Tackling retirement: Ruettgers knows how Clifton feels
Maybe it will hit him like a flashback. Or perhaps a wave of déjà vu will wash over him.
However it happens, forgive Green Bay Packer alumnus Ken Ruettgers if he appears to temporarily lose a sense of time and place when he steps into Lambeau Field this weekend as the team’s honorary captain for the game against the Detroit Lions.
As far as the left-tackle position is concerned, the similarities between the 2010 Packers and the 1996 Super Bowl-winning version of the team are uncanny. Almost eerie.
Heading into ’96, Ruettgers was the unquestioned starter as a veteran left tackle, even though the franchise spent a first-round draft choice on John Michels in hopes that he’d be the starter of the future—not unlike the situation with Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga today.
Ruettgers knew before the 1996 season that he didn’t think it was possible to get through another grueling year. He told coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf as much.
“It was one spot on my knee that was about the size of the quarter that felt like a knife being turned inside out,” Ruettgers said.
The team bought some time by placing him on the Physically Unable to Perform list at the beginning of the season. He was later activated and gutted his way through three games coming off the bench in a reserve role in Weeks 9-11.
Ruettgers started a single game in Week 12 on Monday Night Football against the Cowboys in Dallas. He needed crutches just to leave the field and knew then that the proverbial writing was on the wall.
“I’ve played with broken bones, a broken scapula. I’ve played with a broken back. I’ve played with broken bones in my hand,” said Ruettgers.
“It wasn’t an issue of playing hurt. It was an issue of … I was hurt, but my knee was over the years been damaged enough that the last couple surgeries I had just completely knocked it out.”
The rest is history. Ruettgers retired two days after the Dallas game, and the Packers tried to move on with Michels at left tackle.
When that didn’t work, they turned to veteran Bruce Wilkerson, who started Week 16 and all the way through the playoffs as the Packers won the Super Bowl.
Even though the Packers went on to win football’s ultimate prize, Ruettgers said he doesn’t have any remorse that he couldn’t play in the game that determined the winner of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“We were trying everything we could,” said Ruettgers. “I got acupuncture. I went to some non-traditional physical therapists as well as the guys at the Packer office. I tried all kinds of different things, but it just wasn’t going happen. And in fact, I was losing strength, and it really wasn’t that decision.”
Fast-forward 14 years later. Clifton is now the old hand at left tackle dealing with injury issues and has a first-round draft choice in Bulaga breathing down his neck.
Heading into Week 3’s Monday Night game loss to the Chicago Bears, there was much debate whether the Packers should go with Bulaga and allow Clifton to rest.
Clifton was deemed healthy enough to play but had three penalties and lost several one-on-one battles with Julius Peppers among others.
Now the Packers are faced with the tough decision to go with the potential and brawn that Bulaga offers or the cagey experience Clifton presents.
“It would be a lot easier if you could just take like a multiple-choice test, and whoever scores the highest. you start them,” said Ruettgers. “But it’s a very subjective decision. You’re weighing lots of factors, and it’s not real cut and dried.
“It’s very complex. That’s why those coaches get paid the big bucks.”
No matters what happens—whether Clifton can stay healthy, elevate his play and maintain a hold on the starting job at left tackle or not—most people would agree that Clifton is closer to the end of his career than he is the beginning and at some point will consider retirement.
In perhaps one final piece of irony, Ruettgers is now executive director of Game’s Over, a non-profit organization helping athletes’ transition to life after football.
His professional advice to Clifton?
“I think that every player’s got to make that decision himself,” said Ruettgers. “I couldn’t make that for anybody else, and I wouldn’t want anybody else trying to make that for me.”