GREEN BAY – Kristian Welch will remember 2023 for many reasons.
There was the incomparable high of welcoming the birth of a son, Jace, with his wife Maddie last May and the disheartening low of being released at the end of training camp after three seasons spent with the Baltimore Ravens.
Fortunately, the disappointment didn't last long. One day after final cuts, the Iola, Wis., native was presented with an opportunity he could only dream of as a child: playing for the Packers.
Welch initially joined Green Bay's practice squad on Aug. 31 but was signed to the 53-man roster less than one month later. With Lambeau Field located just 75 minutes east of his hometown, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker had a large contingent of family and friends cheering him on all season.
"That was probably one of the most wholesome parts of being so close is being able to have family and friends come to every game," Welch said. "I had at least 10 family and friends come to every home game. Having their support, being able to talk to them after the game at the house and everything, that part was really fun and really special for me."
Welch's ties to the Midwest run deep. He was a first-team all-conference linebacker and running back during his final two seasons at Iola-Scandinavia High School, rushing for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 85 carries with 75 tackles on defense as a senior.
A three-star recruit, Welch committed to the University of Iowa and earned All-Big Ten honorable mention after leading the Hawkeyes with 87 tackles as a senior in 2019. The following year, Welch broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Ravens.
A mainstay on Baltimore's special teams, the 25-year-old linebacker tallied 16 coverage tackles in 43 games. He was looking forward to a fourth season with the Ravens before receiving his release, but the timing also worked out perfectly on a personal level.
For starters, Welch's parents, Tim and Mary, had the chance to spend significantly more time with their grandchild than would've been possible had Welch still been in Baltimore, where the couple could only attend two or three games each season.
"Having my parents' grandchild so close, whereas before we were 1,000 miles away, they were in heaven," Welch said. "I live in eastern Iowa in the offseason and my wife's family isn't that far, either. So, they were able to come up and be able to hang out, too. Being in the Midwest, it feels like home."
Welch's special-teams background in Baltimore hastened his development into a core special-teams player for Green Bay. Familiar with coordinator Rich Bisaccia's reputation, Welch quickly picked up the Packers' scheme and contributed immediately.
Promoted to the active roster on Sept. 28, Welch finished third on the team in coverage tackles (six) and fourth in special-teams snaps (210) in 14 regular-season contests. He also was named a captain for Green Bay's Week 11 home game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
"I was excited for that opportunity," Welch said. "Playing from Week 4 on, I'm pretty proud of that, just to play that many games after getting in at the beginning of the year, not having any offseason and learning on the fly. Opening the playbook and learning all this defense and special teams – it was a bit chaotic there for a while, but I got used to the deal."
Following the Packers' 24-21 loss to San Francisco in the divisional playoffs, Welch is now set to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. After cleaning out his locker Monday, Welch said he planned to return to Iowa to spend time with his young family and begin training for his fifth NFL season.
He'll remember the 2023 campaign for all its ups and downs, both personally and professionally. While he waits to see what the future holds, Welch remains grateful for the opportunity the Packers afforded him to come home and play the game he loves.
"This year was a dream come true, to be honest," Welch said. "I grew up here. I obviously was a fan. It was just exciting. I had a lot of fun."