For T.J. Lang, joy comes from 'seeing the knucklehead become the best dad ever'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The lights are dim. There is a pitcher of beer on the counter, a couple of pizzas on the nearby table. Justin Timberlake’s “Can't Stop the Feeling!” blares from the speakers, making conversation difficult. One booth over, there is a disagreement about whether it's time to go home or not. T.J. Lang sits in his seat, taking it all in, smiling.

The scene isn’t all that dissimilar from the ones Lang all too frequently found himself in at downtown Green Bay bars just a few years ago. With one, game-changing difference: It’s just past noon -- not midnight -- and he’s in a bowling alley creatively called “The Gutter,” chaperoning a 5-year-old’s birthday party along with several other moms and dads while his son J.J. and his classmates do the “partying.” As he watches, Lang holds 10-month-old daughter Lia, who is eager to join the festivities.

This is the Green Bay Packers veteran offensive lineman’s life now. And he loves it.

“I don’t think there’s any chance in hell I’d still be playing football if I kept going down that same path,” Lang says. “But my life now, it’s so different.”

Now 29 and in his eighth NFL season, Lang had entered the league as a fourth-round draft pick from Eastern Michigan in 2009. He was 21 and single, had a $2.2 million contract and was riding the bench. The result? Too many beers. Not enough responsibility.

“My first couple years, I didn’t really feel like I had a chance of becoming a starter. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not playing that much, I can afford to go out and have some drinks throughout the week,’” Lang explained in a recent interview on Wilde & Tausch on ESPN Wisconsin. “And at the time, you never think it’s a problem when you’re going out and you’re doing all that stuff -- but you look back and ... you kind of get disgusted with yourself.

“I mean, I was taking it way over the edge with what I was doing. I’m ashamed of it a little bit, but it made me realize that that’s not the way you’re supposed to act when you’re a professional football player -- really, a professional anything. I never really got into any trouble to where the police were involved or anything up to the upper-level [management] at the stadium. I guess I did a good job of not being caught.

“I talk to these young guys all the time now, and I’ve never felt like I’m a guy who can go to people and say, ‘Hey, stop doing what you’re doing.’ Because look, I had done it. But I can tell them, ‘Hey, I’ve been there. Trust me, it’s a path you don’t want to go down.’ That really was eye-opening for me.”

'We need you to focus'

Lang admits that his teammates “knew who I was.” As it turns out, his coaches did, too.

“Yeah, he had a little bit of knucklehead in him,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen recalled, shaking his head. “His first couple years were ... he had a lot of fun. But then he finally realized, look, this is a serious business.”

Lang can point to two field-tilting moments -- one, a simple text message, the other a piece of joyous, transformative news. One from his best friend, the other from the love of his life.

Shortly after the 2010 season ended with the Packers winning Super Bowl XLV, guard Josh Sitton -- often Lang’s running mate during his late-night escapades -- saw the future. Guard Daryn Colledge was set to become a free agent and the draft-and-develop Packers were unlikely to overpay him to stay. That meant there’d be a job opening on the line, one tailor-made for Lang -- if he wanted it badly enough.

“I knew Daryn was leaving. I sent [Lang] a text, ‘Hey, you need to get your s--- together. You need to be fully dialed in with football. We need you. You’re going to be the guy.’ That was pretty much it,” recalled Sitton, now with the Chicago Bears after his unexpected release on Sept. 1. “I just wanted to give him a little bit of advice. This league requires a lot, especially for young guys. Your concentration has to be on football 100 percent, or it can be difficult.

“I mean, he was out getting after it quite a bit. I don’t think that being a starter and doing that, burning the candle at both ends, is really possible. Especially when you’re a young guy, it takes that full concentration.”

Sitton’s message hit Lang hard. But it also hit home.

“He was side-by-side with me a lot of those late nights drinking and partying. When there’s a guy who’s basically doing the same thing you are and he’s telling you, ‘Hey, we need you to focus up a little bit,’ I’m like, ‘I guess I’m doing it too much,’” Lang confessed. “It probably left a bigger impression than if you had the boss telling you. When it’s coming from some of your best friends, your teammates, it makes a bigger point.”

There was more news to come.

‘It’s not just me anymore’

Lang met his future wife, Laura, when he was a junior at Eastern Michigan and she was a freshman at Michigan State. They were friends for three years and didn’t go out on their first date until after he returned home in early 2010, following his rookie year in Green Bay. They dated long distance after that, as Laura finished her coursework in East Lansing.

Then, right around the same time as Sitton’s text message, Laura learned she was pregnant. When NFL owners and the NFL Players Association came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement to end the lockout several months later, Lang left his nine-months-along girlfriend and reported to training camp a different person.

“I had to stay in Michigan -- I had J.J. like four days into training camp or something like that -- and he was so focused,” Laura said. “He basically told me, ‘If I don’t prove myself and get this starting spot, I don’t think I’m going to make this team.’ I think the reality of having two other people in his life that needed him, I saw a major shift in him the beginning of that training camp.”

Lang won the starting job that summer and he has held the job ever since. Three games into the 2016 season, he has started 92 of a possible 94 games (including playoffs) and is now among the elder statesmen in the locker room. Last year, he had arguably a better season than Sitton, who was selected to his third Pro Bowl.

“These last couple years, they just fly by. It’s crazy to think about,” said Lang, who is in the final year of the five-year, $22.06 million extension he signed in August 2012. “Even though I don’t feel old, I don’t feel like I’ve been around here forever. Eight years is a long time to play in this league. I’ve obviously been doing something right.

“And [the] thing that really turned me around was, when Laura got pregnant. Now, I had a son on the way. And I’m thinking, ‘Now, it’s not just me anymore. Now, I’ve got people who are really depending on me.”

Just as Lang’s game developed, so too did his parenting -- something his late father, Thomas, who was diagnosed with cancer in November 2011 and died in January 2012, witnessed firsthand with J.J. Others noticed, too, including Campen.

“I have nothing but total praise for him, the way he conducts himself now -- as a professional in the building but also being a father, being a husband. He’s outstanding in both of those aspects, in my opinion,” Campen said. “He’s a good man. T.J.’s a good man.”

Told of Campen’s comments, Laura smiled. “It’s really cool seeing the knucklehead become the best dad ever,” she said. “And I didn’t have any doubts he would be. He just had some growing up to do. And he really changed his life around.”

There are still times, though, when Laura will ask her husband if he misses his previous life. He answers honestly. A small part of him does. Foolish as he might have been back then, he did have fun.

“But there’s nothing that I would ever change for the life I have now. I wouldn’t trade that in for anything I had in my past. No chance,” Lang said. “I work with these guys -- Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, these superstars. Guys that are all over TV. Really A-list celebrities. I’ve never really felt like I was a celebrity. All I do now is go home and feel like I’m just a regular guy, a regular dad.

“I love my life. I’ve got a great wife, I’ve got two great kids. It’s just so crazy how fast things have changed. You think about, it feels so long ago. It was six years ago that I was out doing all these foolish things. So yeah. I tell her all the time. I kind of miss it once awhile. But there’s no way I would ever trade that life for what I have now.”