GREEN BAY – Carmine’s Steak House is on the corner of Fourth Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown St. Louis, just a few blocks away from Busch Stadium. Henceforth, it shall also be known as the place where David Bakhtiari finally acted his age.
Until the night of Aug. 16, the Green Bay Packers rookie fourth-round pick had been virtually unflappable since Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury had thrust him into the starting lineup at left tackle. If folks expected the kid to freak out at the prospect of protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside all season long, starting with Sunday’s regular-season opener at San Francisco, they were disappointed.
“I try not to think about that,” Bakhtiari explained repeatedly, including on Wednesday of this week as a crowd descended upon him at his locker. “I just try to think about my job and what I have to do and try to perform at the highest level I can and to the best of my ability.”
Only 21 years old, Bakhtiari hadn’t carried himself like a rookie, whether it had been with his play (left guard Josh Sitton, who’s not the easiest guy to impress, says he’s “fully confident in him”), or with his intellect (offensive line coach James Campen can’t get over how Bakhtiari had only one – one! – mental error during the eight installations of the offensive playbook), or with his dealings with the local media, which has worn the cordial kid out with marathon Q&A sessions at his locker while his linemates play backgammon and heckle him nearby.
But then came the night before the team’s second preseason game, against the St. Louis Rams. With the roster still at 90 players, Rodgers gathered the 13 offensive linemen who made the trip and took them to Carmine’s. At some point between the toasted ravioli and other appetizers and the main course, Rodgers snuck away from the table to find their server, asking him to dummy up a fake bill to give to the rookie at the end of the night.
When it arrived, Bakhtiari saw the total – north of $11,000 – and did just what he’s done all summer long: He made sure he didn’t flinch.
“I know you have to pay (as a rookie), I just didn’t know how much. I kind of thought that was the norm, so I just went with it,” Bakhtiari said in a break in his preparations for the 49ers. “But I told the guys, ‘Look guys, I’m paying for this, but I am done. There is nothing else (this season) you’re going to make me pay for. That is a lot of money.’” (In case you’re curious, the four-year, $2.6 million contract Bakhtiari got as a fourth-round pick included a $433,312 signing bonus.)
The server took Bakhtiari’s credit card, then returned a short time later with the news that it had been declined because the bill exceeded his $10,000 limit. Bakhtiari pulled out a second card, with the same result.
“He thought the bill for 13 people would be $11,000,” Rodgers said with a smirk. “He's got a lot to learn.”
Finally, Bakhtiari suggested splitting the bill 50/50 on each card, and when that didn’t work and panic started setting in, Rodgers’ decided he’d suffered enough.
“Hook, line and sinker, man. It was hilarious,” said Dan Farber, the manager at Carmine’s who was among Rodgers’ co-conspirators. “’Sir, we can’t accept this card.’ It was funny. They got him – good.”
Now, though, the Packers are hoping that’s the last time anyone gets the best of him. They know that won’t be the case – no matter how mature-beyond-his-years the kid is, there will be growing pains – but starting with the 49ers Aldon Smith and continuing throughout the season, there will be weekly threats to the health of the $110 million quarterback who eventually picked up the dinner tab that night.
“I try not to think about that,” Bakhtiari said of having the safety of the league’s highest-paid player riding on him. “I just try to think about my job and what I have to do and try to perform at the highest level I can and to the best of my ability.
“I’m confident where I am, but by no stretch am I at a place where I can be complacent and with where I am. I know there’s a big hill I have to go up. This is just the beginning. But I’m happy with where I’m at right now.”
So are the Packers.
“When you come in as a rookie, your thought process is so big. Now he’s just starting to hone in on different things and shrinking the thoughts in his head about what he sees and calls to make,” Campen explained. “He’s starting to really take his fundamentals and put them into places where they can be applicable. That’s something that he’s done very well and done very fast as a rookie.
“He’s a lot like Bryan – real cerebral. It’s a testament to him because he studies, he works. He’s a guy that asks questions. He’ll always pick the brain of the guy next to him. Using Bryan Bulaga as an example, he was 21 when he had to go and start playing. They’re very similar. He’s very serious about his approach and he’s very serious in every aspect of it.”
He’ll also face a serious challenge in Smith and the tackle-end stunts the 49ers like to run. That will require Bakhtiari and Sitton to work well in concert, which Sitton believes they will do.
“I’ve got confidence in him. He’s still not 100 percent there, but he’s known what he’s doing the majority of the time. And that’s half the battle,” said Sitton, who played in his first Pro Bowl last season. “That’s why a lot of young guys have issues. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t play fast. If you can play fast, then obviously you’re going to put yourself in better positions to win.
“There’s always going to be bad moments out there. That’s part of this game. We play against good players. That’s part of football. But he’s put himself in a situation to be successful by coming in, working his ass off and knowing the playbook. That’s the most important thing. He’s got the physical tools, he’s got the athletic ability, he’s got real long arms, he’s got the quickness and the feet. I’m fully confident in him.”
While Bakhtiari again acted his age when asked about his emotions leading up to the game – “It’s going to be so awesome,” he replied excitedly, “I can’t wait” – the expectation is that he’ll be his mature self once he settles in after kickoff Sunday.
“He’ll have some challenging moments but the thing about that is he gets out of that and moves onto the next play,” Campen said. “That’s the most important thing for him to do. He’ll be challenged; obviously; that’s a great football player that he’s going against. He’ll see something a little bit different, but it’s our job to make sure he sees everything. We’ve been working on what we have on tape and what we expect. I expect him to play well.”
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.