The Packers' locker room was empty when Rashan Gary got the news on Aug. 7 that his football career was no longer on hiatus.
Amidst the silence, emotions poured out from the fifth-year linebacker whose breakout season was halted in its tracks last November after Gary tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Detroit.
Now, nearly nine months to the day of the injury, the 6-foot-5, 277-pound pass rusher was being cleared for takeoff and that was something to celebrate.
Fittingly, one of the first teammates Gary saw after receiving word of his activation off the physically unable to perform list was Preston Smith, the Packers' ninth-year linebacker who shepherded Gary's development since the two became teammates in 2019.
"We were in there by ourselves, and I walked in after he got the news," Smith said. "He was just really emotional, and for me, it was exciting because I didn't know. I was expecting him to be on PUP for four weeks or whatever.
"I was just ecstatic to find out I was going to have my brother back because he is like a little brother to me."
For the past five seasons, Smith and Gary have represented both the present and future of Green Bay's pass rush. Together, the two combined for 347 tackles, 131 quarterback hits and 59½ sacks in 127 games.
Smith and Gary have forged a friendship that extends beyond football since being brought together during a transcendent 2019 offseason for the Packers organization. A little more than a month after Green Bay signed Preston and Za'Darius Smith as unrestricted free agents, the team completed the edge-rush renovation when it drafted Gary 12th overall.
Preston Smith stormed out the gates during their first year with the Packers, establishing career highs in both tackles (56) and sacks (12). Despite being at the peak of profession, the veteran remained charitable with his time and knowledge of the game to the rookie. If Gary had a question – and there were a lot that first year – Smith was quick to answer.
"Coming in Year 1, also me being hungry for knowledge, I was grateful for him to welcome me with open arms and not be scared to show that knowledge with me – because that's the only way," Gary said.
"Especially a young player coming into the league trying to figure out himself and trying to find out what the league has to bring – having a vet like that who's not scared to give you information to help you with your thought process … helps you with your natural talents."
Gary spent his first two NFL seasons rotating behind the Smith Bros. before shifting into the spotlight in 2021 and recording 28 QB hits and 9½ sacks in 16 starts.
He was building on that breakout last year, with six sacks in Green Bay's first nine games, before suffering the setback with his knee in Detroit. As disappointing as the injury was, Gary quickly regrouped and attacked his rehab with the same tenacity he takes with him to the field.
So far, Gary's return has looked more like an encore than a comeback. Last Sunday, Gary fashioned the first three-sack of his career to ignite Green Bay's defense during a remarkable 18-17 comeback victory over New Orleans in Week 3. What's more, Gary needed just 23 plays to do it.
"I'm gonna try not to get emotional because it means so much to him," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "I'm the most positive, upbeat person on the planet. I still, I was like, 'Ah, god, there's no way Rashan's gonna be ready Week 1.' And just to watch what he's done Week 1, Week 2 and then to see that, it was really, really cool, so it was a cool moment to be a part of, not only the entire game, but just the postgame and you could see how much it means to that kid. I mean he is, you talk about all in. And it's really neat that he was able to accomplish what he was able to accomplish with what he's gone through the last 10 months.
While still operating on a snap count, Gary has generated five tackles, five quarterback hits and a team-high 3½ sacks on just 57 defensive snaps (26%) through his first three games.
He started with a bang Week 1 in Chicago, with TruMedia awarding Gary four pressures and a defense defensed on eight pass rushes. All came on third downs that were not converted.
The following week in Atlanta, Gary added three more pressures on 14 pass-rush snaps while combining with defensive lineman Kenny Clark for a sack of Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder. It was Gary's first sack since Week 6 of last season.
"Anytime he's on the field, you know there's always a chance for him to make a play," Gary said. "Whether it's 10 plays, then that's 10 opportunities where you know he's got a chance to make a big play. To play at a high level was a great thing, but it's something I always believed he would do."
Gary credits his development to his coaches throughout the years and time spent with Smith, whose consistency, durability, and leadership have served as motivation for the 25-year-old linebacker.
Remarkably, Smith has missed just one NFL game since being drafted in the second round (38th overall) by Washington in 2015. Last year, the ninth-year veteran also stepped up in a big way after Gary went down.
In eight games without his running mate, Smith tallied 30 tackles, 11 quarterback hits, five sacks and a forced fumble. He finished the year with a team-high 20 QB hits and 8½ sacks.
"He's done a great job," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "He's just always there for us and I do think that as he's gotten older and more mature as a player, he's taken on more of a leadership role. I just love how he's running to the football, and I think he's doing a good job leading."
Smith has always taken mentorship seriously. It's something that was drilled into him as a rookie in Washington while learning from veterans such as Trent Williams, Jason Hatcher, DeAngelo Hall, Terrance Knighton, and former Packers defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois.
At the same time, Gary's humble demeanor and insatiable thirst for knowledge made it easy for Smith to want to help young linebacker with the ins and outs of the pro game.
Now, the tandem is working together to mold the next generation of Packers pass rushers after the team added 2023 first-round pick Lukas Van Ness, Kingsley Enagbare, and undrafted rookie Brenton Cox Jr. to the outside linebacker room the past two years.
Finally reunited on the field, Gary and Smith are looking forward to once again doing what they do best and getting after the opposing quarterback.
"We both have a lot of ability out there on the field and we mesh together as far as pushing each other and making sure we always in the right place," Smith said.
"We just make sure when we're out there on the field, we push each other, and we know what we doing, so we can go out there and help each other be the best we can be."