Drew Nowak can’t imagine what it will feel like when he steps onto Lambeau Field this Sunday.
For much of his 25 years, however, the De Pere High graduate visualized what it would be like to start an NFL game in front of his hometown crowd, playing against the team he grew up idolizing. It’s every kid’s dream and Nowak was no different.
It’s not just about nostalgia, though. When Nowak takes the field Sunday as the starting center of the Seattle Seahawks, it represents a lifetime of work he’s invested into making his NFL dream a reality.
Four years ago, he was the Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year at Western Michigan. Since signing as an undrafted free agent with Jacksonville in 2012, he’s spent two years on the practice squad, a year on injured reserve and converted to offensive line.
The journey has taken him all across the country, but it wasn’t until this week it finally brings him home.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said Nowak, the only Green Bay area native in the NFL. “When you’re a little kid and you say I want to play in the NFL, you dream of it, but you don’t know it’s going to happen. The way how this whole year has gone and getting this opportunity to start at Lambeau Field, the field I grew up watching, the team that I loved growing up. Nothing else can beat this.”
The game has changed. Nowak no longer is snapping to Redbirds all-conference quarterback Brent Jorgensen. These days, it’s his job to protect Seahawks’ franchise quarterback Russell Wilson and pave holes for all-pro running back Marshawn Lynch.
It’s taken a lot of sweat and sacrifice to get to this point and not just on Nowak’s behalf. Last summer, perhaps the craziest weekend of his life unfolded hours after he was notified that he hadn’t made the Jaguars’ 53-man roster.
There was an offer on the table to sign with Seattle’s practice squad, but it meant taking a quick cross-country flight out of town. It left his wife, Maria, to pack up the apartment and drive his belongings back to Green Bay.
“That definitely was pretty tough to do by herself,” Nowak said. “Her mom came down and helped her a little bit. It definitely was a struggle to get all that stuff sent back up north.”
With most of Nowak’s belongings in storage in Green Bay, his uncle, Jeff, picked up his truck and made the 46-hour commute to Seattle. Earning $6,300 per week on the practice squad, Nowak had to digest a new playbook and continue his transition to the offensive line.
Nowak spent the entire year on the Seahawks’ practice squad. He was on hand for the celebration when Seattle rallied to beat the Packers 28-22 in overtime in the NFC title game and was there when the Seahawks’ season ended in disappointment at the Super Bowl.
This offseason, Nowak walked into a golden opportunity to earn a roster spot when Seattle traded veteran center Max Unger to New Orleans in the trade to acquire all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham. He worked out at LeCharles Bentley’s O-line Performance in Scottsdale, Ariz., to ready for the competition.
A rare left-handed snapper, Nowak eventually beat out veteran Lemuel Jeanpierre and former Packer Patrick Lewis for the Seahawks’ starting job. His parents, who traveled to all of his games at Western Michigan, were on hand for all four preseason games and his first regular-season start in St. Louis.
The family has a suite at Lambeau Field and a basement filled with Packers’ paraphernalia, but Nowak’s mom already has established the ground rules for this weekend.
“She said if you come in the box, you have to wear Seahawks’ gear,” said Nowak, laughing.
The Seahawks were intrigued by Nowak’s athleticism, intelligence and ability to quickly pick up center. It’s a position coach Pete Carroll, general manager John Schneider (also a De Pere native) and offensive line coach Tom Cable felt Nowak had a future at when he first signed last September.
After successfully converting J.R. Sweezy to the offensive line, the Seahawks made the 6-foot-3, 292-pound lineman their newest project. So far, they like what they see.
“He’s a pretty extraordinary player,” Carroll said on Wednesday. “He’s really smart and his competitiveness makes him work and grind to get it right, and get it done. He has so much room to improve as he grows with the position.
“He’s well ahead of a couple of the guys we’ve been through this with because he’s such a bright player. So we’re going to keep going with him and see how fast he can come along.”
Nowak is expecting so many friends and family at Lambeau Field this Sunday that he can’t fashion a guess as to how many tickets have been circulated. It took a village to get him to this point of his career and few want to miss it.
In Seattle, Nowak and his wife are renting a furnished apartment in case they have to pack up again at moment’s notice. After earning the Seahawks’ starting job, Nowak hopes it’s the first step toward finally settling down.
“Honestly, it’s hard to sit down and think about it because we’re so busy and I need to focus on the stuff here,” Nowak said. “But sometimes I think about where I’ve come from and how hard it was to get to this point. I know there’s more to come, though. I’m not just here, that’s it. There’s definitely more of a mountain to climb. I hit one of the peaks, but there’s more to go.”
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.