A familiar nervousness will visit Bryan Bulaga today before kickoff against the Bears.
Adrenaline will flow. Butterflies will flutter. Thoughts will buzz.
Anything less would be a real cause for concern.
“That’s how I always play,” said Bulaga, 23, who grew up in Crystal Lake and starred at Marian Central. “I play with nervous energy. I think that keeps you sharp and it keeps you aware, and that’s how I’ve always been through high school, college and now here.”
By refusing to relax, Bulaga has continued to improve.
In his third season, Bulaga has emerged as one of the Green Bay Packers’ youngest veterans. Today will mark his 30th regular-season game since the Packers selected him in the first round out of Iowa in 2010, and during that time he has developed from a quiet rookie into a trusted starter.
In August, Pro Football Weekly named Bulaga to its 2012 “All-Underrated Team”.
“A very nice player who goes below the radar unfairly,” the publication said.
Yet Bulaga’s progress has not gone unnoticed by Packers coach Mike McCarthy. The Packers rotate game captains each week, and Bulaga was selected as the offensive captain alongside teammates B.J. Raji (defense) and Brett Goode (special teams) before Green Bay’s home preseason opener Aug. 16 against the Cleveland Browns.
“Bryan’s grown in his role in leadership,” McCarthy said. “He’s also blossomed as a player.
“I think he’s had a great offseason. He was here in Green Bay the whole time, so he’s a lot stronger, a more physical player. He’s definitely taking on more of a leadership role.”
When Bulaga arrived to Green Bay, he joined a veteran group of linemen that included Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher and Scott Wells. All three players have departed, but Bulaga has jelled with linemates such as Marshall Newhouse, T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday and Josh Sitton.
The group will be responsible today for keeping Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers upright against the Bears’ pass rush, which includes defensive ends Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and Shea McClellin. In addition to pass blocking, Bulaga also will be asked to clear lanes as a run blocker for Cedric Benson and others in the Packers’ backfield.
Although Bulaga’s responsibilities have not changed, his comfort level has.
“I think the experience has helped my game out tremendously,” Bulaga said. “It’s just one more year of awareness, understanding our scheme, understanding defenses better and being able to play fast and worry-free football.”
Kathi Bulaga said her son’s progress mirrored his development at Marian and Iowa.
“That’s typically how Bryan works,” Kathi Bulaga said. “His first year, he sits back, sees how things work, listens to the older guys and kind of gets a feel for where his place is. And then as his confidence grows and he adjusts to the system, his leadership comes out.”
So do his pregame jitters.
Bulaga will not feel as calm before kickoff as, say, when he proposed to his girlfriend in July. He and Abbie met as students at Iowa and dated for almost five years before he popped the question a few days before the start of training camp in Green Bay.
Games are tough to predict. Seasons are almost impossible to forecast.
By comparison, asking for Abbie’s hand in marriage turned out to be no sweat.
“I kind of expected her to say yes,” Bulaga said with a chuckle.
If all goes well, the couple will be able to enjoy life in Green Bay for many years to come.
“It felt like home since Day 1,” Bulaga said. “That’s one thing about Green Bay. You can really settle in and get used to the culture up here. It’s a lot like it is in Crystal Lake or Iowa City, so that’s why it’s been such an easy transition.”
His family could not be happier for his success.
“Everything is really falling into place for him,” Kathi Bulaga said. “As a parent, that’s all you could ask is that your children are happy and successful and living their dream.
“All three of our children are. It’s just that Bryan is more in the spotlight.”