Ex-Packers guard Daryn Colledge finds new calling with Army National Guard

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Daryn Colledge played in 148 games during his nine-year NFL career. And before every one of them, including Super Bowl XLV, he would hold his helmet above his head at the end of each rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."

As “And the home of the brave …” rang out and the crowd’s cheers crescendoed, it was Colledge’s way to salute those in the military, past and present.

“It was just a raise of the hat, a raise of the helmet to the people serving,” Colledge explained.

In fact, before one game early in his career, Packers team photographer Jim Biever captured the moment during a Lambeau Field flyover, and the photo still hangs in Colledge’s home in Boise, Idaho.

“It’s one of the few photos that I have of me from my playing days,” said Colledge, who played left guard for five seasons with the Green Bay Packers (2006-2010), three with the Arizona Cardinals (2011-2013) and one with the Miami Dolphins (2014) before retiring last year. “It’s one of the things that are extremely important to me and extremely special.”

This week, though, Colledge’s support for the armed forces will go far beyond ceremonial, as he leaves for basic training in Fort Jackson, in South Carolina, after joining the U.S. Army National Guard last month. After 10 weeks of boot camp, he’ll attend advanced individual training in Virginia to become a helicopter mechanic and crew chief before returning home to Boise to work on Black Hawk choppers.

“I think you have to make decisions in life about what things you want to do and you want to be a part of, and this is something I want to be a part of,” Colledge said in an interview on “The Distant Replay Podcast” on ESPN Milwaukee.

“The men and women I met serving our country, who put their lives on the line for other people so that they can be safe, is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. And I wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. And that’s my best place and my spot in life right now.”

Born into a military family and having grown up between two bases in North Pole, Alaska, Colledge visited troops both home and abroad during his NFL career, which began as a second-round pick by the Packers out of Boise State in 2006. After his final season with the Dolphins -- during which he missed three games with a back injury, the only games he missed during his career -- Colledge, his wife Megan and the couple’s two daughters embarked on a lengthy European vacation, during which he contemplated whether he wanted to keep playing or find another calling.

After discussing it as a family -- and with the knowledge that, at age 34, he was up against the age limit to enlist -- Colledge signed up. Megan’s father, a retired major in the Air Force, swore him in.

“It’s something that’s always been on my mind and then football gave me an avenue -- especially with the Packers, who are extremely active with their support of the military -- to be around active-duty military and see their jobs and what they do,” said Colledge, who toured with Navy Entertainment following Super Bowl XLV and also went on a goodwill trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with several other Packers one offseason. “It always stuck with me, it was always a part of me.”

Colledge said he even considered active duty during his time with the Cardinals, but with Megan pregnant with the couple’s second daughter, “it just wasn’t the right time.” But having returned home to Boise, where he’ll be stationed for his eight-year commitment, the National Guard made sense -- even if he’s not your typical new recruit.

“I’ll be running around with people almost half my age,” said Colledge, who played at 308 pounds during his career but weighed in at 265 last week -- and still has more to lose. “They’ll be pushing me, and they better not let the old guy beat them.”

Historically, Colledge’s unit, the 168th General Support Aviation Battalion, has been an active one, from call-ups for domestic assignments such as wildfires and mudslides in recent years and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to active wartime duty in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom operations.

“We all understand that there may come a time where we have to go out there and fight for what we believe in, and we may have to go overseas to do it,” Colledge said. “But the ability to serve right here in my community, that’s just as appealing -- if not more so -- because of what I can do to help right now.”

Colledge, who earned nearly $25 million during his NFL career, said he was “uncomfortable” with any comparisons to former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, as some have made since his announcement. Tillman left the Cardinals to enlist in the Army in June 2002 in the wake of the September 11 attacks and was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004. During his time with the Cardinals, Colledge’s appreciation for Tillman grew.

“Pat gave up everything. Pat went out and gave up millions of dollars to go out and fight for a country that most people felt at the time needed it the most, at one of its most vulnerable times. And he made the ultimate sacrifice,” Colledge said. “We’re regular men and women.

“Maybe one day you will be placed in the position where you have to make the ultimate sacrifice, and you train for that, and you believe in that. But between the two of us, there’s no real similarity. He gave up everything to walk away. I’ve taken care of the people who needed to be taken care of [in my family], and now I’ll serve to make sure they’re safe and continue to live the life that I’ve helped build for them.”