Former Hawkeye Prepares for Super Bowl XLV

Feb. 1, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga’s football career has been on the fast track since it began at Marian Central Catholic High School. The native of Crystal Lake, Ill., earned All-America honors as a prep before committing to play for coach Kirk Ferentz at the University of Iowa.

Bulaga moved into Iowa’s starting line-up as a true freshman. He started at left tackle in all but three games over his final two seasons. He was named Big Ten Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year as a junior in 2009 after helping the Hawkeyes post an 11-2 overall record. An overtime loss at Ohio State kept the Hawkeyes from a Rose Bowl berth, but Iowa concluded the season with a 24-14 win over Georgia Tech in the 2010 FedEx Orange Bowl.

It came as no surprise that Bulaga elected to move on to the NFL following his junior season with the Hawkeyes, in which he earned first team All-America honors by The Sporting News. Now, less than 10 months after being the 23rd player selected in the most recent NFL Draft, Bulaga is preparing to start at right tackle for the Green Bay Packers Sunday in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.

“It’s been a great learning experience to get on the field and play in the NFL,” said Bulaga from Dallas on Monday evening, not long after the Packers had arrived to begin final preparations for Sunday’s contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “To have our team get on this type of a roll, it has been phenomenal. Not many guys get this opportunity in their career, so it’s great to be a part of this in my first season in the league.”

The Packers earned their trip to Super Bowl XLV the hard way. Green Bay was 3-3 after six games and the Packers stood at 8-6 with two weeks remaining after a 31-27 loss at New England. From there the Packers earned wins over the New York Giants (45-17) and Chicago Bears (10-3) to make the playoffs.

“I’m very grateful to coach Kirk Ferentz and coach Reese Morgan (Iowa’s offensive line coach). They stressed the fundamentals and the importance of proper technique in offensive line play. I’ve felt their coaching and training has made it easier for me to adapt to the NFL. Everyone is bigger and stronger at this level, so you have to depend on your technique and fundamentals.”
Former Hawkeye Bryan Bulaga

Green Bay was forced to pack its bags for the playoffs, but won road games at Philadelphia and Atlanta, earning a rematch with the division rival Bears. A trip to the Super Bowl would be the prize for the winner of one of the most anticipated divisional championship games in a number of years. Green Bay claimed the victory at Chicago’s Soldier Field, earning the trip to Dallas with a 21-14 win.

“I think the character of this team has really come through,” said Bulaga. “We had some rough patches, where things weren’t going our way. We’ve overcome some adversity to get to this point, but it has shown the character and the attitude of this team.”

For a rookie in the NFL who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, the last few weeks have been crazy, and a bit ironic. “It was crazy how that turned out,” admits Bulaga. “First playing the Bears and needing to win that final regular season game, then going to Chicago in the playoffs. It was great for the fans, great for the NFL. And, it was great experience for me to win in Chicago to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.”

Bulaga was more than happy to take care of the needs of his family when it came to tickets in Chicago, but that’s as far as it went. “I only needed seven tickets, for family,” said Bulaga. “I wasn’t worried about getting tickets for Bears fans.”

Bulaga has played well in his rookie season. He has played in all 19 games, with 15 starts. After filling in early in the season at left tackle, he has found a home at right tackle as the Packer offensive improved with each game. The rookie from Iowa has enjoyed his first professional season, and knows his success is due to great preparation.

“I’m very grateful to coach Kirk Ferentz and coach Reese Morgan (Iowa’s offensive line coach),” said Bulaga. “They stressed the fundamentals and the importance of proper technique in offensive line play. I’ve felt their coaching and training has made it easier for me to adapt to the NFL. Everyone is bigger and stronger at this level, so you have to depend on your technique and fundamentals.

“The game overall, it’s much more complex. Defenses are able to disguise what they do in trying to confuse the offense. The biggest difference is the speed factor. Everything is so much quicker; every player is bigger, stronger and faster. I feel like I have gotten better. I feel 100 percent more comfortable from the start of the season.”

When the Packers have used a first round selection for an offensive lineman, they have been rewarded. Bulaga is the first offensive lineman taken by Green Bay since 1997. In that draft Green Bay selected Iowa tackle Ross Verba. Like Bulaga, Verba started as a rookie for the Packers, starting at left tackle as Green Bay earned a trip to the Super Bowl in his first season as well.

Bulaga and Verba are just two of a long list of former Hawkeye players who have appeared in the Super Bowl. Bulaga is the 29th former Hawkeye to appear in the NFL’s showcase event. Five former Iowa players have played in more than one Super Bowl and two, Wally Hilgenberg and Paul Krause, played in four Super Bowl games for the Minnesota Vikings.

More recently, the Iowa football program will be represented in the Super Bowl for the eighth straight year. Eighteen former Hawkeyes have played in 13 Super Bowl games since 1990. Of the 29 former Iowa players to appear in the Super Bowl, nine were Hawkeyes within the last 12 years under the direction of Ferentz.

Along with Bulaga, the Iowa program is also represented in Green Bay by Joe Philbin, who serves as the Packers offensive coordinator. Philbin was a member of Ferentz’s original staff at Iowa, serving four seasons (1999-02) as Iowa’s offensive line coach.

Along with the playoff win in Chicago, Bulaga’s parents have been able to see him in action most of the season.

“My parents (Kathi and Joe) were at all the home games, and a couple of road games,” said the Packer rookie. “They have been at all the playoff games and they are here in Dallas for the Super Bowl.”

The Packers flew to Dallas Monday. The team will go through the annual Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday, before getting down to business on Wednesday with serious preparation for the Steelers.

“We’ve approached the Super Bowl preparation the same as always,” said Bulaga. “We had a couple of days off after the Chicago win before we started back to work. We took some down time to get healthy. Wednesday is the start of a regular game week. We all understand that we are here for one reason; that is to win the football game.”

After Sunday, Bulaga will have some time to relax and reflect on his first year as a professional.

“This first year has been great,” he concluded, before heading off to dinner. “The veterans have been great guys. Everyone on the offensive line has been very helpful, always willing to help with any questions I have had or anything I needed. There was some of the rookie razing early in the year, but not too much. It’s been a great experience.”