I’m often asked how an Upstate New Yorker, just an hour down the thruway from Buffalo, became a fan of the most storied, decorated, magical, wonderful, traditional team in the NFL. The Green Bay Packers.
Funny you should ask.
Kids form their sports allegiances when they’re about eight or nine years old—some earlier if they grow up with at least one fanatical sports parent. These allegiances tend to be influenced by geography. It’s actually illegal in Pittsburgh to grow up a fan of the Cleveland Browns. Parents of newborns in Alabama are required to declare the child for the Tide or the Tigers before being allowed to leave the hospital.
You think I’m kidding? This can be serious stuff.
So here I am, a ten-year-old kid in Rochester, N.Y., just an hour from the Bills. Keep in mind that we’ve used our way back machine to return to 1968. There was no “Boomer” giving us “Rayyyyydahs” highlights. We had no idea of Mel Kiper, Jr.’s hair.
We got the NFL game on Sunday on CBS and the AFL game on NBC. Monday Night Football wouldn’t start for two more years. The world was much bigger then. Even though I was only an hour from Buffalo and an hour and a half from Syracuse, they seemed like the other side of the world. Kids in Rochester didn’t have the connection to those two teams like they do now.
I remember mostly watching NY Giants and Cleveland Browns games because the NFL was the better and more watched league. Yes, kids, the Browns, Steelers and Colts were in the NFL. They moved over to the AFC when the two leagues merged to even the numbers out.
It really wasn’t the Packers winning the first two Super Bowls that made me a fan. I’m pretty sure I watched the games, but they were no big deal back then. No, the event that did it was my reading the book Instant Replay, a diary of the 1967 season by Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer.
Brilliantly written by the incomparable Dick Schaap, Instant Replay was fascinating and funny. Because we didn’t see these players and coaches hourly on television, they seemed larger than life. And in 1968, none more so than legendary Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi was clearly a man whose presence was immediately noticed in the room. The best story about him from the book was told by offensive tackle Bob Skoronski. He took his kids to get ice cream one summer when Lombardi and his wife showed up at the ice cream stand.
Skoronski’s account? Paraphrasing. “Here I am, a 33-year-old father hiding an ice cream cone behind my back from the old man.”
Lombardi was hard on the players, but they loved him. The most volatile relationship had to be Lombardi and receiver Max McGee. McGee is famously known for showing up to Super Bowl I hung over. He was at the end of his career and didn’t play much. Never known to pass up a good time, McGee didn’t worry about being ready to play. Wouldn’t you know that starter Boyd Dowler got hurt and in goes McGee early in the game. McGee went on to catch seven passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
In the book Kramer recounts how Lombardi would catch McGee sneaking out of training camp and fine him. Each time the fine doubled. As the years went on the fine got to $5,000—substantial back then. Lombardi was beside himself since nothing seemed to stop McGee. He finally looked at him and—again, I paraphrase—said: “Hell Max, if you find something to sneak out for worth $5,000 come get me and I’ll go with you.”
I was hooked. The fact that the Packers had just won the first two Super Bowls didn’t hurt.
Through the years I came to appreciate the magic of the Packers even more. A town with 104,000 people shut down on Sundays with Lambeau Field becoming the gathering place for the community. Where else do you see the players choose a kid at the beginning of training camp and for the remainder of that time ride that kid’s bicycle, with him/her on it, from the locker room to the field for practice and back?
I challenge you to find another franchise with the legacy of the Packers at quarterback. Bart Starr to Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. Many franchises have two, but not three. Should Andrew Luck become what his promise is, the Colts might be in the discussion if you include their time in Baltimore.
So there it is. My becoming a Green Bay Packer fan. My only question is why aren’t you all?