Here he was, the same guy who had started as an 18-year-old true freshman at the University of Iowa. The same guy who'd become the youngest player in NFL history to start a Super Bowl when he was a 21-year-old rookie first-round pick protecting the guy who was emerging as football's next great quarterback. The same guy who, from the moment he'd set foot in the Green Bay Packers' locker room in 2010, had carried himself like a veteran -- a younger, fitter and slightly less comedic version Mark Tauscher, the pro's pro he'd go on to replace.
And now, the veteran right tackle was wondering what the hell was wrong with him.
“It’d been a year and a half since I’d gotten on the field and actually competed against somebody else not on our own team,” Bulaga said, trying to explain just what he had felt in the visitors’ locker room at LP Field as he prepared for the preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans on Aug. 9. “It was a little nerve-racking.
“But I loved it.”
When Bulaga takes his first snap Thursday night against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, it will have been an astonishing 669 days since his last regular-season play. And wouldn’t you know it, it’ll be back at the scene of the worst game of his pro career, when he allowed two quarterback sacks, one hit and a whopping eight hurries according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. If that game wasn’t remembered for the way it ended with the controversial “Fail Mary” touchdown, it’d be remembered for how much the normally unflappable Bulaga struggled with the noise and the Seahawks’ pass rushers.
“I think Bryan needs to go back to Seattle,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said – quite unexpectedly – on Tuesday. “Just like we all do. We want to go up there and win the football game. But it is the first game of the 2014 season. Bryan, specifically, I think he’s getting ready to play his best football. He’s 15 pounds heavier. He’s in great shape. He’s coming off of the season last year with the injury. I think he looks great.”
For his part, Bulaga is adamant that there has been no life-changing, come-to-Football Jesus awakening for him following two season-ending injuries -- a freak hip injury suffered on Nov. 4, 2012 against the Arizona Cardinals, and a torn anterior cruciate ligament he still can't believe he damaged during the annual Family Night Scrimmage last summer -- and that, truth be told, he'd always gotten a tiny bit anxious on game day, dating back to his days at Marian Central Catholic High School in the Chicago suburb of Woodstock, Ill.
But this, this was different.
“You look at him and how the past couple years have gone, and man, he’s just so excited to be back to full health and be on the field with us,” said right guard T.J. Lang, who this season is lining up next to his good friend -- their intense NHL allegiances (Bulaga for the Chicago Blackhawks, Lang for his hometown Detroit Red Wings) be damned -- for the first time this season. “I think he looks better than he has in the past.
“It’s great to have him back, man. He’s such a big part of what we do up front. I think he’s probably in the best position he’s been in in the last five years, mentally and physically. It’s great to have him back out there.”
Last year, Bulaga was supposed to shift to the only offensive line spot they make movies about -- left tackle. The coaches had reshuffled the deck, moving both Bulaga and All-Pro guard Josh Sitton to quarterback Aaron Rodgers' blind side, shifting Lang to right guard and holding an open competition for Bulaga's old right tackle job.
Then, his time at left tackle was over before it even really started. He felt a twinge in his knee at the end of an Eddie Lacy running-play pileup on Family Night, and even though he was doing one-legged squats on it in the weight room the next day and foolishly insisting that he thought he could still play with a torn ACL, he was done.
Surgery followed. Then, despair. Bulaga won't go so far as to call it depression -- "Down," is all he will say -- but whatever you call it, it was excruciating.
After rehab sessions, he'd text his linemates to check in, but he still felt disconnected. He'd spent some of his recovery working out in Florida, but the sunny skies didn't help his disposition.
“I don’t think I was depressed. You just get down,” Bulaga said. “It sucks, watching. Obviously, I support all the guys in here. When I’d get done rehabbing, I’d text them every week, check in, see how they’re doing, but it sucks to sit on your couch on Sunday and watch. That wasn’t fun. I wouldn’t say depressed. It just … sucked. It just sucked. It’s great to be back, that’s for sure.”
While rehabbing at IMG Academy, Bulaga actually dropped his weight to around 300 pounds. Having played at 315 most of his NFL career, he said he’s not weighing in at 320, which he believes is perfect.
“We cut a lot of weight just to take stress off that knee when I [was] rehabbing, when I [was] running,” Bulaga explained. “Once I got to a point where I was totally comfortable and pain-free in the knee, then we started slowly putting the weight back on. It really just got to a point to where I had a number and once we hit that number and my body felt good with it, we just stayed there. … I’m totally comfortable with where I’m at.”
And the Packers are comfortable with where he is in his comeback. While Bulaga admits there’s “still rust to knock off,” the coaches are pleased with his progress.
“He’s a better player than he was [two years ago]. He’s stronger, he’s bigger,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “He has improved every week — from training camp to last week [against Kansas City], even though he did not play.
“I’m proud as heck of him. Shoot, you come off of that [hip injury] and then get nailed with something two years in a row and you come back and you’re performing back to the level you were playing early in camp and now you’re exceeding those levels? Heck, yeah, I’m proud of him.”
Bulaga’s biggest challenge physically has been playing on the right side again, where he pushes off his left leg in pass protection. Although he feels no soreness in the knee, he admits he’s had to re-train his brain to be confident in that movement. If that’s an issue, his teammates haven’t seen it affect him.
“Bryan’s a very consistent guy,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com Tuesday. “I’m glad to have Bryan back. He’s a talented guy, he’s a lot of fun to be around and he knows how to play right tackle really well. We expect him to play well.”
So does Bulaga himself. Although he said he is focusing on having a healthy, productive season and not worrying about the fact that this is also the final year of his contract, he does need to play well to bring more certainty to his future.
“I’m just playing football,” Bulaga said. “I’m worried about improving, making sure when we kick off [against Seattle] that I’m comfortable with doing my job. Everything else will take care of itself. I don’t look into that stuff. It’s out of my mind. It’s not there. I just worry about football.”
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.