T.J. Lang with his wife, Laura, their 5-year-old son, J.J., and daughter, Lia (10 months). The Lions’ facility is a half-hour commute from Lang’s home in suburban Detroit.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — He had to text. Calling everyone else was hard enough. He wasn’t about to get all sappy and weepy with a two-time NFL MVP on the other end of the line.
T.J. Lang made a lot of difficult phone calls after deciding last Sunday to leave the Green Bay Packers for the Detroit Lions in free agency. The 29-year-old Pro Bowl guard had hoped — and publicly said so, over and over — that he would stay with the only NFL team he had ever known. So after his hometown Lions gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse — a three-year, $28.5 million deal that included $19 million in guaranteed money — and the Packers told him they had already made their final offer, Lang picked up his iPhone, preparing to say his goodbyes.
He called his line coach, James Campen. He called right tackle Bryan Bulaga, his offensive line running mate, as well as receiver Jordy Nelson and kicker Mason Crosby, two of his longtime teammates. He called team president/CEO Mark Murphy. He would’ve called coach Mike McCarthy, but he knew McCarthy was on vacation with his family in Turks and Caicos. And he called Seattle general manager John Schneider, who had been in the Packers’ front office when the team took Lang in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, to let Schneider know he was turning down the Seahawks’ lucrative offer.
And then he got to the guy listed simply as “ARod” in his contacts, and paused.
How do you express how much a friendship has meant to you? How do you tell the quarterback you spent eight years protecting — and the guy who always had your back (maybe not quite as literally) in return — that you’re going to miss him? How do you thank him for making you a better player, a better leader, a better guy?
As it turns out, you don’t have to say much — fortunately for Lang.
“Through the whole process, I kept him in the loop about what was happening,” Lang said of Aaron Rodgers during an emotional interview on “Wilde & Tausch” on ESPN Wisconsin. “It was really hard. Both of us had been together for so long … we could rely on each other.
“It was just, ‘Appreciate everything you’ve done for me.’ Both ways. I never thought I was going to have to be the one to say goodbye to those guys. And Aaron and I have developed such a great relationship over the last eight years. We were always on the same page with the playcalling, we were always on the same page with adjustments, it just kind of became second nature to us. And obviously [we] had a great friendship off the field. So it was tough. Really tough.
“Obviously, I don’t think I’d be the type of player I am today without his leadership skills, his play, how elite he is. … [It] was a challenge to me to pick up my level of play, so I could match him and not let him down.
“Nobody was really disappointed in the choice that I made, because I think they all understood it was something I kind of had to do. [But] it was a brotherhood, and I’m going to miss those guys.”
For his part, Rodgers had advocated for Lang to be re-signed, saying in an ESPN Wisconsin interview a week earlier that he and Lang were “real close” and that players like Lang and departed fullback John Kuhn “should be lifers. They should be lifetime Green Bay guys, because they stand for everything a Green Bay Packer stands for — toughness, grit, intelligence, a dedication to the team and community. [They should] have a chance to go out on their own terms from Green Bay.”
A lot of free agents-to-be trot out the cliché about how they don’t want to leave. It’s standard operating procedure. For Lang, though, it was different. After seeing fellow Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton unceremoniously dumped at the end of training camp last summer, Lang made it clear throughout the season and following the team’s NFC Championship Game loss at Atlanta — during which he reinjured his foot and was seen crying on the sideline — that he wanted to finish his career with the Packers.
“I think that came back to bite me in the ass a little bit with Green Bay, because it kind of seemed like in their mind [it was], ‘Well, we’ll get him back cheap; he just wants to stay here,'” Lang confessed.
He was still holding out hope that they would up their offer once the Seahawks and Lions made offers in line with the suddenly pricey guard market. When that didn’t happen, and the Packers’ pitch included roughly half the guaranteed money the Lions were offering, Lang said he felt the decision was essentially made for him.
“[Initially], the other offers we were getting were pretty similar [to the Packers’ first offer]. So I was like, ‘OK, if this is what it’s going to be, why move?'” said Lang, who called the free-agency process more “stressful” than fun.
“But everything got crazy Saturday night, the numbers started moving up and teams started competing against each other a little bit. And then, it was like being on the highway — the speed limit is 70, everybody else is going 85 and flying by you, and Green Bay just stayed right around the speed limit there.”
Since then, Lang has transitioned from being sad about leaving the Packers to being excited about joining the Lions, whose facility is a half-hour commute from his home in suburban Detroit and whom he grew up rooting for as a kid wearing a Scott Mitchell jersey. Though Green Bay was where he grew into a pro, Michigan is home for him, wife Laura and children J.J. and Lia.
“I was really excited about moving back home and having a chance to play for the Detroit Lions, who I think — playing them the last couple years — are ready to take that next step. But at the same time, I had to make a lot of tough phone calls to some of my best friends over there, and it kind of put a damper on the mood a little bit at first,” Lang said. “But at this point, I’m starting to get past all that and look to the future.
“I feel like a rookie again. Obviously, I have a lot to learn from these guys, playing in a new system, learning new personalities and building some new relationships. I can’t just come in and slap down the ‘I’m a nine-year guy, this is how we do things.’ It’s going to take some time. I’m going to have to adjust. But I’m looking forward to getting to know these guys.
“Green Bay’s always going to be a second home to me, and it’s always going to have a special place in my heart. Hopefully one day I can come back to that city and be welcomed back.”