GREEN BAY – Playing in the backyard with his brothers and friends as a kid, Alex Erickson often dreamed about becoming a professional football player and one day playing at Lambeau Field for his favorite team– the Green Bay Packers.
For many kids, the dream dies right there in the backyard.
However, for Erickson, his dreams did not end there. Nor did it end after starring on the gridiron at Darlington High School or after a very successful collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Through years of hard work and dedication to the sport, Erickson realized his goal of becoming a professional football player, not for his hometown Packers, but for the Cincinnati Bengals, who signed him as an undrafted free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft.
Last Sunday, another part of Erickson’s childhood dreams came true when he got his first chance to play the Packers at Lambeau Field. Unfortunately for Erickson, the return home to Wisconsin didn’t live up to his dreams as the Packers rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Bengals in overtime, 27-24, on a field goal by Mason Crosby.
“It was a special moment. It’s something I always dreamed about as a kid. Now, I got to do it and it was special...minus the result. It wasn’t what we wanted to happen, but all in all, it was a special game for me. It’s not every day something like this is going to happen,” reflected Erickson in the Bengals’ locker room after the game.
Hundreds of fans from Darlington and southwest Wisconsin flocked to Green Bay on Sunday to cheer on Erickson. They braved an army clad in green and gold by wearing orange and black in support of their hometown hero. And, while many of them were die-hard Packer fans, they hoped for nothing but the best from at least one Bengal player.
“That’s what made it so special that they were able to come support me and watch me play,” said Erickson. “The support I have is unbelievable. A lot of players can’t say that, so it’s something I don’t take for granted. It’s something I cherish everyday.”
The Bengals came to Lambeau Field sporting a 0-2 record on the young NFL season with an offense that had yet to score a touchdown in their two games.
Following their game against the Houston Texans Sept. 14, Cincinnati fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replaced him with quarterback coach Bill Lazor.
Coming off one the most productive game of his professional career against the Texans where he rolling up 197 all-purpose yards on 11 touches, Erickson wasted no time getting into the flow of the game, taking the opening kickoff near the goal line and returning it out the Cincinnati 21-yard line before getting greeted harshly by a swarming bunch of Packer tacklers.
Welcome home, Alex!
“It was just another football game at that point. You get the mojo going and get into a rhythm of the game. I was very locked in and focused,” Erickson explained. “It was no different than if I was playing at Wadzy Martin or Camp Randall. You get going and all that stuff gets blocked out.”
A charged-up Bengals’ offensive unit came out strong, marching 79 yards on 10 plays for their first touchdown of the season. Quarterback Andy Dalton capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green to put the Bengals up 7-0.
After the Packers tied the game on their first possession with former Badger Lance Kendrick hauling in 1-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers, but the Bengals regained the lead a Dalton to Giovanni Bernard 6-yard TD pass with 12:35 remaining in the second quarter and extended it to 21-7 moments later on a 75-yard pick six by defensive back William Jackson.
Rodgers redeemed himself by throwing two second-half touchdowns to Jordy Nelson– the first from a yard out and the second from three yards out with just 17 seconds remaining in regulation to deadlock the score at 24 all.
The Bengals received the ball first in overtime, but went 3-and-out. On the third play of the Packers’ first OT possession, Rodgers hooked up with wide receiver Geronimo Allison on a 72-yard completion to set the Packers up at the Bengals’ 7, and Crosby banged home the game-winning field goal two plays later to seal a 27-24 Packers’ victory.
Rodgers finished 28-for-42 passing for 313 yards and three scores to lead the Packers (2-1) to the victory.
Dalton was 21-of-27 for 212 yards and two scores for the Bengals with Green making 10 catches for 111 yards and a TD.
“It was good we got the offense rolling and got some production there, but obviously we didn’t have enough. We needed a few more points in the end,” admitted Erickson. “It’s something we can build off and turn this around to get some momentum going forward.”
Erickson finished with four punt returns for 31 yards and had just that one kickoff return for 20 yards in the game. He also saw many snaps at receiver, but was not targeted by Dalton when he did get into the game.
“I’m always pretty excited to get to play. I was trying to score like I do every time I go back there (on returns),” admitted Erickson. “It would have been special to score and do a Lambeau Leap. I probably would have gotten pushed back and had beer split on me, but it would have been worth it.”
Nothing would have made Erickson’s fans more happy than seeing his first regular season NFL touchdown on Sunday, but he had to make sure he didn’t get distracted by all family, friends and fans in crowd.
His parents were at the game with his brothers, his wife, his in-laws and even his best friend from high school along with a large group of Darlington folks who rode buses up to the game and tailgated together prior to the game.
“I knew there were going to be a lot of people here, but I had to focus on what I needed to do to be able to perform the way I wanted to perform. It added another element of focus I needed to bring because there were more distractions with people reaching out to me all week. It wasn’t a hassle. It’s something I appreciate,” he said.
“I know these tickets aren’t cheap. I know the travel isn’t cheap. For people to take their hard-earned income and spend it coming to see me play and support what I’m doing, it shows the care they have and the love they have for me. I see it and I appreciate it.”
Erickson ended the 2016 season with an NFL-best 810 kickoff return yards after finishing third overall in the league with 29 returns. His 27.9 yard per return average led the AFC, and he was second overall in the entire NFL.
He also led the Bengals in punt returns after returning 28 punts (eighth in NFL) for 195 yards (tied for 16th in NFL) and an average of 7.0 ypr. In 16 games, he had six catches for 71 yards (11.8 ypc.) for the Bengals.
“Special teams gets you on the field to start, but you want to play every snap if you can. It’s what I’ve been working for to earn more reps,” commented Erickson.
His hard work has caught the attention of his head coach Marvin Lewis, especially after the former Redbird led the Bengals in receiving and returns in the preseason, hauling in a team-high 12 receptions for a team-best 189 yards and leading the team in kickoff returns, two for 57 yards, and punt returns, 11 for 39 yards.
“He’s a productive returner. He’s a good, productive receiver. Alex makes plays every opportunity he gets. He’s a good football player,” said Lewis.
Through three games this season, he has returned four kickoffs for 107, 11 punts for 102 yards, had four catches for 62 yards and one rush for two yards.
“Alex has been great. Ever since he got here last year he’s proven that he can play. Last year he played obviously a big role on special teams being a returner and same this year, but he’s worked his way into playing more offense this year. And he deserves it. He’s one of those guys that seems to do everything right and he’s a good player for us,” stated Dalton.
Now, the Bengals have to move on from Sunday’s loss and try to get better with goal to making the playoffs. A tall task after a 0-3 start, but the Bengals have the players on the roster to get it done.
“We have a lot of talent in (the receivers’ room), so it’s competition every day. We push each other to take our game up to the next level,” Erickson said.
Someone will get their first win this Sunday when the Bengals head to Cleveland to face the AFC North rivals, who have also started 0-3 this season. Kickoff is scheduled for 12 noon CST.