(To mark the occasion of the Super Bowl and to celebrate Aarron Rodgers being named NFL MVP, I’m posting a piece I wrote couple of years ago during one of my sleep deprived nights)
In September, 2008, my fellow Wisconsinites and I were nervously facing the end of an era and the beginning of a great unknown: after 16 seasons, Brett Favre would not be quarterbacking our beloved Green Bay Packers. The amount of angst and consternation caused by this simple fact cannot be overestimated – for example, my son Nick, the college journalist who was three years old the last time someone else took the field as starting quarterback for the Packers, wrote a column about how a close friend of his, upon hearing the news of Favre’s “final” “retirement” earlier that spring, had actually collapsed involuntarily to the ground. This is utterly believable. The connection between our state and the Packers is so strong it has an aura of religiosity around it. People from other states, especially from more urban areas, see the cheese headed fanatics and their tail gates and beer and just don’t understand. To Wisconsinites, the Packers are Wisconsin, or rather, what they wish Wisconsin is, or was – small town, simple, unsophisticated working class, genuine and true, somehow surviving and even prospering in the harsh reality of the modern urban world. The Packers of Green Bay are the only small town franchise in all of major sports to still exist, and this exception in the day of modern superstar athletes and unimaginable salaries and media outlets is truly remarkable.
Forty years earlier, in September of 1968, Packer fans were facing uncertainty with the departure of another icon. Their great coach, Vince Lombardi, who had just lead the team to their third consecutive league championship and fifth in seven years, as well as victory in the first two Super Bowls, had retired from coaching. Although there was great concern in Packer country, no one at the time could know that this event would mark the beginning of a 29 year championship drought, filled with mediocrity and incompetence that would challenge the loyalties of even the most devoted Packer fans.
In September of 1968, I was two months shy of my 10th birthday, but as young as I was, nobody who knew me would deny that I was already among the most devoted of the most devoted Packer fans. I had caught the fever a year earlier, in that magical 1967 season that would be Lombardi’s last as coach in Green Bay and would culminate in my hero, Bart Starr, crossing the goal line with 13 seconds left in the greatest game ever played, the Ice Bowl, giving the Packers their still unmatched 3rd consecutive NFL championship.
I’ve had a tendency over the years, once developing an interest in something, to throw myself completely and obsessively into it until I have established an indisputable level of expertise in it. Prior to the Packers and football, when I was about seven, my first obsession was animals. I loved going to the zoo and at some point determined I would know as much about as many animals as humanly possible. I remember getting a book entitled “The Mammals”, put together by Desmond Morris (more famously the author of the book The Naked Ape). It was a very thick book, and quite scholastic – it was in fact merely a catalog listing of every mammal known to man, with a black and white picture of the animal (usually some drab photo taken in a zoo somewhere) and a couple paragraphs describing where it was found, diet, habitat, etc. I committed to memory virtually every animal in the book, from all the different apes and monkeys to the various Yaks of Asia. I could tell you the difference between even and odd toed ungulates, and that rabbits and hares were not rodents but rather lagomorphs. Precocious? You bet I was. What can be more obnoxious than a seven year old who is an expert at anything? I remember one time we were at the Milwaukee Zoo, and as we approached a savannah display, a nearby Mother sweetly said to her toddler, “Oh, look at the deer!” Mr. Expert here laughed derisively out loud.
“What’s so funny?” my Mom asked me.
“That’s not a deer”, I said, barely able to contain myself, “that’s a kudu.”
“Oh, a kudu”, my Mom replied, as we turned the corner to the sign that said “Greater Upland Kudu.” My Mom had never heard of a kudu before.
So it was in the same manner in 1967 that I threw myself into football, learning and watching and reading everything I could about the subject matter (baseball would follow the next summer). I was a little kid, younger than all but one in my grade in school and thus smaller than most, so I wasn’t much at playing football. But as a fan, I went from at the beginning of the season not even knowing what was going on on a punt (I thought they were trying to kick the ball thru the goalpost) to by the end of the season knowing the different pass defense schemes run by most of the NFL teams (Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts, for example, played primarily a zone defense, where the St.Louis Cardinals blitzed more than almost any other team, especially safety blitzes from their great safety, Larry Wilson, while the Packers, with what I still think is the greatest secondary in the history of the game, played mostly simple man to man and rarely blitzed). I watched every Packer game and any other NFL game that was televised (I despised the American Football League as a weak imposter and refused to watch its games). My brother Mike had an APBA professional football game that he never let me play, but it did inspire me to ask for and receive on my ninth birthday the great board game, “Fran Tarkenton’s Pro Football”, which I played and played for hours at a time. And best of all, for Christmas that year, I got a Green Bay Packers helmet.
If you’ve never believed in the mystical powers of magic, you never put that helmet on. That helmet was imbued with Arabian genie-like powers. You’ve heard the myth that when you put a sea shell to your ear, you can hear the roar of the ocean? The first time and every time afterwards I put that loose fitting helmet on my small head, inside I would hear the roar of 50,000 fans in Lambeau field. I would wear that helmet all the time, and for a while, even take it to bed with me, to put back on first thing in the morning (although I never was able to figure out how to eat breakfast thru the face guard).
My roommate was my brother Don, almost five years older than me. Don recognized early on the power of my imagination, and, as he is one of the most gifted story tellers I have ever known, was able to turn that imagination against me and plant mind numbingly horrifying visions in my head, visions of the dead woman in our closet, Madeline from “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Don had read Poe’s story and retold it to me, adding additional plot twists and turns and a level of detail that would have made even good old Edgar Allan himself sleep with the lights on), sasquatches, dead Indians, escaped black panthers and rabid German shepherds on the prowl. But when he wasn’t scaring the snot out of me, he was a pretty good older brother, and would let me follow him around everywhere, which I did just about every day. He always included me when his friends were over, although being a little guy, there were usually special rules for me. For example, our big thing would be playing war (Combat was our favorite television show at the time) with our toy rifles and grenades, and if you got the drop on someone and shot them (by making a shooting sound, like rat-a-tat-tat!), they’d have to feign getting hit and die a dramatic death right there in the yard, and stay down until one side or the other was completely vanquished –unless, of course, they were shot by me. I was too little, and thus “didn’t count.” I don’t know how many times when we were lining up to play I’d hear those dreaded words, “Dave’s on our team – but he doesn’t count.” There was always a depressingly existential ring to those words that I’m only now beginning to understand.
My following Don around more often than not lead to great adventure and fun, but there were times I paid a cost. One time a large group of us was playing army in Krause’s woods. There was a part of the woods that was populated by a thick stand of young maple trees that provided a low ceiling of green leaves, allowing only splotches of sunlight to hit the mossy ground underneath. I crept thru the brush and came upon Don in the middle of this patch. Suddenly he let out a scream, his body writhing, his toy rifle extended in his arms up above his head. “Good lord!” I thought, “My brother’s been hit!” I did what any heroic little brother would do – I ran in, my toy rifle blazing, while at the same time Don ran out of the woods. What I didn’t know but soon discovered was that it wasn’t an imaginary enemy machine gun nest Don had chanced upon – rather it was an all-too real hornet’s nest he had stepped in. Don quickly ran out and away from the nest, leaving its entire aroused and angry population swarming in clouds that the heroic younger brother ran into just as their angry frenzy reached its fevered peak. I think Don ended up with about nine stings; I on the other hand had in excess of thirty, my Mother putting lotion and gauze on each one.
In September of 1968, Don was just beginning high school, and I was entering fifth grade. Don was now a big kid, and there would be no more war games, and soon he’d be meeting new friends, going to high school football games, spending more time away from the house. But when he was home, he still let me follow him around, and he still made time for me – still scaring the crap out of me with his horror stories (which I of course secretly loved), but also taking the time to engage in my interests and obsessions.
As the 1968 football season approached, I had brought the annual version of Street and Smith’s Pro Football yearbook, reading all of the predictions and memorizing all the starting lineups and statistics. Then there was one magical page that had the entire 1968 NFL schedule printed on it. I would read it and re-read it, charting out who I thought would win each game and keeping track of what the standings would be, often times while wearing my treasured Packers helmet. And I remember one bright Saturday morning in early September Don and I heading out to our backyard, me with my helmet on my head and my Street and Smith’s 1968 yearbook in my hand, with the purpose of playing the entire 1968 NFL schedule. How exactly do two kids play an entire NFL schedule? Well, I’d call a play, Don would pitch me the ball, and I’d run with it, and he’d tackle me and announce how many yards I gained, and what the down and yardage was. He’d adjust the quality of the tackling based upon which runner I was portraying – for example, if I was the big fullback Bill Brown of the Minnesota Vikings running up the middle, he’d let me run over him for a few extra yards, and if I was Gayle Sayers of the Bears, he might let me get around him on the outside for a big gainer. On pass plays, Don was the quarterback, and I was the receiver. We’d work patterns and developed pretty good timing – Don had a strong and accurate arm, and we spent enough hours together in the back yard that I perfected sharp cuts and fakes on my patterns, and as soon as I made my cut and looked back, a perfect spiral would be in the air for me to haul in. I dare say I also developed pretty good hands, too.
We simulated entire games (though we never got through the entire schedule, of course), and they were as real as anything on CBS or NBC on Sundays. I’d tell him the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and Don would make dramatic tackles and relay descriptive accounts of what happened on each play. There under the warm blue September sky, falling to the soft grass with a football in my hands in the tackling arms of my brother and with the roar of the stadium echoing inside that Packer helmet, nothing else existed, nothing else mattered, but the sheer bliss and joy of a living, waking dream, a dream that was realized thanks to the heart and mind of who at times like this was the greatest older brother any goofy, undersized, helmet wearing little brother could ever possibly hope for.
That was more than 40 years ago. In the past ten years or so, for reasons too complex I think for either of us to fully understand, our relationship has disintegrated. But however great the space is between us now, and however unlikely it seems that it will ever be bridged, nothing can or ever will happen to change the fact that once upon a time, when I was small, my brother’s generosity and imagination provided fuel to my dreams, fuel I continue to draw upon to this day. For that, I owe him my sincere thanks and best wishes.
Time and distance are incredibly corrosive forces, dimming and distorting the half light we view memories in. Each of us twists and manipulates events until they are consistent with and support our current view of the world. We all do it – it is part of how we make sense of things, how we rationalize the universe to fit who we have become, or more accurately, who we want to believe we have become. But in the process we lose track of who we were, and we can never really understand who we have become without the knowledge of who we used to be. Whatever I am or to be, I know that when I was small, I was the little kid with the football helmet who followed his brother around all the time.