Lang and the rest of the Green Bay Packers had just watched the young wide receiver snatch Aaron Rodgers‘ 41-yard Hail Mary out of the climate-controlled University of Phoenix Stadium air as time expired, his second miracle grab in the span of 55 seconds. Now, the Packers were an extra point away from forcing overtime in their NFC divisional playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, and the man of the minute wasn’t quite right.
“He doesn’t even seem that excited,” Lang recalled thinking upon arrival.
There were several reasons for that. First, Janis had injured his back on the play, having landed hard on Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson‘s knee. Second, the play needed to hold up to an instant replay booth review, which it eventually did.
And then there was the feeling Janis got when he heard what tight end Richard Rodgers — his teammate who’d been on the receiving end of a Hail Mary himself six weeks earlier — had said to him amid the pandemonium.
“The first thing Richard said to me was, ‘Your dad is so proud of you right now,'” Janis recounted to ESPN.com. “For him to even say that, out of nowhere, I was like, ‘Man.’ That’s another reason why I wasn’t super excited. I was thinking about my dad, and the play, and my back … I was just like, ‘This is just crazy.’
Then, Lang understood. He knew the mixed emotions all too well.
Like Janis, who’d lost his father Christopher to liver cancer in August 2010 at age 52, Lang had lost his father, Thomas, to lung cancer in January 2012 at age 55.
Both Michigan natives, Lang and Janis (above with his father) had struck up a friendship shortly after the Packers picked Janis in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft, unaware of their shared sorrow.
“We didn’t talk about it a lot, but I think it gives us both a little bit of comfort having a friend, a teammate that you can share the tough times with and know somebody else is going through the same feelings,” Lang said from his offseason home in Michigan Saturday morning. “It’s not something that guys like to talk about a whole lot, but we’ve kind of bonded with that.”
And so, on Father’s Day, both men will again endure the same amalgam of warm memories and heartache.
Lang and his family (wife Laura, son J.J. and infant daughter Lia) will spend the day at their lake home. Janis and his wife Alyssa, whom he met in high school and married last July, will be out on Tawas Bay in Christopher’s old 18-foot power boat — the one Jeff learned to fish on as a boy, the one he and Alyssa bought back from one of Christopher’s best friends over Memorial Day weekend.
Look for them on the open water. They’ll be the ones blaring George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” — Christopher’s favorite song — and thinking about the good times.
“His dad taught him everything he loves to do — hunting, fishing, being outdoors — and now he’s teaching me those things,” said Alyssa, whose own father, Jim, has grown close to his son-in-law, though he knows it’s not the same. “And no matter what we’re doing, he’s always telling stories: ‘This one time, my dad taught me this … This other time, my dad showed me that.’
“There’s not a day that goes by that Jeff doesn’t wish that his dad could be here. Especially to see this small-town boy become a NFL player, let alone a Green Bay Packer.”
Said Lang: “There’s always a couple times a year that really hit me hard missing my dad. One’s his birthday, one’s Father’s Day, and then usually around Christmastime, when the family is together.
“I’ll think about him a lot in the morning, and then as the day goes on, I know I’ll get distracted. I’ll think about some memories I had with him — some from my early years, some from the later years — and I’ll enjoy the day with my family. This is the fourth year without him, so at least I know how to handle it.”
Although Lang’s father was able to see his son get drafted and win Super Bowl XLV in 2010, Janis was a sophomore at Saginaw Valley State when he lost his dad, leaving him to wonder how Christopher — a Packers fan despite living in Detroit Lions country in Tawas City (pop. 1,751) — would have reacted to the biggest moment of his career thus far.
“He probably would have been the same as me — speechless, or jumping through the roof. If he was still around today …,” Janis said, his voice trailing off. “I wish he was. Because just to come from a little kid taking me to practice in fourth grade to being at this level now, it’s just crazy. It doesn’t really happen where I’m from. I definitely know I’m blessed and he’s watching me and helping me through this.”
It’s that belief — that their fathers are looking down them — that reassures them on game days. Both players have prominent tattoos that remind them of their fathers — Lang’s forearm bears a cross with the inscription “I’ll be watching;” Janis has on the inside of his left biceps an ambigram that reads “Livestrong” one way and “Christopher” the other — and think of their dads when they need inspiration.
“I channel it a lot in games, whenever I’m not feeling confident, or I’m super-tired in a game, like Arizona,” said Janis, who became closest with his father later in his life, his parents having divorced when he was 5. “I was dead tired. And it’s in the back of my head, ‘One more play, just for him.’ And it just gives you enough to sprint down there and look for a ball and catch it. It might be something little, but it gets you by.”
For Lang, who’s headed into the final year of his contract, staying with the Packers is important for a variety of reasons, including that there’s nowhere on the planet where he feels closer to his father than at Lambeau Field. After the Packers drafted Lang in the fourth round out of Eastern Michigan in 2009, his father made the nine-hour drive from his home outside Detroit for nearly every one of his son’s home games — even the ones he didn’t play in — until he became too ill.
“You know, everybody’s kind of got that happy place they go to, and Lambeau Field was his. That was his favorite place. And my last memories of him are there,” said Lang, whose initials stand for Thomas James Lang Jr. “When my dad was sick, when he was getting his chemo, that was all he ever wanted to talk about — football and Green Bay and Lambeau Field. There’s still times at points in every game I look to the stands and picture his face.
“There’s definitely an aura about playing there. It constantly reminds me of my dad because that was the last place I ever saw him.”
These days, Lang sees his father in J.J., who’ll turn 5 in August and is a sports fanatic, just like his grandpa had been. While T.J. would rather play sports than watch them, his earliest memories of his father are of watching Michigan football games — or any other televised sporting event — together. Now, Lang says, it’s J.J. who demands that, “If there’s a game on TV, we have to watch it. I just have to laugh sometimes.”
Then, Lang grew silent. As a kid, he’d dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers or Detroit Red Wings. He played football, but he didn’t love football. Without his father, Lang said, this conversation would have never happened.
“Honestly, leading up to high school, the only reason I stuck with it was my dad loved football,” Lang finally said. “Once I started getting good and started dominating people, yeah, then it became fun. But that took a long time. I just kind of did it for my dad — seven or eight years of not enjoying it very much. And now, years later, look where it got me.
“Most people say they have a ‘biggest fan.’ Well, he was my biggest fan. And I can definitely say 100 percent I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”