They don’t call it Dream Drive for nothing – that block-long corridor across the Lambeau Field parking lot from the Packers locker room to Oneida Street, where the players ride kids’ bikes on their way to and from practice during training camp each summer. It is the stuff of dreams, especially for undrafted players like Don Barclay. Don’s dream began to take shape on May 7, 2012, when the Green Bay Packers signed him to a contract as an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia University.
Like all Packers rookies, he took part in the team’s decades-long tradition of riding kids’ bikes to practice during training camp. Like all Packers undrafted rookies, he knew the numbers were stacked against him, competing not only against veterans who had already earned their stripes, but also against drafted rookies, who at least had the advantage that the team had a vested interest in their success.
Here’s the thing though: Don Barclay’s story is a lot like a lot of other Packer hopefuls who start off with a dream to play professional football despite being undrafted out of college. Two differences from most other players:
Don made it, earning a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster after his rookie training camp in 2012.
Every day in training camp since his rookie year four years ago, he’s ridden the bicycle of Kaden Appleton – a young man who has come to think of Don as his big brother, and whose family has come to think of Don and his wife, Brea, and son, Cooper, as part of their extended family.
That unique relationship started during Don’s rookie year, when Kaden began to understand that Don and his teammates got all their training camp meals at St. Norbert College, where players are housed during training camp. The food there is good, of course, but it’s hardly home cooking. Kaden felt bad for Don, so he asked his mom, Lori Appleton, if he could invite Don home for dinner. Lori, who can best be described as a “training camp mom,” quickly agreed. Todd and Lori Appleton’s three daughters and Kaden’s older sisters – Sydney, Aubrey and Kennedy – had already established a family tradition of riding with players to practice during training camp.
But the relationship with Don and his family has evolved into something special. Since then, Don and Kaden have gone hunting together and Don attends Kaden’s hockey and football games. The Appleton’s and their daughters babysit Cooper during training camp and during games so Brea can watch Don play. And the Appleton’s, as a family, traveled more than 700 miles to Morgantown, West Virginia, for Don and Brea’s wedding in March 2014.
“Don is like a son to us,” says Lori, whose daughters are only a few years younger than Don and his wife.
All you need to know about the depth of the relationship between Don and Kaden is to listen to Kaden talk about his most memorable moment with Don. That occurred in the summer of 2014, when Don tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the first few days of training camp. Don, originally a backup offensive lineman in his 2012 rookie year, had filled in with critical success throughout the 2013 season when starter Bryan Bulaga had torn his ACL during the 2013 training camp. Now Don was going to miss all of 2014. Kaden was, if anything, more devastated than Don. It’s still one of Kaden’s most emotional memories. His “big brother” was going to miss a critical year in his NFL dream.
They made up for it. They went shooting and hunting together. Don attended Kaden’s games. And when the 2015 season dawned, Don was back in action at training camp. When Bryan Bulaga went down again with injury in the 2015 season opener, Don was back at right tackle for the Packers.
It’s not by chance that the Barclay’s and Appleton’s have become so close.
“Their family is just like ours,” says Lori, who says her family has also formed a strong bond with Don’s parents, Don Sr. and Dana. “They just have a very strong sense of family values.”
“I grew up in a family that was always doing things together, especially outdoors. Those are the memories I’ve always had of growing up. I think that’s why we all (the Appleton’s and Barclay’s) feel so good together. We feel comfortable together. We appreciate the same things.”
That’s also why Don considers himself lucky to have signed on with the Packers, in a community much like the one where he grew up in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, with hunting, fishing and tailgating so much a part of the local culture.
The Appleton’s and the Packers “have always been there for us,” Don says.
A field of dreams? That’s not just Lambeau Field for Don Barclay. It’s the whole experience that began that day in 2012 when he chose Green Bay as his future home.
Rick Berg is a crusty old business writer and editor based in Green Bay. His wife, Sherry, who actually knows how to talk about “feelings,” participated in the interview and contributed greatly to this story.