The Green Bay Packers’ New Minister of Defense
They were gathered here today, one Saturday in March, in a charming courtyard outside a vintage warehouse. One hundred eighty guests is a mere fraction of a Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, though the officiant of this wedding ceremony was more nervous than he’d ever been for a football game. But he knows how to play to a crowd, especially this one.
“Nate couldn’t get enough of Green Bay,” cracked A.J. Hawk, “so he had to do his wedding outside in the cold.”
The guests, a bit chilly on a windy 40-degree day in Kansas City, roared. Nate Weir, assistant athletic trainer for the Packers, knew what he’d be getting if Hawk performed the nuptials for him and his fiancée, Leslie. And that’s exactly why he asked.
Hawk, whose day job is an inside linebacker for Green Bay, assured the wedding guests that he is fully licensed by the state. “And the all-powerful Internet!” He registered with an online ministry to become an ordained minister four years ago, with the idea of performing weddings for family members. To Hawk, Weir is one of those friends who feels like family.
It’s fitting this kind of kinship exists on a team like the Packers, which is based in a small town and is the only NFL franchise to be community-owned. Hawk joined the team as a first-round draft pick in 2006, when Weir was starting his career as an intern. The two quickly developed a mutual respect, which turned into their families’ sharing Christmases in Green Bay. Last June, when Weir proposed to Leslie, the couple asked Hawk that same day if he’d perform their wedding.
“Hey, if you want me to do it, trust me, I’d love to,” Hawk told Weir. “But I don’t know if you’re serious.”
He was. And, in fact, Hawk helped the couple decide to host a wedding, rather than simply get hitched at the courthouse. They wanted their wedding to be a fun celebration with friends and family, and Hawk presiding over the ceremony would help them accomplish that. The only hitch? Hawk had never performed one before.
Word of his inexperience spread at the rehearsal dinner the night before at Weir’s parents’ house in Kansas. Most of the wedding guests were there, and when they heard Hawk was the minister, they asked about his plans for the ceremony and how many he had performed. “I think some people got a little worried when I told them this was my first,” Hawk says. “They probably had really low expectations.”
Hawk has an endearing sense of humor, often poking fun at himself, but preparing to officiate a wedding was serious business. He started to get nervous just a few weeks after he agreed to be Weir’s minister, when Hawk watched his dad officiate Hawk's older brother Ryan’s wedding. Over the past few months, especially after Hawk returned to Ohio for the offseason, he went back and forth with his dad almost daily to perfect the 15-minute ceremony.
Hawk’s final script, which he carried to the altar in a black leather monogrammed binder gifted to him by the bride and groom, was more than 1,200 words. Everything was spelled out, from the order of the processional, to the words he wanted to emphasize typed in all caps, to moments when he should “pause and let it sink in.” Other than telling Hawk how long the ceremony should be, the couple trusted him enough to give him carte blanche.
Hawk and Weir have, after all, spent countless hours together. Hawk has missed just two regular-season games in his eight seasons in Green Bay, so he doesn’t spend a lot of time in the training room. But he leans on Weir for prehabilitation exercises to prevent injuries. After Hawk’s minor offseason surgery to repair a ligament in his finger, Weir texted or called every day to check in. “If he can help one guy get on the field one more day,” Hawk says, “he’s going to do everything he can.”
This is what often happens on good teams: Co-workers working toward a common goal develop a bond that transfers off the field, and not just players and coaches. Weir first introduced Hawk to Leslie two years ago, shortly after the two started dating, at a charity golf outing in New Jersey. Weir’s sister works with the National Down Syndrome Society, and Hawk had an aunt with the genetic disorder who passed away during his rookie year, so he flew out to support the cause. Hawk wove in details about Nate and Leslie’s early courtship—a first date at Chicago sushi restaurant Coast, after Weir’s cousins introduced them—to his ceremony script. “Shoutout to Nate’s cousins Chris and Jaclyn for the party!” he called out.
Hawk spent the afternoon of the wedding ceremony with the rest of the groomsmen in Weir’s hotel room, eating pizza and watching March Madness. But he slipped out to practice his script one final time in front of his wife, Laura, who timed him. It took 11 minutes, without either of the two readings, and she thought it was perfect. Hawk dressed in black Vans, to match Weir and the groomsmen, and a maroon suit. His 3-year-old daughter, Lennon, was the flower girl.
On the way to the venue, in the late afternoon, Hawk sat alone in the back of the limo. Valuable time to review his notes. The ceremony began just after 6 p.m., and Hawk and Weir—with about an eight-inch height difference between them—walked up to the altar together. “This is not the most traditional ceremony,” Hawk told the guests. “For one, you get a drink on the way into the hall. For another, Nate and Leslie chose a non-traditional officiant!”
Hawk made the whole ceremony non-traditional, just as the bride and groom wanted. The first reading was an excerpt from Jake Plummer’s speech at the funeral of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who lost his life serving in Afghanistan. “What is beauty?” it begins. “Is beauty a pretty face, a nice smile, flowing hair, nice skin? Not to me, it's not. To me beauty is living life to higher standards, stronger morals and ethics and believing in them, whether people tell you you’re right or wrong.”
And each section was personal. Weir’s 150-pound dog, Clyde, came along on his first trip to see Leslie, so Hawk read a poem his dad found, “Falling in love is like owning a dog.” In each line, he replaced the word “dog” with “love,” and the crowd roared in laughter again. Later, he read aloud a stanza from the Grateful Dead song, “They love each other”—a nod to Weir’s dad, Scott, a true Deadhead. (Though no relation to the Dead’s Bob Weir.) The next morning, Scott texted Hawk to thank him, yet again, for thinking of him.
Hawk had one more surprise. Before he gave the groom permission to kiss the bride, Hawk signaled to the best man, Weir’s younger brother, Josh, to start a slow clap. One by one, the groomsmen and bridesmaids joined in, and pretty soon, the entire courtyard was slow-clapping along with the first kiss. “That’s kind of how this wedding was,” says Josh Weir. “A ceremony that was more of a celebration and a good time, and the perfect day for them.”
Hawk can’t put a number on the hours he spent trying to craft exactly that for his friends. But mostly, he still can’t believe they asked him to officiate their special day. There was one pause in the ceremony that wasn’t in his script: After the bride and groom exchanged vows and rings, Hawk spotted his friend getting choked up. He turned to Weir, and he gave him a hug.