GREEN BAY – Few players in Packers history entered the NFL with higher expectations than A.J. Hawk.
The fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Hawk remains tied with Terrell Buckley as the Packers’ highest draft choice in the past 25 years.
All of that extra attention creates lofty, sometimes unattainable, expectations. It’s enough pressure to crush the will power of some individuals, but not Hawk. It galvanized him.
The franchise’s all-time leading tackler always has been comfortable in his own skin, a trait that guided him through his nine seasons as the general of the Packers’ defense.
“Everything is about expectations from the outside looking in and expectations on yourself,” said Hawk, who officially announced his retirement from the NFL this week. “I guess at the time I was drafted, I wasn’t really too aware of how big of a commitment a team makes to take you No. 5 overall.
“There’s obviously a million plays you’d love to have back and a couple more Super Bowl rings I feel like we could have had while I was there. So you never fully live up to any expectations anyone places on you or that you have on yourself, I feel like. But overall, spending nine years in Green Bay, it’s been an absolute blessing. I’m super fortunate and being away from it, I realize (that) now when I step back and kind of look at everything that happened in my nine years there.”
Hawk leaves behind a durable legacy of dependability, with no player in team history recording more tackles than the 1,118 Hawk registered from 2006-14, playing in 142 of a possible 144 regular-season games.
His work ethic and training routine was legendary in the Packers’ locker room. His team-first mindset quickly earned Hawk the unwavering respect of his teammates.
“One thing I’ll take away from his game was his reliability and dependability,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “He was always out there, hardly ever missed a play, very rarely missed a game. He was always kind of the leader of the defense and really kept everyone together. He knew the calls, got everyone lined up, so I think his dependability, durability has left an imprint on me and hopefully the fans here as well watching him.”
The 2010 season likely will go down as Hawk’s most memorable. Along with winning Super Bowl XLV, he was named to the Pro Bowl after leading all NFL linebackers with a career-high three interceptions and a team-high 134 tackles.
As a kid growing up, Hawk viewed durability as a skill. It was something he needed to cultivate and constantly work at. That dependability enabled him to lead the team in tackles five times.
“He’s just one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “A great leader by example. And just a guy who, I think, embodied what it means to be a Packer. He was great in the community and he was a great locker room guy, great team guy.”
Upon arriving in Green Bay, Hawk developed a close friendship with Rodgers. For nine years, the two sat next to each other during team meetings.
If that wasn’t enough, Hawk had a chance to sit in front of Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre during those meetings. The experience gave him an invaluable opportunity to absorb information from two of the greatest minds in league history.
“You talk about being able to learn from a couple of the best,” Hawk said. “Obviously, I wasn’t playing quarterback but I got to see how they approached everything and how they take it super, super serious but they don’t take themselves seriously. When we’re in that facility, they still enjoy it.”
Hawk doesn’t see Rodgers slowing down anytime soon, but he started to see the light at the end of his own playing career last year. Hawk actually wasn’t even planning to play in 2016 until the Falcons called with a midseason opportunity.
After the three-week stint in Atlanta, he began planning for the next phase of his life in broadcasting. He currently runs his own podcast, aptly named “The Hawkcast,” and has done some work for Sirius XM radio and FOX.
While nothing is set in stone, he hopes to continue calling college games next year in addition to doing radio locally in Columbus, Ohio.
The relationships Hawk forged in Green Bay remain as healthy as ever. Speaking about Hawk this week, both Head Coach Mike McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson lauded him for his commitment, professionalism and work ethic.
As he moves onto the next phase of his life, Hawk takes with him a Super Bowl ring and a lifetime of memories from his time in Green Bay.
“The people there are amazing,” Hawk said. “Everyone will tell you that, but I got to live it for nine years. I see even after I left how much I’ve been in contact with the support staff there – the trainers, the coaches and players and front-office guys.
“Green Bay is a unique place and you have that family-type organization. I still get to talk to those guys and I’m still a huge fan of the team.”