CRYSTAL LAKE – Bryan Bulaga watched former Green Bay linemates Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton reach the end of the NFL road in the last two years.
Tauscher was released in 2011, Clifton in 2012. While neither officially announced they were retired, neither has played since. Their departures from the Packers, along with the most serious injury of Bulaga’s still-young professional career, hammered home the harsh reality of NFL life.
“You kind of know this game doesn’t last forever,” said Bulaga, a 2007 Marian Central graduate. “There’s only so much your body can take after so many years of pounding from high school to the pro level. It’s all about ‘How you can keep your body healthy as long as possible?’ ”
Bulaga suffered a small fracture in his left hip in Week 9 against the Arizona Cardinals. It was a non-contact injury, as Bulaga lost his balance and caught himself awkwardly on the left side. After a couple anxious weeks, doctors determined Bulaga’s injury would not need surgery and learned he should heal well and not experience long-term problems.
Bulaga is back in Crystal Lake for the weekend with his fiancée, Abbie Mumpower, and their two Bullmastiffs – 2-year-old Cammie and 5-month-old Oliver. On Friday morning, he was at one of his favorite spots, Marian Central’s Don Penza Strength Center, for a workout. He loves lifting there and occasionally Hurricanes’ players will get to lift with the Packers right tackle.
“I’m very comfortable here. [Offensive coordinator] Dirk [Stanger] can let me in anytime,” Bulaga said. “[Superintendent] Mr. [Tom] Landers and [principal] Mr. [Chuck] Rakers are comfortable with me being here, doing what I do. I don’t bother anybody. I stick in here, do my work and get out. I’m not really a health-club guy, I’m more of a hole-in-the-wall, small-weightroom type of guy. That’s just who I am.”
Doctors have not completely cleared Bulaga to resume all his normal workouts, but he is close. Bulaga is lifting, he has regained full range of motion and has been running on an anti-gravity treadmill, which produces an air bubble from the feet to waist and reduces the pressure the athlete feels on his or her joints. Bulaga says he can run with 65 percent of his body weight and still get a good cardiovascular workout.
Bulaga, who turns 24 on March 21, was the 23rd pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and after his rookie season became the youngest player (21 years, 322 days) to start in a Super Bowl. Before his 22nd birthday, Bulaga had earned a Super Bowl ring.
Bulaga hopes to play another decade in the NFL and has learned a lot about taking care of his body so that might happen. He utilizes chiropractic, massages and other helpful therapies.
“I’m doing everything I can to make my body bounce back, day-to-day,” he said. “I’m trying things now to see how my body responds, so when I get into the season I know what I can fall back on.”
Bulaga appreciates the approach that Packers strength coach Mark Lovat takes. Bulaga says he does not do extra-heavy squats anymore, but works with lower weights and more repetitions. He says Lovat feels players can save their joints and get as much benefit.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve done a squat at 400 pounds,” Bulaga said. “This goes against what all high school coaches are saying, but I’m not going to do sets of three for 495 pounds, that’s not functional. When you’re in college and you’re trying to improve guys and get them bigger and stronger, that’s what you do. When you’re in the NFL, and you’re trying to prolong guys’ careers, you do everything that is functional to the job they do.”
This is a big offseason for Bulaga. Along with the rehabilitation, he and Mumpower will be married in Milwaukee in July. He will have his brother Bill, Stanger, Patrick Noonan and Devin Kusek as his groomsmen.
“When I was here, I made a lot of relationships that have lasted a long time,” Bulaga said. “I consider those guys as family. I even turned Patrick into a Packers fan [from Bears]. I switched him to the good side.”