Emotions raw as Packers bid Sitton farewell

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY – It was the weekend before football season, his last chance to go home. So Friday morning, David Bakhtiari boarded the first flight out of Green Bay. He was going to Denver and wouldn’t return until Sunday night.

There was no sign his weekend would be ruined. No phone call, no text. Scrolling through Twitter on Saturday afternoon, the Green Bay Packers left tackle saw what he thought had to be a false report.

That’s how Bakhtiari  learned the left guard who lined up beside him for 51 games was gone. By day’s end, Josh Sitton was released from the Packers.

“I didn’t really believe it,” Bakhtiari said at his locker Monday, emotions still raw. “I had no idea. I flew out to Denver. I was hanging out with my buddies, enjoying my weekend off. Once the news broke, I was like, ‘What?’ That’s why I had to jump on the flight back right away.

“Literally that next hour, I changed my flight, canceled my hotel. Just texted him, 'I’m coming back.’”

Right guard T.J. Lang might have been one of the first to know. He spent seven seasons as Sitton’s teammate, combining to form what many considered the NFL’s best guard tandem. They became best friends, brothers.

There were many pranks over the years. Sitton frequently joked about being released, traded, even retiring. Lang never believed him, of course. Sitton was the offensive line’s pulse. No way would the Packers unload him.

So when Sitton texted he was about to be released Saturday, there was only one natural reaction. “Yeah,” Lang replied, “me too.” It was another joke.

“Then talked back and forth a little bit,” Lang said, “and I called him on the phone and didn’t really get the sense he was joking. His wife was talking with my wife, and it kind of became real then. I don’t want to sit here and act like I’m looking for sympathy. I felt bad. We all felt crappy. I knew he probably felt even worse. I mean, he loved it here. He wanted to be here. He wanted to finish his career here. That was obviously tough news for him.

“I had to remind myself that it’s not like he’s dead. That’s kind of how it felt. You’re kind of grieving about it, but it’s not like he’s dead. He’s still a phone call away. He’s still one of my best friends.”

The mood Monday afternoon could be boiled down to one word: disbelief. Not since receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL last preseason was the Packers' locker room such a solemn place. From lineman to lineman, devastation was written on faces.

Naturally, guards, tackles and centers will miss Sitton most. They aren’t the only ones.

“He made me better,” defensive end Mike Daniels said, recalling their practice battles. “He’s just a really good football player. When you’re going against a very good football player every day, when you’re a rookie and you’re going against him, your first game experience is like, ‘Oh, wow, the guy I see every day (in practice) is much better than this.’ Every other guard in comparison is like, ‘Oh yeah, well he ain’t Josh.’

“That guy made me better. I think he made all of us up front better. He’s a heck of a player. He’s a great dude. I’m going to miss him, but it’s just the league.”

Lang and Sitton were scheduled to become free agents after this season. On Monday, Lang confirmed a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin report he and Sitton were told their contract negotiations would be put on hold. First, Lang said, general manager Ted Thompson wanted to rework younger players’ contracts during the season. Bakhtiari and center J.C. Tretter are also scheduled to become free agents this spring.

It wasn’t easy to hear, Lang said, but he never noticed Sitton become a malcontent.

“I think the reports of that causing any tension in the building were false,” Lang said. “Josh and I both got that news the same day. Obviously, we were a little disappointed. It’s not the news anybody wants to hear, but once we kind of took a day to kind of get past it, we moved on and we got back to how we normally go about business.”

If there was no dust-up over stalled contract negotiations, perhaps the only explanation could be Sitton’s play on the field.

Yes, he was a second-team All-Pro each of the past three seasons. Sitton built a reputation as one of the NFL’s best guards. It was no surprise the Bears signed Sitton to a three-year, $21.5 million contract with $10 million guaranteed one day after the Packers released him.

Bakhtiari acknowledged “different people” might have varying perspectives on Sitton’s performance. Some, he said, could conclude the left guard slipped. As the tackle who lined up beside him every snap, Bakhtiari thought his 30-year-old teammate played at an All-Pro level.

But the business of the NFL yields to nobody. That, Bakhtiari said, was what this weekend reminded him.

Bakhtiari returned to Green Bay in time to say goodbye. They reminisced briefly. A day later, Sitton joined the Chicago Bears.

They texted throughout Monday, Bakhtiari said. They’ll always stay in contact. But he’ll miss Sitton’s locker being next to his. He'll miss their combo blocks.

Mostly, Bakthiari will miss his friend.

“It was sad,” Bakhtiari said. “I mean, he’s a great player, but he’s even a better friend, honestly. I consider him one of my best friends. So it was tough, letting him go. But the timing was harder now, and just a reminder that it’s a business.

“It was just a healthy reminder that you can never lose sight of it.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton (71), tackle David Bakhtiari (69) and tackle Bryan Bulaga (75) during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field.
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