GREEN BAY – He couldn’t sit in his living-room recliner more than five minutes. Couldn’t stand up. Couldn’t wrestle his 5-year-old son.
At night, T.J. Lang tussled in bed, unable to relax. He rarely fell into deep sleep.
“My wife was getting really concerned,” Lang said. “It was miserable. I started to get to the point where I started to think, ‘How much longer can I do this? I can’t even sit down at home. I can’t even relax at home. I can’t sleep because I’m always uncomfortable. How am I going to play football?’”
Insomnia doesn’t work in the NFL. Lang, the Green Bay Packers' veteran right guard, didn’t have much choice. He lived in chronic discomfort earlier this season. His hips, with only 29 years of wear, felt like they belonged to an old man.
It’s a congenital issue Lang learned to live with. In a hallway between the locker room and team cafeteria, back resting against the wall, Lang rubbed his right fist into his left palm to illustrate. This, he said, is how healthy hips move in their joints. Fits like a glove.
Then Lang jutted his index knuckle like an inchworm, making a jagged point. This, he explained, rubbing fist into palm, is how Lang’s hips move in their joints. Imagine extending your body, exploding up through your legs, thrusting your hips to slam into a dummy sled.
Now imagine blocking a 320-pound defensive tackle.
For five, six years, Lang said, there would come a point in the season when his hips radiated pain. Usually they hurt by the end of training camp. Sometimes it started later in the fall. He would rest a day or two, let his body reset, and his hips felt normal again.
This year, for whatever reason, the pain never went away. Lang reportedly had a platelet-rich plasma injection to reduce inflammation, but his hips kept barking. It left him no other option.
One year after major offseason shoulder surgery — “a pain in the ass,” Lang called it — he’ll have an operation to clean up hip impingement. It’s similar to the surgery receiver Jordy Nelson had after the 2014 season, forcing him to miss the entire spring program.
Just how a 29-year-old right guard wants to enter free agency.
“It’s a pretty easy procedure,” Lang said. “I think there’s guys on the team, there’s former teammates I’ve had that have had the same procedure done. There’s buddies of mine throughout the league who have had the same procedure done. I’ve talked to a lot of those guys, and it’s pretty common.
“It’s nothing that would jeopardize my career or anything like that.”
No, this is just an offensive lineman’s reality. Welcome to life in the trenches. The greatest ability, they say, is availability.
In a locker room full of tough guys, Lang might be the toughest. “An absolute warrior,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers called him. Midway through this season, Lang had missed only two games in six years as a full-time starter. His body is a real-life Operation board game, lighting up like a Christmas tree, but Lang makes no excuses.
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Through sprained ankles, a strained calf, a sore neck, an aching back, two bad shoulders, wrist surgery, a torn elbow ligament, hip impingement and multiple concussions, the kid who grew up outside Detroit playing tackle football with no pads soldiered on.
He was having perhaps his best season through nine games this fall, creaky hips be damned. Lang nailed down a routine — including two-hour chiropractor sessions and limited practice reps — that recharged him each week.
“The good thing,” Lang said, “is I haven’t had any new injuries pop up.”
Famous last words.
Three days later, the Packers traveled to Tennessee. On the first play of their second drive, Lang broke his left foot. Doctors, Lang said, initially told him he’d miss six to eight weeks. His season could be over. Incredulous, Lang did what he always does.
He protested. He bargained. He begged.
He played 57 snaps four weeks later against the Seattle Seahawks, missing only three games.
“It doesn’t surprise me one bit,” center Corey Linsley said. “That’s T.J. We’ve said it over and over again. He’s a tough SOB. He’s a hell of a player. It didn’t surprise me one bit that he came back this quick. I don’t think it surprised anybody.”
‘I know the risks’
T.J. Lang is a throwback to another era. He fits somewhere between leather helmets and three yards and a cloud of dust, a time before injury reports.
In a league where stars are labeled divas, where more and more players end careers by their 30th birthday, Lang slants the other direction. The only time he has gotten in trouble this season, Lang said, was for practicing when he wasn’t supposed to. He shrugs, jogs to the end of the line, does one more rep.
It’s the kind of mutiny a coach can live with. Lang isn’t the only player who grits through injury. He just takes it to another level.
“T.J. is the ultimate old-school pro,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Back when Jerry Kramer filled right guard on the Packers depth chart, this was the expectation. Now, “rub some dirt on it” has been replaced with “next man up,” an understanding 16-game schedules are optional.
Not for Lang.
Snaps are his addiction. He can’t get enough.
“I know the risks of this game,” Lang said. “I know there’ll probably be some post-career pain or whatever it is, but I love this game. It’s the only thing I’m really good at. I just enjoy it. I’m well aware of studies, research that’s been done on former players, the risk we have not only when we’re playing but when we’re done.
“I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
He treats this job the same way he learned from his father. Thomas Lang, who died of lung cancer almost five years ago, started working fresh out of high school at the Department of Public Works in Ferndale, Mich. For almost 40 years, he showed up in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of health, to rake leaves, plow snow, sweep streets.
Lang carried the same lunch-pail mentality to the NFL. “A tough-ass, Catholic-school, Detroit kid,” was how offensive line coach Chris Symington described the player he molded at Eastern Michigan. No matter the hurdles, Lang shows up for work.
Some of his fiercest battles this season came in the training room. On more than one occasion, there have been arguments between player and medical staff. It started the first week of training camp, when Lang wanted to return from shoulder surgery. He told team doctors he was ready to go. The Packers instead put him on the physically unable to perform list.
They won. That time.
With Lang’s hips aching in early November, McCarthy planned to rest his veteran guard. He told reporters Lang would not participate in a Thursday practice.
That was news to Lang. He strapped on his pads, grabbed his helmet and showed up to the practice field anyway. This time, he wasn’t denied.
“I think the only times I’ve gotten yelled at this year,” Lang said, “is because I was practicing.”
He’s always been this way.
In the second game of his junior season, Lang sprained his medial collateral ligament. It was an injury that keeps most players out a couple weeks, but Eastern Michigan had Northern Illinois next on the schedule. Lang would be matched against Larry English, the Mid-American Conference’s top defensive player, in a showcase for NFL scouts.
The day after injury, Symington kept firing text messages.
“Kind of egging him on a little bit,” Symington remembered. “I said, ‘Larry is coming to town. He’s looking for you. Are you going to hide out in the training room?’ I was texting him, and after about six or seven of them, he just picks up the phone and calls me. He goes, ‘That’s enough. Stop. I’ll be there Saturday.’
“Sure enough, he did. I was shocked. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, man.' He went out and played and had a great game.”
Eastern Michigan beat Northern Illinois that Saturday. English didn’t have a sack. Two years later, he was drafted 16th overall. The Packers selected Lang in the fourth round.
Lang is still an NFL starter. English’s last season was 2014.
His longevity isn’t by accident. In college, Symington said, he could sense Lang was “on an absolute mission” to be drafted. Symington didn’t want Lang to be content just reaching the league.
One day, he pulled Lang aside.
“There’s a lot of things going on in the NFL,” Symington warned. “There’s a lot of politics, OK. You need to always live in fear, no matter what — how high you get (on the depth chart), how low you get — you always have to live in fear of losing your job. Because it can happen that fast in the NFL.”
‘Somebody was going to get hurt’
Lang wasn’t supposed to last a decade. He went to the wrong school. Started at the wrong position. Rose from obscurity.
Eastern Michigan, sitting in the shadow of Ann Arbor, exists on the opposite end of college football from the state’s namesake program. Lang arrived in Ypsilanti with no interest in playing offensive line. Like any player who craves violence, he wanted to hit quarterbacks.
So starting his freshman season, Symington had to recruit Lang off the defensive line. There was a void at offensive tackle, and Symington needed to fill it with someone who didn’t take days off.
Symington appealed to Lang’s desire for playing time. Why be on the field for 20 snaps, he would ask, when you can play 80? Why ever watch from the sideline at all? Lang resisted through spring ball, Symington said, but relented one month before the season.
Lang found a home on the offensive line. Off the field, Symington said, Lang was a 6-foot-4, 300-pounds-and-still-growing teddy bear. In the trenches, intense was an understatement.
Lang was nasty. Mean. An enforcer.
“He transforms himself when he crosses that white line,” Symington said. “You have to understand, he becomes a different person. Now when he goes back over that white line, he’s T.J. Everybody loves him, he’s a great guy, everybody wants to be around him. He’s always smiling. My kids would come by, and he would always hang out with them. Really, he’s just awesome.
“But all the sudden now, when he got on that field, it didn’t matter if it was practice or games. Somebody was going to get hurt.”
This season, Lang said, has been different. He’s had to balance ferocity with patience.
Lang remembers speaking last year with former teammate Josh Sitton, now with the Chicago Bears, about the challenge of playing each Sunday. A year ahead of Lang, Sitton often arrived at practice 20 minutes before others. He needed extra time to prepare his body, extra work in the weight room, extra trips to the training room.
Things Lang used to take for granted, he no longer can. Lang has consulted a chiropractor this season to work on his body alignment. He does dry needling for his hips and back.
Some weeks, Lang joked, it takes a heavy dose of energy drinks to play four quarters. Nothing crazy, he said. Just enough to “feel a little jolt” before kickoff.
“Hopefully,” Lang said, “I can play another five, six, seven years — as long as my body allows me to. Because it’s a unique game, and I love it. It’s a privilege to play this game.”
Lang said the chiropractor helped ease hip pain, though he still needs offseason surgery. Three weeks off the field brought more relief.
It also ushered in a new injury.
His foot isn’t healed yet. Again, Lang played through pain Sunday. It was going to take something much worse to keep him out.
For more than a week, Symington said, Lang told close friends he’d return against the Seahawks. The wonder is how the Packers medical staff kept him out so long. Lang said he was caught running on the treadmill a week before doctors cleared him to practice, just two weeks after breaking his foot. Another argument. More yelling. He didn’t care.
Determined to play against Seattle, Lang needed to test his foot. When he returned, not a single teammate was surprised.
“He’s such a warrior,” Rodgers said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with. The stuff that he’s dealt with over the years is remarkable. He doesn’t complain about it. He goes out there and plays and pushes through it. He’s a stud, and I’m really glad he’s protecting me.
“The example that he sets about pain management, I think, is great for all of us to see a guy like that, and know how much he deals with on a week to week basis.”
Lang gives the Packers a sharp edge. Opponents know they mess with him at their own peril. Two seasons ago, in a divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, Lang went one-on-three in a scuffle after the whistle.
Lang got the unnecessary roughness penalty.
His toughness is something the Packers might consider this offseason. Guards are replaceable. The identity Lang gives the Packers' offense is harder to find.
Because the question isn’t how T.J. Lang can keep playing football. It’s how anybody is going to stop him.
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