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GREEN BAY — The conversation came in the third quarter during a long TV timeout. Aaron Rodgers has long enjoyed these interactions, seeing them as a time to have a little bit of fun amid the intense in-game pressure he and his teammates face.

And so, having watched backup right tackle Jared Veldheer more than hold his own for more than half the game after being pressed into starting last Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks when veteran starter Bryan Bulaga was sidelined by an illness, Rodgers figured it was a good time to rib the new guy a little bit about how far he’d come from being retired and out of football to being on the field with a team two victories away from a Super Bowl LIV berth.

“I was teasing him,” Rodgers admitted in the aftermath of the Packers’ 28-23 victory over the Seahawks, a win that sent them into this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif. “I said, ‘You were retired this year and here you are starting a playoff game.’”

The 32-year-old Veldheer smiled. He’d started 116 games (including three in the playoffs) during his first nine NFL seasons (four with Oakland, four with Arizona, one with Denver) before retiring one practice into his tenure with the New England Patriots this spring, and his comeback for his quarterback contained a little piece of jaw-dropping information.

“And he said, ‘Hey, I was at your first game — in the stands,’” Rodgers recounted with amazement. (The Packers opened the season with a 10-3 victory at Chicago on Sept. 5). “It’s funny how life is sometimes.

“Jared stepped in and did a great job, he really did. We’re really happy to have him and he’s been really good for us.”

Although Bulaga was feeling better on Monday and should be back to full strength for the 49ers, Veldheer’s value cannot be overstated — especially given this matchup. The Packers lost Bulaga to a knee injury nine snaps into their 37-8 loss to the 49ers on Nov. 24, when Rodgers absorbed five sacks and 10 quarterback hits while throwing for a season-low 104 yards. In that game, swing tackle Alex Light replaced Bulaga and the Packers’ offensive line was overmatched against defensive ends Arik Armstead (two sacks, four QB hits) and Nick Bosa (one sack, one QB hit).

Four days later, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst claimed the 6-foot-8, 321-pound Veldheer off waivers from the Patriots, who had been carrying Veldheer on their reserve/retired list but waived him after he decided to come out of retirement. Veldheer was traveling to Northwest Indiana with his wife Morgan and the couple’s two sons from their home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when he got the call that the Packers had claimed him.

Having only been to the playoffs twice in his career, Veldheer knew the opportunity that awaited him. The Packers, meanwhile, knew they needed a calm, steady veteran if Bulaga or left tackle David Bakhtiari were to go down. And when Bulaga suffered a concussion at Detroit in the regular-season finale and Veldheer took over for the final 35 snaps and didn’t miss a beat, his value was clear.

“This is awesome. This is more than I could have asked for,” Veldheer said. “Thirty-one teams could have claimed my contract. I was fortunate enough to be picked up by a team that’s the No. 2 seed in the NFC.”

And now is one game away from the Super Bowl, thanks in part to Veldheer. He was at home watching the CBS pregame show before Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans when the news broke that Bulaga had been added to the injury report as questionable.

“I just got in my car and just came in. I figured I should go straight to the source, see what was going on,” Veldheer said. “I’d had the same kind of stomach virus, and that thing is awful. It’s like, he can’t function. So I got it through my head pretty quick that I had to be ready.”

Despite the illness, Bulaga was active for the game, but as he went through pregame warmups, it quickly became evident he couldn’t play. He waved Veldheer onto the field, and about 20 minutes before kickoff, the coaches told Veldheer he was starting.

“We had a lot of confidence in him,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “Not for one second in that game did I think about altering a play call. That was a credit to him and the way he was playing.

“It’s been big for us, because he’s stepped in twice now and played some big-time football in big-time minutes. I thought he played a really good game, especially considering the circumstance. I mean, he didn’t know until warmups that he was going to be starting. That’s not always easy to do. But it just shows you what a professional he is and the mindset that you always prepare as a starter. I thought he did a great job.”

Added center Corey Linsley: “Jared’s been doing this thing for a decade now and he’s done a heck of a job at it. He didn’t blink and went right in there and executed.”

Now, Veldheer must stay ready. Despite the long layoff, Veldheer said he physically felt up to the task — “My body felt like it was in shape,” Veldheer said, “and I didn’t feel tired, didn’t feel like I was starting to lose it out there in the second half or anything” — but admitted that mentally, the backup role is an adjustment.

After all, his relief appearance against the Lions marked the first time Veldheer had come off the bench in an NFL game since his rookie year in 2010. Having started 91 games at left tackle, 21 games at right tackle and one game at center during his career, Veldheer admitted being a backup requires a different approach than being a regular starter. But, he said, he is comfortable with it.

“I’m lucky enough where I’ve played in the same situation — not the situation of having to step in and play, but I played in the divisional round of the playoffs, and I’ve played a lot of games in general,” said Veldheer, who takes snaps at left and right tackle throughout the week in practice. “I just know the kind of mindset you have to go in with, and getting all antsy and everything, that just doesn’t help.

“You kind of take each week and know that I have to be able to go out there and fill in at any second. It could be zero percent of the plays, it could be 100 percent of the plays. That just comes with being the swing guy.”


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This article originally ran on madison.com.

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