GREEN BAY – Right now, Aaron Ripkowski could be on a battleship somewhere in the world. An officer in the United States Navy. Two years into a minimum five-year commitment.
It’s the life he expected. Leaving high school, Ripkowski was ready to follow the “family tradition.” Twelve great uncles, Ripkowski said, served in the military. He grew up hearing stories from Vietnam, Korea and World War II.
So when his only Division I scholarship out of Dayton, Texas — population 7,000 — came from the Naval Academy, yes, Ripkowski knew what he was getting into. He preferred Oklahoma, where he could walk on. But free education is persuasive.
Ripkowski didn’t want Mom and Dad paying for college. If it meant keeping their son home, Mom and Dad didn't mind.
“I had my heart set on going there,” Ripkowski said, “but my parents talked me out of it. I didn’t want them to have to fund me being a walk-on at Oklahoma. So I initially planned on going to the Naval Academy, even though I loved Oklahoma.
“They changed my mind, and I think I made the correct choice.”
It’s a choice that led him here.
Ripkowski stands inside the Green Bay Packers' locker room, back turned to a giant G on the floor. Soon, he’ll play in his first playoff game at Lambeau Field.
In a league where the fullback position is dying — everywhere but Green Bay, it seems — the Packers might not have made it this far without theirs. The quietest Pro Bowl alternate in their locker room is a perfect caricature for the position.
The earth-cratering touchdown spikes. The no-nonsense stare. Even his nickname: Rip.
(Other suitable pseudonyms: Ripper, Ski, or maybe The Big Ripkowski.)
He is all arms when he walks, a former Texas powerlifting state champion who deadlifted 650 pounds … in high school. In college, he hit someone so hard covering a kickoff the force broke a bone … in Ripkowski's back.
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Ripkowski started growing a beard when training camp started. It's more of a lion's mane now. He hasn’t trimmed it since quarterback Aaron Rodgers mentioned running the table.
“The playoff beard,” Ripkowski called it. “I’ve never had it this long. I’m trying to keep everything the same. Not trimming it until the fat lady sings.”
Fullbacks aren’t supposed to personify a football team. In Green Bay, it’s custom.
That era appeared over this fall. John Kuhn was gone after nine seasons as Rodgers’ security blanket. “A legend,” Ripkowski called his predecessor. A sixth-round pick in 2015, Ripkowski was one giant unknown.
Teams can win without a fullback — it happens everywhere else — but for a decade part of the Packers' charm was having a ripsnorter behind their quarterback.
Over the years, Kuhn carried the Packers' running game at times. This season, his protégé stepped right in. Ty Montgomery’s transition from receiver to tailback excited fantasy owners. From Week 1 to Week 17, Ripkowski was the only consistency in the Packers' backfield.
Down in New Orleans, Kuhn sometimes checked out Packers film. Just keeping tabs.
The legend was impressed.
“It gives me flashbacks,” Kuhn said, “seeing what they’re doing this year. Because they have been struck with the injury bug at running back a little bit, especially early on in the season. What they’ve allowed him to do reminds me of what they allowed me to do back in 2010, which is get out there and do some things in subpackages.
“So it’s kind of funny to see him doing exactly what I used to do."
‘A silent attacker’
His college coach is shocked. Not because Ripkowski is earning his NFL keep. Cale Gundy knew anyone with this much brute strength, special-teams aptitude and blocking skill could sustain a pro career.
The Oklahoma running backs coach had no idea — none — Ripkowski could carry the football. And Gundy knows how to identify talent. He coached Adrian Peterson.
Ripkowski played right guard, defensive end and linebacker at Dayton High. Put another way, he hit people. Hard.
When he arrived at Oklahoma, the program was loaded with capable tailbacks. Ripkowski’s job was to open holes, not run through them. He had six carries in four seasons.
Three were for touchdowns.
“They were all on the goal line,” Gundy said. “When you’ve got guys like we’ve had around here who can carry the ball, the running backs that we’ve had and then a guy like him who can get people out of the way for those guys to carry the ball, you typically don’t want to trade spots.
“We just knew he was one hell of a blocker.”
From Oklahoma, Gundy watched his former fullback transform this season into a tackle-breaking thumper. Ripkowski had nine carries in Sunday’s win at the Detroit Lions, leading the Packers with 61 yards. He also caught a 7-yard touchdown from Rodgers.
Then he spiked the football into Ford Field’s first row.
When the season began, Ripkowski’s job was to pave Eddie Lacy’s path. He didn’t get his first carry until Week 5 against the New York Giants, converting a third and 1. In the fourth quarter, Ripkowski converted another third and 1 with a 13-yard run, dragging eight Giants more than 10 yards.
A ball carrier was born.
Ripkowski has 150 yards on 34 carries this season, averaging a healthy 4.4 yards per rush. No Packers running back has scored more touchdowns than his three, with two on the ground.
Ask Ripkowski whether he has gotten comfortable carrying the football and, mid-question, he pops his right shoulder like it’s a knuckle. Then he snaps his neck. It sounds like the crack of a baseball bat.
No wonder Rodgers wants him in the backfield on third downs.
“He brings toughness,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “No doubt. He’s like a silent attacker, man. He just comes in and gets the job done. He’s not afraid to get dirty in the piles. It’s fun watching him run the ball. It’s fun watching him block. He’s a guy who keeps us going up front. He gives us a good kind of change-of-pace back there.
“Rip’s a guy who’s going to get you two, three yards and then carry the pile for another four or five. So that definitely wears on the defenses.”
Kuhn was different. He played running back at Shippensburg, finishing with 5,300 all-purpose yards and 53 touchdowns. He carried 910 times in four years.
That’s 904 times more than Ripkowski.
The biggest difference this season, Kuhn said, is how naturally Ripkowski carries the ball. It’s something every running back has to learn, some later than others.
“I can tell his comfort zone,” Kuhn said, “he looks like he’s very comfortable out there.”
Gundy isn’t the only one surprised. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he didn't see Ripkowski's production coming. The Packers expected to draft a special-teams ace in the sixth round, someone who could develop into a lead blocker. They needed a pass protector for their West Coast system.
They somehow found another Kuhn.
“You’ve got to be pretty good,” Gundy said, “to make an NFL roster doing what he’s doing, and that’s being a physical football player, great special-teams player. It does not shock me to see him play in the NFL and have success, but it still shocks me that that guy carries the ball some up there. It’s pretty neat.
"Obviously, he made the right team.”
‘I prefer a fullback’
Each year, football departs further from its roots.
Pro-style offense used to mean I-formation, maybe two tight ends. These three-receiver sets still are relatively new.
When the Associated Press released its All-Pro teams Friday, it didn’t bother listing a fullback. Go to an NFL game today and you’re just as likely to see a defensive tackle as lead blocker on the goal line.
More and more, the Packers are becoming an exception. In Green Bay, the fullback not only exists. Comparatively, it thrives.
“I prefer a fullback,” McCarthy said. “I’ve always preferred two, frankly, on our roster. It’s a philosophy of mine of how you want to play offense. I don’t think you play offense one way. I think it’s easy to fall in love with one-back offense, but I think it’s important to have the ability to be a one-back or two-back.”
The Packers actually have two fullbacks for the second straight year. Joe Kerridge, an undrafted rookie out of Michigan, played six snaps in Detroit.
Ripkowski is the bell cow. Only once did Kuhn have more yards and carries in a season than Ripkowski this season. Ripkowski has more yards and touchdowns than Mike Tolbert, the NFC’s fullback selection for the Pro Bowl.
But this isn’t a glamour gig. Sure, yards and touchdowns are nice. A fullback’s first job is to block.
Put another way, hit people. Hard.
“There’s not a lot of true fullbacks out there,” Gundy said. “There aren’t a lot of guys who really want to play that position. How many guys just want to run in there and stick their head in somebody’s chest over and over and over?
“It’s a lot easier to play on the defensive side and be physical and go tackle somebody, but then when you’re asked to go on the offensive side and have to physically run downhill and strike somebody and shoot your hands, there’s just not a lot of guys.”
Tough. Unselfish. Reliable.
He would’ve fit right in with the Navy.
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