GREEN BAY, Wis. – Bryan Bulaga isn’t old.
It only might seem like it because it was eight years ago when he was picked in the NFL draft and finished the season as the youngest player ever to start in the Super Bowl.
Now, several knee surgeries later, including one on his left ACL before the 2013 season, he’s getting asked how long he can keep up the process.
The Crystal Lake native, who graduated from Marian Central, has attacked his right ACL rehab during the offseason, and he seems set on beginning the season in the Green Bay Packers’ starting lineup when they host the Bears on Sept. 9.
That will be 10 months after his injury.
And getting back in that short time frame – the typical timeline is a year – has driven him through the process.
“First time through, you’re worried about the knee physically, and you’re mentally going through it,” Bulaga said after Monday’s practice, his second of training camp where he went through full team drills. “This time, it wasn’t as much worry about the physical aspect of it as it is mentally having to repeat the process.”
And that process starts at the beginning. After surgery, which put a new graft in his knee in place of the old ligament, he had to learn to walk again. Then to move.
To go through that process again, the 6-foot-5 right tackle dropped about 20 pounds to reach 296.
Then, day after day, he fought through the pain to do the rehab work he needed to so that he would be prepared to be ahead of schedule and compete in training camp.
It’s something his coaches and teammates only can applaud.
“Bryan stayed right here,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen recently told the media. “He didn’t take his vacations and do the things he would normally do.
“Ultimately, it’s the player’s responsibility to get well … but the trainers did a good job, too.”
That part he’s done. Bulaga said he feels great, he’s working through the process taking on more and more in practice, and he could play in live action as soon as Thursday’s preseason game or next week’s Friday night game against the Oakland Raiders.
Bulaga doesn’t have much to say on his timeline other than he’s ready to take on what the doctors and coaches are willing to let him take on. But he worked to get here to play when the season starts.
“It’s not long until we kick off against Chicago,” Bulaga said. “There’s also a personal sense of pride in [rehab] – wanting to be here for your teammates, doing your job and helping your team win. I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Bulaga started adding weight to transition from rehab to playing – beginning with 2 pounds a week starting in late March – and he now is back at 314 pounds.
“It felt good to be under 300 pounds, I’m not going to lie,” Bulaga said.
Now it’s a matter of how well his body can hold up. Bulaga said he isn’t concerned, and he feels he’s in great shape. If his left knee – which caused him to miss all of the 2013 season after a preseason ACL tear – is any indication, he has the ability to recover quickly and fully.
“My left knee, which I’ve had a couple surgeries on, that feels great,” Bulaga said. “I haven’t had any issues with that thing, which [the] doc kind of looks on as a modern-day miracle.”
As for how long he can keep doing this, Bulaga is under contract with the Packers through the end of next season. But he’s nowhere near ready to think about how long he can play.
“I think I can continue to go for as long as I feel like I can do my job at a high level,” Bulaga said. “When you feel like you can’t do that, that’s when you have to take a look in the mirror. I really don’t feel that. I feel like, when I’m healthy and I’m out there doing my job, I’m doing it. … I’d like to think of myself as doing it at a level as high as any right tackle in the league.”
The game has changed. His team’s offense has changed, progressively, and opposing players have changed. It’s all about adjusting.
“You’ve got to keep up with the guys coming in,” Bulaga said. “When you finally can’t do that, you’ve got to take a look in the mirror and go, ‘Am I more of a liability than I can help the team?’
“That’s not really in my thought process right now. I feel good where I’m at.”