The man of the hour had been at his locker so long – conducting interview after interview in his half-removed football pants, sweaty undershirt and bare feet – that by the time he was finally getting out of the shower, the locker room was nearly empty. In fact, when the two Green Bay Packers offensive linemen crossed post-game paths, Don Barclay had a towel wrapped around his waist while Jeff Saturday was showered, dressed and headed for home.
But before departing, the veteran center stopped. He had one more thing to say to the undrafted rookie free agent tackle who’d stepped into the breach during Sunday’s 23-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field.
“Great job, bro,” the 37-year-old Saturday said, smiling like a big brother near the bathroom sinks. “I’m so proud of you, man. Seriously.”
Those weren’t the first words of encouragement the 23-year-old Barclay heard Sunday, of course. Most of them came when he went into the game at right tackle after veteran T.J. Lang went down with a left ankle injury with 6 minutes, 42 seconds in the first half.
“When you first get in, you’ve got those nerves running. It’s one of the things you want to focus on and make sure you’re not the guy (making the mistake),” Saturday explained. “Those nerves are there, but I thought he responded very well. I’m just proud of how he worked. The guy didn’t back down, he didn’t question himself. If he had a bad play, he dropped it and moved on. And that’s what that does, going out and playing with guys – it builds that confidence little by little.”
Added left tackle Marshall Newhouse: “He played his butt off, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve been in that circumstance, having to come off the bench cold and being thrown into the fire. He did a great job. It was just another instance of guys stepping up. Injuries are going to happen. Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of ’em, and he’s just another example of that. He’s a good kid, a tough player, and he proved why he belongs here.”
While Barclay appreciated the words of support – “All the guys were behind me,” he said – it meant more to him that coach Mike McCarthy kept calling running plays to the right side. Most of the Packers’ 152 rushing yards came behind Barclay and right guard Josh Sitton, including James Starks’ 22-yard touchdown run.
“I thought Don did a good job. Actually, I thought the confidence in the play-calling reflected that,” McCarthy said. “When he first went in the game, I tried to take care of him and play it smart and, frankly, after halftime, we just really played a basic, clean football game. And I thought our players did a heck of a job.
“I thought Don gave us an opportunity to just keep rolling, play both run and pass. And I was pleased with what I saw.”
In fact, McCarthy has liked what he’s seen from Barclay and fellow undrafted rookie lineman Greg Van Roten for the last several weeks.
“I’ll tell you, we’ve really been happy with what Don’s been doing over the last month,” McCarthy said. “You could see both him and Greg are coming on. That’s what you expect from your young linemen. There’s no surprise for me to see him play, especially as physical. He’s a physical guy, he’s a tough guy. He’s what you’re looking for as far as your right tackle, as far as your attitude. And he gave us a chance to just keep playing today, and that’s all you ever ask for out of a young rookie when he comes in.”
Barclay did get plenty of help – the Packers lined up a tight end next to him or had a back in to chip prospective pass rushers on most of his snaps – and he wasn’t perfect. On his third play, he was beaten by defensive end Brian Robison, was flagged for holding and watched Kevin Williams deflect an Aaron Rodgers pass that Jared Allen intercepted. The play was nullified by Williams’ personal foul for his hit on Rodgers, but it was a dubious start.
On Starks’ touchdown, Barclay actually missed his tackle on linebacker Erin Henderson, but he got just enough of him to allow Starks to use tight end Ryan Taylor’s block to get to the sideline and down the field for the TD.
“The first couple of plays was (I) kind of getting used to it. And then the second half I think I settled in and I got comfortable with it,” said Barclay, who’d been a three-year starter at left tackle at West Virginia and made the team coming out of training camp. “The first play was maybe a little tunnel vision. I was just out there. It happens to everyone. But after that I got comfortable.
“You know, a couple plays probably weren’t as pretty. But every play I was out there fighting my butt off and that’s what it’s all about.”
Now, it’s about figuring out where the line goes from here. Asked about the severity of Lang’s ankle injury, McCarthy said team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie “didn’t think it was serious.” If Lang is able to play next Sunday night against Detroit at Lambeau Field, the Packers will have to decide whether to play him at right tackle, with Evan Dietrich-Smith continuing at left guard and re-relegating Barclay to the bench, or keep Barclay at right tackle and play Lang at his normal position.
McCarthy wouldn’t entertain the question Sunday, but at the very least, Barclay has given the coaches something to think about.
“That’s what I came here for, to put in what I could, cooperate with all the other players. And when I got the opportunity, I went with it,” Barclay said. “I’ve been preparing for the past 12 weeks and it was a blessing to get in there and play with those boys.
“Anything that happens, any situation that occurs, I’m willing to do it. It was a blessing to step in there, whether I’m at tackle or guard, I’m going to give my all.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.