GREEN BAY — Bryan Bulaga isn’t the only one who knows what he’s up against. His wife, Abbie, does, too.
And while the Green Bay Packers veteran right tackle’s previous comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee might help him do it again, Abbie’s task — as caregiver in addition to wife and mother — definitely won’t be easier.
“She’s had to take care of me twice now because of this surgery. And it’s tough duty,” Bulaga said, referring to the reconstructive surgery done on his left knee in 2013 and the reconstruction he underwent earlier this month after tearing the ACL in his right knee during the Packers’ Nov. 6 loss to Detroit. “Especially this time around, having two kids. The last time, it was just her and I — and I was the only kid she had to take care of.”
Yes, with 2-year-old son Declan and infant daughter Cameron now in the mix, Abbie does have her hands full. But two weeks removed from surgery, Bulaga said he’s already making “good progress” in his rehabilitation work and has a support system that includes his current teammates on the offensive line, such as left tackle David Bakhtiari, and former teammates, from now-Lions guard T.J. Lang to longtime former Packers right tackle Mark Tauscher, who like Bulaga had to come back from torn ACLs twice in his 11-year NFL career.
“I tell you what, the second time is easier. It really is,” said Tauscher, who tore his left ACL in 2002 and again in 2008. “You know what you’re doing, you don’t have to go through the process of a bunch of unknowns, and for me, it was a lot easier — even though mentally you have to come to grips with it.
“Once you do, you understand that it’s out of your control. So you do what you can do to put yourself in a great position that you’re ready to go, you’re ready for it. Mentally, it’s actually easier because like anything else, a lot of times you waste energy on things you don’t know because it’s unknown. When you actually know it, it’s like, ‘All right, this is what it is. Here’s the situation, let’s attack it.’”
Tauscher suffered a shoulder injury early in the 2010 season that opened the door for Bulaga, then a 20-year-old rookie first-round pick from Iowa, to take over as the starting right tackle. Tauscher said the mental struggle isn’t so much the daunting task of knowing what a long rehab you’re facing, but rather the concern that the injuries will diminish your skill set.
“Obviously Bryan’s a really good football player and when he’s healthy, he helps everybody — the quarterback, the run game, everything else. So it’s definitely a blow,” Tauscher said. “He’s had a lot of bad luck injury-wise, and so it’s always going to be a mental test. He’s going to want to get back and prove he can play.
“When you have an injury, you go back and you train and you do all those things — but mentally, you get beat down. Physically, you can get that knee back to where it needs to be, but as you age, it gets tougher and tougher (mentally). Luckily for Bryan, he came in this league super young and he’s been able to weather some of these injuries. It’s going to be a tough test for him to come back but I would feel pretty confident that he’ll be able to make a full recovery and get back out there.”
Bakhtiari, who was thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie by Bulaga’s 2013 training-camp knee injury, agreed.
“If anyone can bounce back from this, it’d be him,” Bakhtiari said as the Packers prepped for Sunday night’s game at Pittsburgh. “I expect him to attack it just like he did last time, and he had said he will. If one person can have this and bounce back from it, it’s Bryan.”
When Bulaga tore his ACL in 2013, he had noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews perform the surgery and rehabbed near the family’s offseason home in Bradenton, Florida. This time, Bulaga had Packers team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie do the surgery and will stay in Green Bay as he recovers. It was McKenzie who had to deliver the news to Bulaga that it was another ACL tear, and the two have built a close bond as Bulaga has battled myriad injuries in recent years.
“When it happened, I didn’t think it was ACL. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s the meniscus.’ But right when Dr. McKenzie checked it, I could tell by the test he was doing it was the ACL,” Bulaga said. “I had Dr. McKenzie do this surgery because I have always had a great relationship with him, and I trust him 110 percent. So my wife and I decided to have the surgery done here.”
Bulaga, who in addition to the two ACL tears suffered a season-ending hip injury midway through the 2012 season, had spent this season dealing with less serious injuries. He suffered an Aug. 23 ankle injury that forced him to miss the first two regular-season games, then re-injured the ankle in his season debut Week 3 against Cincinnati. He then left the Packers’ Oct. 15 loss at Minnesota with a concussion — the same game in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered his broken collarbone.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, speaking before the team’s Thanksgiving morning practice Thursday, said he thought the ankle injury in camp likely contributed to his knee injury.
“(He was) really coming off his best year, and it really started with that high ankle sprain in training camp. As we know, those things can roll together, and I think that’s really a (factor in) his knee injury,” McCarthy said. “But hey, Bryan had the surgery and was in here the next day. He unfortunately knows what it takes to come back, and he’s already full bore ahead working at it.”
That he is.
“My mindset is pretty much the same as it was the last time I had his injury: Just put everything I have into this rehab and make sure I’m ready to go next year,” said Bulaga, who has two years left on the 5 year, $33.75 million contract he signed in March 2015. “Do everything in my power to make sure my knee is as strong and healthy as possible.
“Being through it once has helped me so far in this rehab because I know what to expect — the pain, aches, ups, downs. I’ll know how to handle that. It’s a difficult rehab, but thankfully, I have an amazing wife and family to help support me through this again.”
Center Corey Linsley (back) did not practice Thursday morning and was added to the injury report, though he said he will play against the Steelers. “For sure,” Linsley said. “I don’t want to jinx myself, knock on wood, but there’s nothing indicative of me being out for the game.” … With Linsley not practicing, versatile backup Justin McCray, who has replaced Bulaga at right tackle, worked at center during drills open to reporters. He’d likely start for Linsley with Jason Spriggs, who recently was activated off injured reserve, taking over at right tackle. “Just have to get back used to doing it. Definitely now the coaches are getting me ready” just in case, McCray said. … The rest of the report remained the same, as running back Aaron Jones (knee), outside linebacker Clay Matthews (groin), backup guard Lucas Patrick (hand), running back Ty Montgomery (ribs) and defensive tackle Kenny Clark (ankle) missed practice for the second straight day. … … Unable to move practice off Thanksgiving entirely because of the Wednesday-Thursday-Saturday practice schedule he started in 2014, McCarthy moved the workout up to 8:30 a.m. instead. “We’re going to have our own little Turkey Bowl game,” McCarthy said, joking. “And then we’ll be home by noon.”