Detroit News reporters John Niyo and Justin Rogers break down the Lions' upcoming primetime showdown with the NFC North-leading Packers. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — The day before the Detroit Lions released T.J. Lang in early March — the first formal domino that would ultimately lead to the 10-year veteran’s retirement — he went out to dinner with general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia.
Largely, the decisions already had been made prior to that evening. The Lions already had let Lang know they were going a different direction. And that was OK with him because he knew early during the 2018 season, when the injuries were stacking up once again, it was likely going to be his swan song.
None of that was going to sour an evening for the three friends.
That’s the unique relationship Lang had formed with his bosses in Detroit. Brought together by football, the trio connected on a personal level. And even though things didn’t work out as everyone had hoped when the Lions signed Lang as a free agent in 2017 — bringing him back home after spending his first eight seasons in Green Bay — Lang was every bit the man the franchise believed they were acquiring. He filled the expected role as a tough, veteran leader who gave everything he had until his body would let him give no more.
So even though Lang’s playing days were coming to an end, Quinn and Patricia wanted to make it clear, this didn't have to be the end of his time with the organization.
“Bob and Matt were both like, 'We want you around, man. We want you to be part of this team. Any way you want to help, we want you in this building,’" Lang said. “That was really surprising. You don't see it a whole lot where the player and team break up and the player sticks around to help out. You just don't see it a lot. It's usually, cool, thanks for your services type of thing.
“That was the most shocking thing for me,” Lang said. “I was expecting for it to be, 'Thanks for two years. Take care.' The way they made me feel like I was still important, they didn't have to do that. For me, that was so special because it was outside the normal. I was like, '(Crap), why are they doing that for me?' It just makes you feel appreciated. As a player, at the end of the day, that's all you want. You understand it's a business, but you want to be appreciated.”
While on injured reserve at the end of his final season, Lang got a taste for what a coaching role might look like. He fully threw himself into film study to provide his teammates with advance scouting reports. He also continued to travel with the team, acting as an extra sideline assistant on game days.
That work made him feel like he was still contributing, and it’s something he’s open to doing in the future, but before he makes that transition, he had some other things he wanted to explore.
"I thought I'd have a bigger role (this year), but it was ultimately my decision," said Lang, 32. "I didn't want to jump into anything right now. Hell, I played 10 years in this league. I wanted to take some time off and go back to being a full-time dad and full-time husband, just catch up on some missed time there before I jump into anything big."
The first several months of retired life have been about family and friends. Instead of training for the next season, summer centered around taking advantage of the lake butting up to his property. Boating, fishing, barbecue and beers filled the long summer days for Lang.
Heading into the school year, the schedule has been built around Lang’s three young children, serving as a chauffeur from one's practice to another's lesson. It might not be as glamorous protecting Matthew Stafford or Aaron Rodgers, but it has been rewarding all the same.
“Honestly, outside of the football, I've been busier this year than I ever was playing,” Lang said. “I think a lot of that is just having to deal with the kids getting older and kind of maturing into doing different activities, stuff like that. There's a lot of travel, like with the hockey schedule, next week we're going to St. Ignace for four days for a tournament. And then we've got another one in January and we're going to Buffalo for a tournament.”
In addition to the family time, Lang has managed to maintain a presence around the Lions, albeit in a different role. He's branched out into various media roles, he had previously dabbled in as a player.
Building off his popular "Talking with T.J." show from the past two years, he’s continued to do some comedy features for the team’s website. He also did some pre- and post-game work during the preseason.
But of all the media roles he explored this offseason, his favorite was spending some time in the broadcast booth during a preseason game.
“I sat with Chris Spielman and Fred McLeod for a quarter and was kind of a third man in the booth,” Lang said. “That was the one thing that I felt really natural at. I had fun doing that. I think I might try to explore that side of it a little more.”
Lang would love to give color commentating a serious try, potentially at his alma mater Eastern Michigan. He's stayed connected to the school through the years and they recently opened a new weight room named in honor of Lang's father thanks to a $500,000 donation.
Lang’s authentic personality, mixed with his quirky humor, could make for an interesting fit in broadcasting. Former Colts punter turned media personality, Pat McAfee, has blazed a path for Lang to follow.
“I couldn't see myself be the formal, typical guy in the booth,” Lang said. “You have to be different. That's what I would have to do. I'd want to bring a different edge, a different personality. I think I have that. You don't want to be boring when calling a game. You want to have personality and I think media is trending that way in general. You would have never seen McAfee calling games 10 years ago.”
On top of all that, Quinn and Patricia’s offer still resonates. Lang needed an immediate break from the grind to recalibrate his life, but he could see himself getting more involved with the team as early as 2020.
“Maybe next year, next season,” he said. “If they'd still like me back, I'd like to jump in a little more and get into a daily routine of helping out.”
This week admittedly has been a weird one for Lang, with his two former teams going head-to-head in a critical division game on Monday night. Without prompting, he’s quick to tell you he isn’t cheering for one team over the other. He calls the game a “lose-lose" for him, because he knows he’ll have friends on one side that are going to end up disappointed.
Instead, Lang is hoping his closest friends have individual success. He’s hoping for big games out of both quarterbacks, thanks to solid protection from the offensive linemen Lang stood shoulder-to-shoulder with on countless Sundays.
Lang keeps in close contact with several of Detroit’s linemen, talking to them at least once a week. He called Graham Glasgow one of his closest friends and admitted to feeling something similar to a fatherly sense of pride watching Frank Ragnow have so much success to start his second season.
“He was a young guy playing left guard when I was at right guard and we had a couple sessions where we'd just be sitting down and he's be picking my brain about how I watched film, what I'd look for,” Lang said. “He went out of his way to ask me for advice a bunch of times. It was really cool. You just felt validated as a player that these guys were asking you the questions, because I remembered being that young guy doing the asking.”
Those former teammates are still seeking that advice.
Prior to the team’s matchup with Kansas City a couple of weeks back, Lang got a text from the man who filled his spot in Detroit’s starting lineup, Joe Dahl. He wanted to know if Lang had any experience playing against defensive tackle Chris Jones and whether there were any tips or tendencies worth knowing.
Lang had never faced Jones, but instead of leaving the conversation at that, he committed to watching some tape and providing a scouting report. It was the same stuff he was doing at the end of last season, trying to help out any way he could.
Body on the mend
Lang hasn't second-guessed his decision to retire. His body was done and he knew it. The way he sees it, he could play another game if he was needed, but he knows he couldn't hold up for an entire season, or even half of one.
"The one thing I keep reminding myself about is what I went though last year, with the injuries, with the concussion situation, with the neck situation. I was in such bad shape," he said. "I'm real with myself. I understand it. I've never thought twice about it. I knew last year, probably early on, it was going to be my last year. And I was comfortable with that."
The full injury list from Lang’s career is staggering. It’s several pages long, listing body parts from head to toe that cost him practice time. In Detroit alone he had issues with his hip, back, foot, neck and concussions.
All things considered, he’s feeling pretty good these days, but the toll from 10 years of football doesn’t go away overnight, and in some ways, it never does.
“Mornings are pretty tough,” Lang said. “When I wake up, my hips are little stiff, my back is a little stiff, my feet and ankles can be stiff. I never had any major injuries with those, but with my feet and ankles, I think it's just the pounding I've been doing the past 10 years.
“Usually, in the mornings, it takes me a good hour to get moving and get warmed up, feeling normal," he said. "Other than that, it's been typical, I guess, aches and pains. Yeah, I've had a couple shoulder injuries, a couple hip injuries, elbow surgery. Those things, once in a while, get a little inflamed, get a little achy, but for the most part, I'm living pretty pain free.”
The scariest part for many players is the long-term impact of concussions. Lang had six documented brain injuries during his career, the last coming against Dallas last season.
The scene was terrifying to watch unfold. After colliding helmet to helmet with Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, Lang collapsed to his knees while trying to return to the huddle. After frantically removing his helmet, he buried his head in the turf. He eventually had to be helped to the sideline, mouth still open, eyes vacant.
No longer restricted by the locker room code of not discussing injuries, he freely shares the residual fear from that moment.
“That was really tough to live with when I was going through the concussions,” Lang said. “It really kind of changed my life. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't remember things. You're living this fear, 'Oh (crap), am I going to be one of these guys? Am I going to be a statistic?'”
By one of these guys, Lang is referring to the growing number of former players who have been diagnosed with the neuro-degenerative disease, CTE, postmortem.
After that final concussion, Lang wanted assurance before returning to action. Along with his wife, Laura, he sought the opinion of multiple neurologists, eventually getting the go-ahead he was seeking. Three weeks after returning to action, a neck injury ended his season.
As of now, Lang isn’t experiencing lingering issues related to his concussions. And he claims he spends little time worrying about what the future might hold related to those injuries.
“Yeah, it pops in my head every once in a while, when you see the stories pop up about an older guy with CTE,” Lang said. “I don't know, I just have never lived that way. I've don't live with worry, fear of what may be.
"At this point, it feels like it's out of my control," he said. "Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Overall, since I've been back to a normal life, I’m not having any symptoms or repeated issues with brain stuff, I don't think about it that much. I know there's obviously a chance down the line, but if there is, I wouldn't change anything. I'd go back and do it all over again.”