GREEN BAY – It's not the norm, but Bryan Bulaga experienced a ton of success right away in the NFL.
He became the Packers' starter at right tackle part way through his rookie season when veteran Mark Tauscher went down due to injury. He went on to earn PFWA All-Rookie honors, and eventually became the youngest player, at the time, to start a Super Bowl, just a month shy of his 22nd birthday.
But he also went through his share of rough times, both personally – battling back from two ACL injuries four years apart – and collectively – as the Packers missed the playoffs two straight years toward the end of his time in Green Bay before rebounding.
As Bulaga, a first-round draft pick in 2010 from Iowa who manned right tackle for the better part of a decade, returned to officially retire as a Packer on Friday and got a chance to speak to the team after practice, it was that latter portion he focused on with the 2023 Packers battling through a 3-6 season thus far.
"What I told them, it's cliché and things like that, but times weren't always good for even us when we were here," Bulaga said. "I mentioned 2017 and '18, we went through some hard times. But the thing we believed in that locker room with the guys that we had we could come out the other side better.
"We trusted in each other and we stuck together. There was never any finger-pointing, there was never any getting down on each other. We knew we had the guys. We just needed to pull it together and get it together, and we eventually did."
Head Coach Matt LaFleur, who coached Bulaga during his final season in Green Bay in 2019, appreciated the meaningful message, just as Bulaga was grateful for Friday's opportunity to share some words publicly in the Lambeau Field media auditorium.
The Green Bay Packers held practice at Clarke Hinkle Field with former tackle Bryan Bulaga in attendance.
Enjoying his young retirement, having not played since the last of his two years with the Chargers in 2021, Bulaga has been hitting the golf course, chauffeuring his kids to all their activities and working various radio gigs.
But he called coming back to Green Bay on Friday a "full circle" moment as he thanked a long list of folks who had an impact on his career, which featured 124 starts for the Packers, including playoffs.
"To make it official as a Green Bay Packer to me means the most, because it's truly where I felt I belonged, where I felt the most comfortable, where it felt like home and family," he said. "For me it truly is a special moment."
As for that memorable championship run as a rookie, Bulaga said he'll remember veteran left tackle Chad Clifton telling him on the bench as the Packers were about to win at Philadelphia in the wild-card round to soak it in for as long as it lasts.
"He looked at me and was like, 'Man, this doesn't happen every day. Like, we have a really good team, we're hot,'" Bulaga recalled.
"At the time, I was just trying to stay above water as a rookie. I'm blocking for Aaron Rodgers, I'm playing across the line full of veterans, I'm the youngest guy. I'm just trying to not get Aaron killed while playing a new position (having played left tackle in college), and then making sure I don't screw something up so then (Josh) Sitton's not mad at me.
"I just wanted to make sure that every week I could be relied upon and be a good teammate. So, once we got into the playoffs and we started winning, I started to kind of open my eyes a little bit. Like, 'This is surreal. We're making this run and I'm a rookie doing it and I have no idea what I'm even doing, but here we go.'"
Unfortunately, it was the only one of several playoff runs during Bulaga's career that reached the pinnacle. He did play in three other NFC title games, the last one coming in LaFleur's first year and Bulaga's last in Green Bay in 2019, after the two playoff-less seasons leading up to it.
As frustrating as that end result was, he took pride as a veteran leader in helping the Packers get back to that point, which was worth sharing with the current team on a day that served as both a welcome back and farewell to the game.
"My message to them was stick together during this," Bulaga said. "It's not always going to be pretty, it's not always going to go the way you want. But if you guys hold together, keep fighting for each other, keep fighting for the guys you have in the huddle, you'll come out of this better."