GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Green Bay Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari steps onto the field Sunday in San Francisco for his first NFL game, he’ll feel right at home. Growing up less than 10 miles from Candlestick Park, Bakhtiari’s family has been 49ers season ticket holders his entire life.
Bakhtiari has been to countless games at that stadium and has donned the San Francisco red and gold colors on many occasions. It was his favorite team growing up. And even though he was drafted in the fourth round by the Packers earlier this year, Bakhtiari’s parents might have mixed emotions if their son gives up a sack.
“I think my dad said he’s going to wear my jersey with a Niners jacket over it,” Bakhtiari said.
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Sitting near the top of the first level on the visitors sideline, Bakhtiari will know just where to look if he wants to give his family a wave from the field.
While his family might be rooting for both teams, Bakhtiari had to let them know that his allegiance has officially switched.
“I grew up in (the 49ers’) backyard, but I’m a Packers fan now,” Bakhtiari said with a smile. “I just want to put that out there. My heart and soul is with the Packers. But when I was younger, yes, my whole family was (49ers fans). It’s a little different for my parents.
“It’ll be cool. I’ll see how my emotions are on Sunday.”
There will be more friends and family of his at this game than there ever were at a typical 49ers game during Bakhtiari’s childhood. Of course, childhood wasn’t that long ago for the 21-year-old who left the University of Colorado early to make his NFL dreams a reality.
Unlike in January 2012, when Bakhtiari watched from the crowd as his 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the postseason, it’s now his responsibility to not let Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks take down Aaron Rodgers the way that those three each sacked Drew Brees in that game 20 months ago.
“If anything, I’ve gotten early scouting three years prior from watching them play,” Bakhtiari said. “For four quarters I get to go against elite pass rushers, both sides. The Smith brothers and Ahmad Brooks on the other side. Their whole front, they’re a good team, so it will be a good test for us in our preparation how we are.”
Playing for a Colorado team that went 1-11 during his junior season, Bakhtiari hasn’t had many big games in his life. He described the upcoming Packers-49ers matchup as “probably the most hyped game” he’s been a part of. But after the season-ending knee injury to starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga during training camp, the Packers opted to give Bakhtiari the challenging assignment of protecting the blind side of Green Bay’s $110-million quarterback.
“David is a very confident guy who has a good set, and he just needs to trust his fundamentals,” Rodgers said this week. “He’s up against a Pro Bowl guy (Aldon Smith) who’s one of the best in the business and is continuing to get better.
“If you want to be considered an elite player at your position — like I know David does down the road, he’s a confident guy — then these are the kind of matchups you want.”
Rodgers’ message to Bakhtiari and the rest of the offensive linemen was simply “Block those guys, please.” Coach Mike McCarthy reminded Bakhtiari that “it’s a team game” and that he should just “do his role and play his position.”
Bakhtiari isn’t sure how he’s going to react to the moment Sunday afternoon. Based on training camp and preseason, he seems physically and mentally equipped to handle it well. At this early stage in his career, he’s a better pass blocker than run blocker, but McCarthy and the Packers’ coaching staff didn’t hesitate after Bulaga’s injury to give Bakhtiari that very important role on the team.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s my first game. I’m just going to go out there and play fast, play hard and play to the whistle. That’s all I know how to do. If good things happen, good things happen. If bad things happen, bad things happen. It’s the first game.”
Unless the Packers and 49ers meet in San Francisco again in the playoffs later this season, this will be the last time Bakhtiari plays at Candlestick Park. It’s being demolished and replaced by Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara after this NFL season. But Bakhtiari won’t mourn the loss of the stadium where he and his family spent many of their Sundays.
“I think I can say from when I was there at a young age, it will be a breath of fresh air for the fans coming from that stadium to have a new one,” he said.
Bakhtiari understands that the circumstances of his first NFL game are unique. He described all of it as “very surreal.” But he’s not thinking much about it yet. He won’t allow himself that luxury until, well, until what he hopes are his plans the night of Feb. 2, 2014.
“Maybe when we win the Super Bowl and I get to — for like two seconds, because I’m a rookie — hold that trophy, that’s when I’ll maybe take a couple more minutes and reflect on ‘Wow, what a journey,'” Bakhtiari said.