I’ve always had trouble saying the word no.
I don’t know why. I guess I just don’t like to disappoint people. Whenever a coach asked me to play special teams, I always did. A fan asks for a photo? Say cheese. Autograph request? Hand me the Sharpie.
I even had an autograph signing on the day my wife, Laura, and I got engaged. So instead of spending the evening celebrating with our families, I made the 2½-hour drive up to Cleveland to sign photos and footballs. I had known that I was going to propose that day, but when somebody asked me to do that signing, I just couldn’t say no.
My inability to say no gets me in trouble sometimes — with my wife. Throughout my career, I kept both our calendars pretty full. I would overschedule myself and worry about the consequences later, and it would drive her crazy. She never got mad — she always understood. She’d just give me that look like, C’mon, A.J.
And remember the time I tackled that guy on the golf course? That’s another example. I was out at the American Century celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe back in 2014, and there was a group of guys getting pretty rowdy at the tee box on the 7th hole. You could hear them from two or three holes away. They had been there all day, tailgating and partying, and they were asking guys from each group that came through to tackle one of their buddies.
My brother, Ryan, was caddying for me. When we approached the 7th tee, he got there first. I walked up the short hill to the tee box behind him, and when I got there, he said, “Hey, these dudes want you to tackle their friend.”
Now, any reasonable person would have thought that those guys were just crazy and laughed it off and gone about their round of golf. But not me. These guys wanted me to tackle their buddy, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
So I said, “O.K., which one is he?”
His friends pointed him out — he was a pretty big guy, too — and I dropped down like I was coming around the edge for a sack and hit him with a solid but restrained shoulder to the chest.
My brother got it on video, and for the rest of the day, we were showing it all over the golf course. Aaron Rodgers was out there, and when I showed it to him, he loved it. Charles Barkley was also playing, and he had seen it, too. When he saw me, he gave me a cautious look when I approached him, like I was going to try and blindside him. We had fun with it.
Then, when we left the course, we realized that some fans had also gotten it on video, and when it hit YouTube, it really blew up. It eventually made the NFL Network and SportsCenter’s top plays. It was everywhere.
All because I couldn’t say no.
But then I have situations that come up where it’s really not that I’m unable to say no — it’s that I don’t want to.
Like when the Bengals released me after the 2015 season, my 10th in the NFL, and for the first time in my career, the question I had to ask myself was, Is it time to retire?
Well, I couldn’t really say no — mainly because I didn’t want to say no.
It just felt like the right time, so retirement wasn’t a difficult reality for me to accept. I recently read a Players’ Tribune piece by one of my old teammates, Jermichael Finley, and I think he put it best when he wrote, “Most guys don’t get to decide for themselves when they’re done with the game. The game lets you know when it’s done with you.”
The Bengals had sent the message loud and clear. I understood the situation, accepted my reality and welcomed the inevitable transition that all pro athletes eventually experience.
I’m pretty determined to not end up as a retirement horror story.
But here’s the thing about retirement: When you’re still in the league, you hear the horror stories about guys who retire, and then they’re just … lost. A guy retires, and then he finds himself sleeping in every morning until like 11 a.m. because he suddenly doesn’t have anything to do or anywhere to be. He just kind of wanders without a purpose or plan, unable to find something that he’s as passionate about as football.
I could never really relate to that because I’ve always liked to stay active. So whenever I heard those stories, I always thought, Nah, that won’t happen to me.
But then my next thought would be that those guys probably didn’t think it would happen to them, either.
So really, the scariest part about retiring is the anticipation — wondering what it’s going to be like, and how you’re going to handle it.
Once I decided I was done, I was completely at peace with my decision. That off-season before the 2016 season, I started doing what I had always done: Saying yes to everything and filling up my schedule. I was making appearances, doing a radio show with Sirius and looking into broadcasting opportunities, something I had prepared for during my last few years in the league. I went back out to Tahoe for the golf tournament, which I still do every year because it’s one of my favorite events. OTAs, training camp and the preseason came and went, and for the first time in a decade, I wasn’t there. And I was fine with that.
And then, the Falcons called.
And once again, I found that I just couldn’t say no.
Now, if you’re thinking, Wait, A.J. Hawk played for the Falcons? That’s O.K. Most people don’t know that I actually played football in 2016. When Atlanta called, it was totally unexpected. It was already October, four weeks into the season, and they had had a couple of linebackers go down with injuries. I knew some guys who had played for Dan Quinn in the past, and they told me what a great experience it had been. So I thought about it for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and then I booked a flight to Atlanta.
I was only on the team for three weeks, and in that time, one by one, the injured guys started to come back healthy. I saw the writing on the wall. When they let me go — just like when the Bengals released me — I was completely O.K. with it. I wasn’t hanging on for dear life to a career that was nearing its end. I knew it was over. In fact, I was actually excited to go back to Ohio, back to my new life after football.
The short time I spent in Atlanta was a great experience, and I’ll always love and appreciate the Falcons for the opportunity. When the off-season rolled around, I signed with the Packers so I could make my retirement official and end my NFL career where it had started.
It felt like a pretty big weight was lifted off my shoulders when I announced to the world that I was retiring.
A few months ago, I was walking through the halls of Ohio Stadium with Laura. The lights were dimmed and it was quiet — weirdly quiet. We were supposed to meet Laura’s brother for dinner later that night, but she told me that first we had to stop at a fundraiser for the James Cancer Hospital. We do a lot of work with them, so it didn’t seem strange to me. She said the event was being held in the recruit room at the stadium, which is where they have a lot of banquets and events. But it felt weird because the parking lot was pretty empty when we pulled up, and like I said, everything was … quiet.
So we opened the door to the recruiting room, and there were about 100 people huddled in the back. In the crowd, a few faces stood out immediately. Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson. Clay Matthews. Andy Dalton. A bunch of guys I had played with in my career were there. I even spotted some of my old Ohio State teammates. My family was there, too. And was that Jim Tressel over there with Urban Meyer? What’s Mike McCarthy doing here? What’s going on?
That was about all my brain could process before the whole room erupted.
I’m standing there, confused and kind of in shock, thinking, That’s weird … it’s not my birthday or anything.
Then I saw that there was a table full of memorabilia and my highlights were playing up on the projection screen — and then it hit me….
Laura had spent over four months planning a surprise retirement celebration, trying to coordinate and get all these guys to Columbus. They came from all over the country. I still don’t know how she did it.
So now, even if the phone does ring and a team wants to bring in a veteran linebacker like me, I can’t go back. I’ve already had the retirement party. You don’t come back from that, right?
That’s like, officially official.
I love where I’m at in my life right now, enjoying retirement with Laura and our four kids. I’ve said goodbye to the game, but I think that whenever an athlete retires, they always have some regrets — actually, regrets might be a strong word. But I believe everybody has things they wish they could have done that they didn’t. Things they wish the could have accomplished, but fell short.
For me, my only regret is that we didn’t win multiple Super Bowls during my time in Green Bay.
Think about it: When you have Aaron Rodgers, who is the greatest quarterback of all time, you always have a shot at winning it all. And we had a great group of guys around him, too. I played with Brett Favre for two years and Aaron Rodgers for seven, and we only won one ring. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always cherish the Super Bowl ring that I do have. But looking back, I believe we should have won more.
But that’s for the rest of the guys on that team to worry about now, and their window is still wide open. Me? I’ll be at home in Ohio, rooting for them. And when I’m not spending time with my family, I’ll be doing my Sirius radio show and calling college football games in the booth as a color analyst. I’ll be sitting in at a local radio station once a week, working things like Big Ten media day for SiriusXM and studying the best broadcasters and color analysts in the business to figure out how I can get better — the same way I watched film when I was playing.
I’ll have some fun along the way, too. You’ll see me out at the American Century golf tournament every July, where I meet up with the same group of guys who asked me to tackle their buddy in 2014 and try to one-up what we did the year before.
The first year, it was the tackle that went viral. The following year, the guys came up with the idea for me to recreate the hit, but this time with five cameras lined up at different angles and with GoPros on the guy’s body. Then last year, they put the guy in one of those big inflatable bubbles and let me blast him.
I’m excited to see what they’ve got planned for this year’s tournament.
I’ll always miss playing the game and I’ll forever be grateful for all it has given me, and I’m pretty determined to not end up as a retirement horror story. I’m going to stay active. We all have a choice to make. I choose to be grateful for the relationships that I forged during my years on the field. I also choose to attack my future as a broadcaster with the same drive I had for football.
A.J. Hawk will play in the 28th Annual American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe (July 14–16) to help raise money for the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and other regional charities. The competition airs live Friday on NBCSN, and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on NBC.