GREEN BAY – He was the chosen one, the star linebacker. Then he was just another guy. Then he was needed again. His career, admittedly, has had its ups and downs, but A.J. Hawk has never been expendable.
Drafted fifth overall out of Ohio State in 2006, Hawk immediately made an impact for the Green Bay Packers, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after recording 121 tackles (84 solo) to go with 3 ½ sacks and two interceptions and a forced fumble.
His production immediately waned, so much so that four years later – at the start of 2010 – he was part of a rotation in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ linebacking corps. He even failed to see the field in the team’s season-opening victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
While Hawk said he’d be open to a trade at that point in his career, Packers general manager Ted Thompson wouldn’t move him – a decision that bore fruit when linebacker after linebacker was lost to injury and Hawk wound up making the Pro Bowl and the Packers won the Super Bowl.
Less than a month after the celebration though, Hawk was released because of the $10 million he was owed in 2011. A day later, he was back with a new five-year, $33.75 million contract.
There was never really any consideration given to leaving Green Bay.
"Any guy that plays here will tell you that it’s awesome," Hawk said. "Especially a guy that’s gone somewhere else and came back or started somewhere else and came here, they’ll let you know this is kind of the top of the heap. How they treat you, how they run the organization, everything, is the best. It’s all I know in the NFL so I don’t wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere else."
After two more years of reliable, if unspectacular play (4 ½ sacks, 0 interceptions, 0 fumbles forced) the team came back to him this past March and asked him again to take one for the team to better afford Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
At 29 and in his eighth year in the league, Hawk wasn’t about to worry over such details – even if those details included several zeroes on his paycheck.
"I think it’s more of an ego thing than anything, that guys can’t get over," he said. "They don’t want to say they’re taking a pay cut because it hurts their ego. I let that go a long time ago. I wasn’t worried about that. I don’t care what the outside perception is. If my grandma reads that I took a pay cut and I’m not making as much money I can put a phone call to her and let her know that it’s going to be OK, we’ll be fine, I have a financial advisor.
"But, yeah, I think if you look around, too, guys that don’t accept them, then it usually doesn’t go too well for them."
If you’re a linebacker in Green Bay, it seems like things don’t go too well for you anyway.
Matthews broke his thumb against Detroit on Sunday and now will miss at least a month after re-aggravating a hamstring injury against Cincinnati in week 3. Inside linebacker Brad Jones has dealt with a hamstring issue as well, which flared up again against Detroit. Robert Francois just tore his Achilles.
Last year, Nick Perry was lost for the season with a broken wrist. And, several of the young linebackers who were surprise roster additions didn’t make it to this year, like Terrell Manning and Dezman Moses. Veterans like D.J. Smith and Desmond Bishop, who also had injury histories, were jettisoned.
They’ve since been replaced by the likes of Sam Barrington, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer and Mike Neal moving back from the defensive line.
Then there’s Hawk, Mr. Reliable. And once again, he’s in the spotlight as the Packers try to get through the next month with a depleted linebacking group.
"I’ve been really lucky first of all, obviously, to stay healthy," Hawk said. "I think they put a price on durability here. They love guys that can be durable and I’ve proven to be durable for the most part, I guess. But I don’t know. Like I’ve said before, I just try to stay the course, never try to get too high, too low, whatever’s happening. I’ve been through plenty of ups and downs personally as a player but never really put too much stock into when things were going great or when things weren’t going as great as I would’ve like them to. I’m just enjoying my time while I’m here."
If the Packers are to stack wins together, it will be because these heretofore unproven linebackers take a step forward – much like different names have done in years past. The one constant has been Hawk, and perhaps there’s something to be said for that, too.
"A.J. is a great guy to be around," Perry said. "He knows his stuff and he keeps us all intact. As far as when there’s play calling going on it’s good to have those guys in the building because you learn a lot from those guys. Just the little things is what matters now, and he’s seen a lot and he’s done a lot, so you really look up to him."
Palmer, a rookie out of Southern Illinois University, chimed in: "He can kind of tell us what to expect, what not to expect, things that’s going to happen. He’s pretty much seen it all, being a nine year veteran, I’m pretty sure there is a blocking scheme that he hasn’t seen or a type of pass route he hasn’t seen. When you have any type of question you can go to him. He’s confident enough to answer our questions so that’s pretty much what he does for the young guys.
"As a defensive unit as a whole, we tend to lean on him for the calls and stuff like that because he knows his stuff. That’s his leadership role. He’s a field general, I guess you could say."
While Hawk has not recorded a sack, interception or forced a fumble yet this season, he has been around the ball with 32 total tackles through four games. He totaled five tackles last week against Detroit in helping keep Lions running back Reggie Bush (9 yards rushing, 2 catches) under control. Now, again, the Packers need him to ride to the rescue and play solidly while Matthews and Jones nurse injuries.
It’s all Hawk has ever done, and all he plans to continue to do.
"I’m going to play as long as I can," he said. "I’ll make them kick me out. I love it. I’m having a great time. Like I said, I’m sure guys will lie to you and tell you they physically feel great when they don’t, but I honestly do. I practice every day, my legs feel as good as they have. I’ve never had any real shoulder, knee, any real issue, so I’m trying to keep it that way. I don’t know. I’ll try to stay around here as long as I can."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.