have been bragging. Instead, he was confessing.
“I was dying,” the Green Bay Packers veteran inside linebacker said last week. “I was terrible.”
For years, Hawk had wanted to take to the skies with the Blue Angels. He was grounded a few years ago by bad weather, then had another opportunity wiped out by the government sequester, which cut off funding for the U.S. Navy’s famous fighter jet demonstration squad.
But Wednesday, following the Packers’ first organized team activity practice, Hawk was ready. He was in his car and out of the players’ parking lot at 1265 Lombardi Avenue as soon as he got his pads off (“I sprinted out of here after practice”) and hit the road to La Crosse, where the Blue Angels were set to perform at the annual Deke Slayton Airfest. He had his one-liners from iconic 1980s move Top Gun at the ready (“I watched Top Gun ‘til like 3 in the morning the night before”). And, knowing what a weak stomach he has, he was mentally prepared for what would happen once he took to the skies.
“I’m a baby anyway. I get carsick, so I knew I was going to get sick up there,” said Hawk, who said he vomited “two-plus” times during the 50-minute flight, including once within the first 15 minutes. “[The pilot] is a nice guy. I didn’t puke on him. I got it in the bag.
“Man, it was amazing. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I felt bad because I was apologizing to him the whole time because I got sick. … It was awesome, man. It was great.”
(The Packers posted video – puke-free, thankfully – to the team website on Monday. The 2-minute, 48-second video is well worth your time.)
Now entering his ninth NFL season, Hawk has developed into one of the more intriguing personalities in the Packers’ locker room – and among the longest tenured. (Only quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been on the roster longer.) Earlier offseason, he officiated athletic trainer Nate Weir’s wedding, having gotten his license on the Internet. (The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas wrote a fun story about it.) He is an extremely proud dad to his and wife Laura’s two children, perhaps the only gig he likes more than football. (An old-school rock ‘n’ roll music fan, he named his 3-year-old daughter Lennon and 1-year-old son Hendrix.) And, he’s developed into the team’s elder statesman on defense, as older veterans Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett have departed in recent years.
He certainly wasn’t afraid to acknowledge last week the defense’s shortcomings, and the importance of doing something different on that side of the ball so the offense doesn’t have to carry the team for another season.
“I think we have to change something – not change, but we have to evolve and hone in on who-knows-what our plan is going in once the season comes,” Hawk said when asked about coach Mike McCarthy’s less-scheme, more-personnel groupings directive. “We need to find a way to play better. We need to find a way to get off the field. I don’t think you have to make any crazy, drastic changes, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. But you have to find a way to evaluate what we did wrong and find a way to get better at that.”
The vexing thing about Hawk, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, is that he remains something of a divisive player when it comes to the team’s passionate fan base. While Hawk has always maintained that he doesn’t pay attention to such debate, his production in his first eight seasons certainly hasn’t been commensurate with being a top-5 pick.
Although he has been extremely durable (he’s played 137 of a possible 139 games, including playoffs, in his career), is well-respected by his teammates (he was voted one of the defensive playoff captains for the third time) and is the franchise’s all-time leader in tackles (his 1,025 surpassed popular John Anderson’s 1,020 registered from 1978 to 1989), he went two full seasons without a single turnover play (no interceptions or fumbles forced or recovered in 2011 and 2012) and often elicits grumbles from fans.
Even last season, when he had a career-high five sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and five pass breakups, analytics site Pro Football Focus gave him a minus-13.7 grade, the lowest of any defensive starter and far lower than in 2012, when he had a minus-2.2 grade despite making few plays.
“Hawk had a very strong start and he ended up with some very good numbers [last year]. Overall, I felt very good and very positive about him,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said last week. “We’re looking forward to what [he is] going to bring to the table this year. Hawk has looked outstanding, I think he’s in great shape, he has a great attitude right now. He’s really doing a good job managing what we’re asking him to do right now. He has a great focus about him right now and the guy is really showing his value just from a sense of veteran leadership, knowledge and poise and the ability to have that call command that we talk about a lot. He looks good.”
Of course, Hawk’s intangibles – he is the coaches’ most trusted player on defense – aren’t measurable, and some were surprised that the organization didn’t draft an inside linebacker, especially given the inconsistent play of Hawk’s running-mate, Brad Jones.
Instead, Hawk, who turned 30 in January, has two years left on the deal he restructured a year ago – he signed a five-year, $33.75 million deal in March 2011 but took a $7.5 million pay cut that reduced his base salaries to $2.45 million base salaries in 2014 and ’15 – and isn’t going anywhere.
“I try not to get caught up in the draft one way or another and how it’ll affect me, personally,” Hawk said. “I know (general manager) Ted Thompson says no matter what he’s going best available at position and whoever the best players are on the board. I don’t pretend to know anything about college guys coming out and what they’re trying to do.
“We feel really good about the guys we have in our inside ‘backer room now with the outside guys [in there] a lot, too. It’s good to get us all together. We have tons of playmakers throughout both those rooms. I feel really good about it.
“I’m having a good time. It’s been fun getting back on the field. I know [an OTA practice] isn’t real football, but we at least have our helmets on and we’re playing against an offense. That’s been fun so far. I love being around the guys. I always tried to learn the scheme more and learn everybody’s position on the field. It’s a constant battle for all of us to try to get better.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.