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'I'll be watching': Packers' Lang still coping with father's death

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
December 1, 2013

GREEN BAY—All it takes is one song, one memory, one (literal) dream to detonate T.J. Lang’s emotions.

Take his morning drive to Lambeau Field two weeks ago.

The Green Bay Packers right guard pulled into his parking spot off Lombardi Ave. and sat motionless. The night before, Lang dreamed his dad told him that he’s OK, that he’s still here.

And for 20 minutes Lang cried … and cried … and cried.

Here sat a 6-foot-4, 318-pound man paid to shove around other 320-pound men. Thus, Lang says he’s a “sheltered guy” around teammates. Acts tough. But he has a soft spot. And he can’t control these episodes.

“You don’t know when it’s going to come,” Lang said. “You really don’t. Whether it’s a sound or somebody’s voice or a song that reminds you of him, you never know when that’s going to happen. And sometimes, man, your emotions take over.”

In mid-November 2011, Lang’s father became ill. In early January 2012, Tom Lang died from lung cancer at age 55. For T.J., this sudden, unexpected loss was paralyzing. And the 26-year-old is still trying to blend a career on the field with tragedy off it. Through a cursed season going nowhere fast, T.J. Lang copes with a burden much greater.

This weekend, he returned home to Detroit. He doesn’t seek closure. Pain remains.

That recent morning in the parking lot, Lang wiped his eyes one final time and entered the stadium. Teammates, friends, asked what was wrong. Was he OK? Did he need to see the doctor? Lang brushed it off. He told them he was “sneezing a lot.” Then, he went to work.

Almost two years after his father’s death, Lang is still grasping with this dark reality.

Dad is gone.

“There’s a lot of times I play with a heavy heart,” Lang said. “It’s something that I’m constantly thinking of. I know my dad was very proud of me. … I feel like it’s still my duty—even though he’s gone—I still have to make him proud. I don’t want to make any mistakes or do anything that wouldn’t make him proud.

“Even though he’s not here, I feel I have a duty to fulfill that.”

‘Hitting the floor’

Sitting in his locker, Lang’s voice is low. His eyes are watered. As his raucous teammates laugh and yell around him, the 26-year-old relives the tragedy.

Day by day. Hour by hour.

In November 2011, Tom Lang needed to see the doctor. He was a smoker for 30 years. And for more than 40 years, he worked for the city, running the street sweeper, the plow, everything. Naturally, Lang’s family feared lung cancer. Yet initially, all doctors discovered in Tom’s lungs was fluid. That would need to be drained out, but, pending a few tests, Dad would be OK.

“It was almost like a sigh of relief,” T.J. said. “We were like, ‘Oh, thank God.’”

The next day, Nov. 14, 2011, T.J. Lang’s life turned upside down. The Packers were five hours from kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. Lang left the team hotel to grab a quick nap at his house. His mom was in for the game, his dad back at the hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

And as soon as Lang ducked into his bedroom, his mother and girlfriend appeared.

They heard from the doctor. Dad had stage 4 lung cancer.

“I just remember hitting the floor crying,” Lang said. “I didn’t really know what to do, man. We had a game in like five hours. I dropped to my knees.”

That day, Lang talked to both Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen. Lang nearly didn’t play. But he also knew his dad hadn’t received this fatal news yet. He knew his dad—who typically drove the seven hours to each game—would be glued to this game from the hospital.

So he played. The Packers won easily, 45-7, as teammates consoled a teary Lang on the sideline. At 5 a.m. the next day, Lang took a flight to Detroit. He needed to be present when his dad heard the news.

“And I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face when I walked in the room,” Lang said. “We didn’t even have to tell him. He knew something was wrong. He kind of looked at me and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’”

On the spot, Dad urged Son to play on. For T.J., it was a flashback. As a 9-, 10-year-old kid, Lang played baseball and hockey. Dad was the one who made him play football. Now—from a hospital bed—he was doing the same thing.

Lang turns his arm over. On his forearm is a tattooed cross with the words, “I’ll be watching.” This was his connection to his dad those brutal months. Each Sunday, his dad texted T.J. those words.

They spent Thanksgiving together in Michigan. Christmas in Green Bay.

Each visit, neither brought up the cancer. Instead, the two watched football together like old times. Years ago, they’d watch college football all day, both die-hard Michigan Wolverines fans.

In 2011, for four straight days over Christmas, Tom and T.J. caught every possible bowl game.

“He was still the same way—stubborn—and didn’t really want to talk about what was going on,” Lang said. “I respected it. It was just a terrible feeling to sit there and know something was going on. It’s always in the back of your mind, but out of respect for him and his wishes, we didn’t talk about it.

“We just hung out. It was special, man.”

That was the last time T.J. saw his dad. On Jan. 5, 2012, he called his sister and all Lang heard on the line was laughing. His sister has a distinctive, hysterical laugh. Lang even chuckled himself and asked, “What’s so funny?”

Then, he realized she was crying. Then, he heard the sirens blaring in the background.

Lang hung up the phone and booked the next flight to Detroit. Sitting on the plane, his mom called. Dad had passed away. T.J. broke down again.

That night back home in Michigan, the entire Lang family grieved together. And every time they heard the creak of the front door, eyes shot toward the entrance. They thought Dad was walking through. Each time, it was a new visitor.

Reality hadn’t sunk in. In truth, maybe it hasn’t.

Football ‘therapy’

When Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” blares, Lang can hear his father’s raspy voice singing along.

So many sights and sounds still serve as triggers that make Lang instantly think of his dad. He doesn’t release grief. He manages it.

This hasn’t gotten easier with time.

“I don’t think it does,” Lang said. “For me, there’s times I’m having a good day and a memory pops up, a song comes on the radio, and I just start to break down a little bit. There’s times you feel anger for how things happen the way they do. And there are times you feel at peace. It’s tough.

“I don’t know if it ever will get easier—I don’t think it ever will.”

His dad died on a Thursday and Lang started preparing for Green Bay’s playoff game against the New York Giants on a Tuesday. The Packers’ season was on the line. But this was life and death. Lang was “in a fog.”

“You just don’t think of anything,” he said. “As big as the playoff game was, you’re like, ‘Man, how am I supposed to think about this?’ I just lost my dad.”

Since then, football has become his “therapy.”

Lang effectively leaves those still-raw, still-explosive emotions at the door. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., he immerses himself in his job as the Packers’ starting right guard. He meticulously researches and studies that week’s matchup, and it does help him escape the sadness, the anger.

Last week, Lang poured hours of preparation into facing the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh—a rare breed of a defensive tackle. And mid-game, an injury to Evan Dietrich-Smith shifted Lang to center. Point is, he has enough on his plate.

Some days are better than others, Lang admits. Lang is upset his 2-year-old son, J.J., won’t have his grandfather. T.J. didn’t know his, either.

“I had a hard time understanding why everything happened as it did,” Lang said. “I had anger toward everybody—towards myself feeling I wasn’t there as much as I should have for my dad. Anger towards my dad that he could have gotten checked up, that he could’ve seen the doctor and prevented something. I don’t know, man. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I’m just sad.

“All those emotions are part of the whole grieving process and it’s something that you learn how to deal with each one of them.”

Al Fracassa, Lang’s coach at Brother Rice High School, remembers the funeral like it was yesterday. The service, the meal with family and friends afterward. He knows the death hurt Lang “deeply.” Yet publicly, he was a rock. In each conversation with him since—and with Lang’s cousin, who’s on his staff—Fracassa senses a boy who became a man.

As Fracassa says, everyone must deal with death. Then again, not many do at Lang’s age.

“He’s a gentleman,” said Fracassa, one day after winning his ninth state title. “He’s a tough guy on that football field. Offensive linemen have to take a beating at times. He’s such a special, special kid. I’ll always remember him. … He’s a very mature guy. And he’s very, very sincere. He really cares about people. I’ll never forget him.

“He’ll play a long, long time. He’ll do just fine.”

Family members insist they feel Tom Lang’s presence. T.J. doesn’t quite yet.

But football helps. Football remains a connection to his dad.

“It’s something that’s just, it’s tough, man,” Lang said. “I think about my dad every day. I know he’s watching and I know I’m doing what he loved watching me do—that’s the ultimate peace I get.”

His perspective

So much for a triumphant homecoming. Lang’s Packers were whacked, 40-10, by the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

Injuries. Fourth-quarter meltdowns. One nationally televised pie in the face. Right when it seems the state of this Aaron Rodgers-less team can’t find a new low, well, it digs a little deeper. In a crammed, muggy, morose visitors’ locker room at Ford Field, offensive linemen tried articulating the train wreck.

Flanked to Lang’s right was tackle Don Barclay. He said the Packers need to “look ourselves in the mirror” and “dig deep.”

To Lang’s left was Marshall Newhouse with a towel over his head. He answered in three- and four-word fragments.

Guard Josh Sitton appeared, stood by his “scumbags” jab and then tried explaining where the offensive line goes from here.

“It’s our job to go and get better every week,” Sitton said. “And that’s what we need to do. We need to look in the mirror, see what we did and improve. You can’t let something like this drag us down. We have to go improve. We’ve been playing well as an offensive line this year. So we just have to get back to that.”

Through it all, Lang spoke to reporters longer than anyone else.

In his fifth season, Lang has matured into the team’s voice of reason. Blunt, intuitive, to the point, he called this “probably the worst (expletive) offensive game in the history of the (expletive) Packers.”

Yet as the ice melts thinner on the Packers’ season, Lang understands the big picture.

This is football. A game. So many fans may view players as mechanical robots. Back in Green Bay, Lang laughed about the one fan who blasted him on Twitter for watching “The Voice.” “Joe Tweeter” scolded him for not studying up. Oh, he received a ton of support on Twitter, through the mail.

But many expected this to “wash over,” Lang said, “when it never really does.”

“You can’t make football your whole life. After bad games, you can’t beat yourself up for the whole week and get your confidence down and feel like (expletive),” Lang said. “There are more important things in life. Your emotions can’t get down. It can’t be all football, football, football.”

So now, Lang calls his mom, his sister, his brothers “all the time.” He re-prioritized. He changed the background on his phone to one simple message: “Don’t ever ignore people that love you.”

“That’s what’s really important. Those people,” Lang said. “You never know when something might happen.”

That’s one, specific change Lang made. Overall, it’s strange to look back, to analyze how his dad’s death shaped him.

Scars remain. This is a death, a loss Lang will deal with every day.



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