Hawk has never left his roots
Ron Ullery remembers getting to his office at Centerville High School in the hours before the school day was to begin during the winter of 2002 and realize he wasn’t the first one there. It wasn’t unusual. Ullery knew who was there.
“The weight room was right beside the athletic office and I would see him in the weight room with either his father or his grandfather,” says Ullery, the head football coach at the suburban Dayton school. “Not too many guys would be in there and walk straight to the squat racks but that’s where A.J. would go.”
A.J. Hawk has lived the story so many young boys in Ohio dream. Centerville is a football town. It was that way since before Bob Gregg arrived in 1973 but Gregg elevated what it meant to play for the Elks on a Friday night. Hawk grew up wanting to be on that field, just like his older brothers Matt and Ryan.
He did just that, playing so well first for Gregg and then for Ullery when he took over in 2000 that Ohio State came calling. Four years later it was the Green Bay Packers who wanted Hawk to play for them.
You want football history, A.J. Hawk has lived it. A.J. Hawk is living it, relishing every second of it and hoping he has plenty more years of playing it to come. The way he was taught to approach the game at Centerville is still the way he approaches it eight seasons into an NFL career. It’s served him and his teams well. He was a freshman when Ohio State won the national championship in 2002, playing a significant role as a reserve, and helped the Buckeyes win two more BCS bowl games. He was a starter in Super Bowl XLV when the Packers beat Pittsburgh, making seven tackles and breaking up a pair of passes in the victory.
Only twice has he missed a game for the Packers out of the 124 they’ve been involved in since selecting Hawk him fifth overall in the 2006 draft. He will not be missing Sunday’s game against the Bengals, the NFL team he grew up rooting for, in his first regular season contest at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I tell people all of the time, all of the stuff that I’m going through now is easy because I went through everything at Centerville,” said Hawk. “It comes from what I learned from Coach Gregg and Coach Ullery and Coach (Larry) Noffsinger, my linebackers coach, and everybody back there. All of the summer workouts, the three-a-days, and all of the practices after school were so intense. That molded me into who I am and what I do now.”
If flash is what you’re looking for in a football player, Hawk is not your guy. He has drawn criticism from Green Bay fans and some media over the years because of his style. He’s not this. He’s not that. When you’re the No. 5 overall pick in your draft class, you’re supposed to be all of this and that. That’s okay with Hawk because there are plenty of people who do appreciate him, namely his teammates and bosses.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t get much praise but at the end of the year he’ll have well over 100 tackles and a few big plays,” said outside linebacker Clay Matthews. “He’s a quiet guy and he does his job in the middle. That’s all you can ask for on this defense where a lot of stuff is funneled back to the inside. He just does his job and he does it right. You very rarely see him make mistakes.”
Once again, it all goes back to Centerville.
“In high school there are a lot of mistakes being made but he was one of those guys you could really depend on him. No mistakes,” said Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, who was a teammate of Hawk’s at Centerville and Ohio State.
Nugent is a year older than Hawk and was Centerville’s quarterback his senior year, handing the ball off often to Hawk on the offensive side.
“A.J. was one of those guys who you were just trying to keep up with,” said Nugent. “That’s how he did it. He’s always worked like crazy. He’s the guy who is always going to put the extra work in and always knew what he was doing on the field.”
Hawk’s rookie season was also the first for current Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
“A.J.'s very well thought of here,” said McCarthy. “I always look at A.J. is the one you don't have to say hardly anything to and that's always a good sign because I know growing up, when my dad wasn't talking to me I was doing well. I look at AJ the same way.”
Playing middle linebacker at Ohio State means something a little more than at most places. Chris Spielman is synonymous with the position for the Buckeyes. Hawk knew that well before he got to Columbus. When Hawk arrived in Green Bay, Brett Favre was still the quarterback. It was his town, his team.
So, who was more impressive to meet?
“Oh, that’s good one,” said Hawk. “I was impressed with the intensity of Chris Spielman. Everyone has heard the stories about him, how intense he is and how hard of a worker he is, but meeting Chris was awesome. As a kid in Ohio, especially a linebacker and everybody knows about everything he’s done.
“I would say I was probably more nervous meeting Brett. You don’t know what to call him. Do you call him Brett? Mr. Favre? Do you call him Brett Favre? What do you say to him?”
Hawk is serious when it comes to football. He’s always been that way. That’s how it was at Centerville, and how it still is.
“He plays football for, in my mind, all of the right reasons,” said Ullery. “Not for the glitz or the glamour or the money or the crowd or the adulation or anything like that at all. He plays football for the passion of the game and the love of the game.
“It doesn’t matter how many people are watching him. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100,000 at Ohio State or if there’s 8,000 at Centerville or if there’s nobody. He’s going to approach this game the same way, with the same passion and do everything the right way. That’s why Green Bay is the perfect fit for him.”