Kyler Fackrell paints a path to Packers

The 6-foot-5 linebacker is not your typical rookie. He's "a little bit of a novelty."

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It takes unwavering patience to be a decorative painter in Phoenix. There is craftsmanship in this work, more love than labor. Inside high-end homes, interior walls are a blank canvas. An artist slowly brings rooms to life. There are antique finishes. Metallic. Crackle. Stripes.

No matter the look, the pace becomes an ungodly crawl. In an eight-hour day, a decorative painter may use only one quart of paint.

That’s not the part of Daniel Crookston’s job that tests his patience most. Not really. Inside these homes, clients expect dust and fumes to be contained to one room. That means no air conditioning. Even in July.

“Yeah,” Crookston says, “summers suck. I mean, it gets pretty crappy.”

The summer of 2010 was when DC (Daniel Crookston) Decorative Painting — “super original,” Crookston jokes — expanded its budget just enough to hire one regular employee. It was a leap of faith for an entrepreneur rocked by the economic recession. Business was slow but steady. Crookston needed someone to be his “right-hand man.”

Artistic flare was of secondary concern. Job responsibilities included masking, prepping and lugging equipment. “Grunt labor,” Crookston calls it. More than anything, Crookston says, he needed a reliable employee he could entrust with his business.

“I’ve got to have somebody,” Crookston says, “that (homeowners) are not going to find a $10 bill sitting on the counter that suddenly disappears. I mean, I have to have complete trust.”

Crookston got a referral from his mother-in-law. Some kid from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where Crookston also attended. He had never met this fresh high school graduate, never bumped into him on a Sunday morning, but their mothers worked together at a doctor’s office. That was good enough for him.

Crookston gave Kyler Fackrell his first job. It paid $10 an hour and lasted 10 months, from June 2010 to April 2011. More than five years have passed. Fackrell went to college, graduated. He got married, had a daughter. He played football, had the game ripped away. In late April, Fackrell was hired for his second full-time job: outside linebacker with the Green Bay Packers.

This gig pays a bit more.

The journey from one employer to another was long, winding. No, Fackrell’s patience never wavered. More love than labor, but at times his road just sucked. Some years got pretty crappy.

***

Kyler Fackrell is not your typical rookie. Crookston calls him “a little bit of a novelty.” For so many reasons, he’s right.

When the Packers drafted him in the third round, there was no raucous party. Fackrell had a quiet celebration, home with his wife and young daughter. He is a family man first, always.

“They’re the motivation for everything I do,” Fackrell says.

In a sport that values youth, Fackrell arrived in Green Bay four years older than first-round pick Kenny Clark. He will turn 25 in November. On that day, Fackrell will be the same age as fourth-year left tackle David Bakhtiari.

His unusual age is the remnant of a career that started on a different path. There was no coaching brigade waiting to recruit Fackrell out of Mesa High, the fourth-largest high school in Arizona. Though he led Mesa to its first state championship game in 17 years, his only scholarship offer came from Utah State.

Profile: Kyler Fackrell at a glance

When Fackrell graduated, he was uncertain where his future would lead. He considered applying to go on a two-year LDS mission that could have sent him anywhere in the world, including his own neighborhood. It was his first adult decision, and Fackrell wanted time to choose wisely.

So he got a job.

“I knew even if I did end up going on a mission,” Fackrell says, “there was a little bit of time. So I wanted to do something working. That’s what I started doing, and then it ended up that I worked there for about a year.”

The Packers' rookie outside linebacker is built for painting. He is tall, standing 6-foot-5. Long arms. Big reach. Ladders are an optional tool.

This wasn’t about painting, though. Crookston needed the right personality. Someone who would work hard. Someone who was reliable. Someone who didn’t mind carrying equipment in the sweltering heat. Indoors or outdoors. With or without air conditioning.

Crookston first noticed Fackrell’s height — “definitely a bonus,” he says — but honesty and punctuality were the two most important job requirements.

“I don’t have time for somebody that’s not,” Crookston says, “and I didn’t have a big company to where you don’t notice little things like that. With a small company, if you have one employee and you’re waiting on him, then nothing happens.”

Plenty happened during those 10 months. Crookston estimates he and Fackrell painted 60 houses together. DC Decorative Painting was too small for an advertising budget. Clients mostly came through word of mouth.

No two jobs were ever the same, Crookston says. Some weeks, he and Fackrell would paint three or four houses. Other projects took a month.

Fackrell didn’t have a car at the time. His mother, Lori, dropped him off at the job site before work, or Crookston picked him up at home. They lived 25 miles apart, the distance between Mesa and Queen’s Creek, which isn’t very far in Arizona, where the world spreads out into an empty desert. Round trips weren’t much more than an hour, Crookston says.

Crookston doesn’t remember every project, but he says 95 percent of their work was indoors. Fackrell would tape off base boards, ceilings, cabinets. Crookston was a magician with a paint brush.

“I think I’ll be able to paint my own walls something uniformed,” Fackrell says. “He taught me a little bit using sponges and texturing the walls and stuff, but it definitely is an art. So it wasn’t me. It was mostly him, but it was interesting just to go through that whole process.

“We painted a lot of big, crazy, cool houses.”

Packers draft OLB Kyler Fackrell in 3rd round

An average day kept them within a 30-mile radius. Sometimes, they went abroad.

The furthest he took Fackrell was California.

They drove up together to one of those big, crazy, cool houses in Glendora, a Los Angeles suburb. It was a major job, demanding full-time service. Fackrell and Crookston lived inside the home for a week, sharing a roof with the owners.

“We got to know them pretty well,” Crookston says.

Sometime that week, Fackrell opened up about his future. He was at the intersection of life-changing decisions, still weighing whether to go on his LDS mission or accept a football scholarship to Utah State. At week’s end, the homeowners wrote a $100 check.

Use this if you go on your mission, they said.

A month after California, Crookston asked whatever happened to that check. Fackrell told him he hadn’t cashed it. That day, Crookston says, he learned two things.

Fackrell wasn’t going on his mission.

And the kid from his church was every bit as honest as his mother-in-law promised.

“I learned pretty quickly I could trust Kyler 100 percent,” Crookston says.

***

Fackrell kept working for Crookston. Kept taking jobs close to home. He was growing tired of Arizona. Restless.

“I just felt like I was kind of in no-man’s land,” Fackrell says.

Crookston remembers Fackrell was a “quiet” kid who didn’t talk much. Football was the one, constant topic. Clearly, Fackrell missed the game.

Crookston knew his employee could play. Really, though, he had no idea.

“I’ve had kids work for me,” Crookston says, “and I’ve had people tell me, ‘Yeah, I play football, I’m pretty good.’ Not that that was the language he used, but I didn’t realize it. I was like, ‘Yeah, a lot of people say they can play.’

“We didn’t have a lot of in-depth talks, but I knew that he had interest in playing college ball. I didn’t know he was as good as he is.”

Bill Busch had a clue.

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At the time, Busch was Utah State’s defensive coordinator. John Shea, Fackrell’s high school defensive coordinator, had been a graduate assistant with Busch at Northern Arizona in the mid-1990s. Shea thought Busch would be interested in Fackrell, an athletic, 215-pound safety, and he was right.

The more Busch researched, the more he liked. Fackrell excelled at everything. When he wasn’t playing football, he earned all-region honors in basketball and volleyball.

“He had the things you can’t coach,” Busch says, “and that was size, long arms. He was just an incredible athlete. The thing that stood out the most was a sixth sense with his athleticism. When he played other sports, in those different positions, you could tell he was just hooked up right.

“There was no doubt about it. He had it. I mean, some players have it, and some guys don’t. With him, it was always clear.”

Ten months was enough.

In the spring of 2011, Fackrell bet his future on football. He packed his bags and moved in with his uncle, who lives outside Salt Lake City. He got a part-time summer job at HandStands Warehouse, a receiving company that sold car fresheners. Fackrell unpacked pallets of boxes because he didn’t have his forklift registration.

His attention was focused on Utah State. Its campus sits in Logan, Utah, a mountain town 20 miles south of Idaho. Far from big cities. Even farther from college football’s spotlight.

Utah State recruits its region, so it’s common for them to sign players of the Mormon faith. With players arriving and leaving from LDS mission fields, scholarship numbers regularly fluctuate. Fackrell was recruited as a scholarship player, but he had to walk-on initially and wait a few months for a scholarship to become available.

In the meantime, Fackrell quickly impressed his new coaches. From afar, he spent the summer working in the Aggies’ weightlifting program. Fackrell would sip protein shakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to gain weight. When he arrived at Utah State, Fackrell says, he was 200 pounds.

Busch thought Fackrell might make a good tight end. When he pitched the idea in a coaches meeting, offensive assistants weren’t interested. Good, Busch thought. More talent for him. He placed Fackrell at outside linebacker and turned him loose.

“It worked out pretty good,” Busch says.

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After almost two full years away from the field, Fackrell remembers, he felt raw. Fackrell had never played full-time on the edge. He needed to master this craft, just as he learned how to hold a paintbrush. It didn’t take long.

Fackrell didn’t play his freshman season, though Busch says he “easily” could’ve contributed. He was surprised how quickly Fackrell learned his position. If he had rust, Busch thought, it didn’t show.

Really, though, Busch had no idea either. He didn’t foresee Fackrell becoming a legitimate NFL prospect, not in that first season. If he did, Busch reasons, Fackrell wouldn’t have used his redshirt.

Even Fackrell arrived in Logan with no grand expectations.

“I think the best attitude,” Fackrell says, “to go into college with is, ‘I need to get a degree out of it.’ Even if you know you’re going to the NFL, you want that degree. Because you’re not going to play football forever. I don’t know if I really thought or expected to be here at this point, but I think just as I kind of worked at it and tried to maximize the abilities that I have, it eventually came to where I am now.”

***

By 2014, Fackrell made his transition from decorative painting to NFL prospect. He had five sacks and 13 tackles for loss as a sophomore. Agents started introducing themselves the next summer.

Utah State started its 2014 season with a trip to Tennessee. It was a chance for Fackrell to showcase himself on a big stage. In the second quarter, it went horribly wrong.

A Tennessee player carried the football on the other side of the field. Fackrell tried to pursue, but a blocker grabbed his facemask and pads. When Fackrell planted his right leg to cut one way, the blocker yanked him another. His right knee “tweaked” when he stepped.

His knee barely hurt, Fackrell says. It felt loose more than anything. There was no swelling. Doctors examined Fackrell’s knee on the sideline and allowed him to return the next series.

Fackrell immediately recognized his knee wasn’t healthy enough to play. When he braced to take on a pulling guard, his right leg felt like it was stepping in quicksand. Fackrell left the game for good.

Two days later, he learned his ACL had been torn.

“It was kind of shock,” Fackrell says. “I really didn’t know how to react to it. We just went to work finding the right doctor to do the surgery.”

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Fackrell refused to buckle. This was the kid Crookston hired. No nonsense. Reliable. Fackrell could’ve sulked. Instead, he stayed patient.

If Fackrell had to take a break from the game, this was a good time. His wife, Elizabeth, was five months pregnant with their now-2-year-old daughter, Delaney. It was a rough pregnancy, as morning sickness goes. Nothing life threatening, Fackrell says, but Elizabeth was in and out of the hospital with dehydration.

Fackrell would’ve been preparing for the NFL combine when his daughter was born. The need to prepare for his family’s future would’ve pulled him away. Looking back, he calls the torn ACL a blessing in disguise.

Never, Fackrell says, did he doubt whether he still could reach the NFL.

“Absolutely,” he says. “I knew it was possible.”

Fackrell relived his past few years earlier this week after an organized team activities practice. His locker is between Julius Peppers and Nick Perry, two former first-round picks. Their paths are familiar to NFL fans. Blue-chip high school prospects. Big-time college football programs. Darlings of their draft.

No, Fackrell never took that route. His journey feels long, winding, even if he never doubted. He hopes to crack the Packers' outside linebacker rotation this fall. He hopes to contribute early as a pass rusher, because he knows he can.

Right now, during these OTAs, Fackrell will be happy to make a good first impression. Already, coaches have noticed.

“Smart guy,” Packers outside linebacker coach Winston Moss says. “Very conscientious. Really good guy. He’s going to work hard. He picks everything up quickly, athletic. He’s got ideal body type because he’s long and lean, and so he has that athleticism. He has smarts. It’s going to be interesting to continue to get him opportunities to see exactly what he can do, because so far he’s off to a good start.”

Listen closely, and Moss sounds a lot like Crookston and Busch, praising a hard-working kid whose patience brought him here, whose work ethic will do the rest.

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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