GREEN BAY — There they stood, at the back of the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, perplexed. Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari were putting their heads together — the offensive linemen’s intellectual equivalent of a combination block — trying to figure out exactly where Justin McCray had played, and when.
It was no easy task.
“I’m trying to remember, he played left tackle against … Cincinnati?” Bulaga said.
“No,” Bakhtiari replied, “That was ‘Murph.’ … He played left tackle for me to finish Minnesota.”
“And then he played guard against … Dallas?” Bulaga continued.
Bakhtiari: “He played right tackle against …”
Bakhtiari: “And also Chicago.”
Bulaga: “Yeah, the Bears.”
Bakhtiari: “And then he played left guard …”
Bulaga: “When Lane moved to left tackle.”
‘Round and ‘round the two veteran tackles went, until Bakhtiari stopped the exercise and smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ve moved him around.”
That the Packers have, and in the process, the little-known, never-played-an-NFL-down McCray has been a godsend for a line so ravaged by injuries that the unit has started seven combinations in the first seven games. And even though McCray is not slated to see action on offense in Monday night’s game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field — finally healthy, the Packers should have their preferred five starters (Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, Jahri Evans and Bulaga) back together — no one knows better how valuable he’s been than head coach Mike McCarthy.
“If I was going to give out an MVP award,” McCarthy said at midweek, “he’d definitely be in the conversation.”
Here, there, everywhere
Here is the rundown of where McCray — a guard by trade who spent training camp learning the center position — has lined up:
• All 76 snaps as the starting right tackle at Atlanta in Week 2, with Bulaga (ankle) and Bakhtiari (hamstring) out;
• 23 snaps at right tackle and two at left guard against the Bengals in Week 3 when Bulaga re-injured his ankle and Kyle Murphy, the Packers’ initial replacement at tackle, suffered a season-ending foot injury;
• 55 snaps at right tackle in Week 4 against Chicago with Bulaga out;
• 60 snaps at Dallas in Week 5 at left guard with Taylor filling in for Bakhtiari at left tackle;
• 51 snaps at Minnesota in Week 6 at three positions — left guard, right tackle and left tackle — as Taylor (ankle), Bulaga (concussion) and Bakhtiari (hamstring) all departed with injuries;
• 55 snaps at left guard in Week 7 against New Orleans with Taylor inactive.
“He was able to do all that,” Bulaga said. “It shows you how valuable he is.”
And while Bakhtiari and Bulaga might have lost track of McCray’s whereabouts, this much they could agree on:
“I don’t think,” Bulaga said, smiling, “he’s going to be working at a hotel again.”
Running down a dream
Yes, as remarkable as McCray’s story of versatility this season is from a football perspective, it’s even more incredible when considering this: A year ago, the 25-year-old McCray was working as a bellman at a resort in Orlando, Florida, toting suitcases and working out with the dream of making one last run at the NFL.
“He made a commitment to say, ‘Look, I belong (in the NFL).’ And he certainly belongs,” tough-guy offensive line coach James Campen said, before pausing to gather himself. “I’m very proud of him. Everybody is. I get a little emotional about it.”
McCray entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent from Central Florida in 2014, taking a pre-draft visit to Green Bay. When his twin brother Jordan signed with the Packers, he signed with Tennessee, not wanting to compete with his “younger” brother (by two minutes) for a roster spot. He made the Titans’ practice squad but was cut during the 2015 preseason.
McCray spent the next two years out of football, with an occasional NFL or CFL tryout. Unsure if they’d get another shot, Justin and Jordan signed with the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League, playing together for the first time since their college days and working at the Westgate Lake Resort & Spa, a vacation property owned by the Predators owner. (The Predators suspended operations after last season.
“Eight months ago, he was working at a hotel and couldn’t even watch games on Sunday,” Jordan recalled in a phone interview. “We worked 3 o’clock to 11:30 (p.m.), so we didn’t get to watch any football. We didn’t even see the Super Bowl.”
In spring, the McCray brothers went to their alma mater and convinced the Knights coaching staff to let them take part in their pre-draft pro day. That’s where Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith saw Justin, recalled the team’s interest three years ago and lobbied general manager Ted Thompson to take another look at him.
“As I was praying and working, I said if I ever got the chance to play in the NFL again, I’m going to give it my all,” McCray said. “Be the first one in here and the last one out. Try to do everything right and be nice to everybody in the building. Just make the most out of everything – every meeting, every practice, every play.”
Making an impression
From the first practice of the offseason, McCarthy was intrigued.
“You just loved his approach from Day 1. He always has a smile on his face, (but) he’s wicked tough,” McCarthy said. “(I’m) just really proud of the way he’s gone about it. He’s earned everything — every opportunity that he’s been given here. And he’s taken full advantage of it.”
McCray had one of the pleasant surprises of training camp, taking advantage of playing a team-high 215 offensive snaps in preseason to make the 53-man roster at the final cutdown. He played five snaps on special teams in the regular-season opener, with no idea of what lay ahead for him.
“It’s been amazing. Playing with him last year in the Arena League and seeing how hard he was working just to get somebody’s attention and get a look again, nobody deserves it more than him,” said Jordan McCray, who has been inspired by his brother to keep pursuing his own NFL dreams. “All of us — my mom, my brother (Cliff), my dad — we were just excited he made the team. To actually see him playing and doing well, we always have a belief in each other’s ability, but to see it happening so soon, it’s amazing.”
Added Bulaga: “I didn’t learn his backstory until the week of the Atlanta game. To hear that and see what he’s doing and see how he’s moved around positions and played well at different positions — it’s impressive. He’s done such a good job. How can you not be happy for him?”
For his part, the self-aware McCray isn’t caught up in his own fairy tale. Compelling as his story might be, he believes there’s far more to be written.
“I try not to reflect too much. I’ll reflect at the end of my career. I just wanted to be as prepared as I could be for the task at hand,” he said. “I just wanted to do well — period. So doing well ‘for being thrown in there,’ that’s not my goal. My goal is to play well. I want to exceed expectations.”