It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since I began my love affair with the Green Bay Packers. In the fall of 1989, I was an energetic nine-year-old, who couldn't get enough of the team dubbed the "Cardiac Pack."
That season, the Packers were on either the winning end or the losing end of so many down-to-the-wire nail biters that the clutch-your-chest moniker seemed to fit appropriately.
In '89, the Packers finished 10-6 and tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the best mark in the NFC Central. However, because the NFC was loaded with talented teams that year, only one team from the Central Division could clinch a postseason berth. Although the Packers and Vikings shared the same record, Minnesota accumulated a higher win total against conference opponents.
The Packers' playoffs aspirations were dashed when the Vikings downed the Bengals on the final game of the regular season (Monday Night Football) to lock up the NFC's final postseason slot.
While the disappointment of not reaching the postseason was a bitter pill to swallow, the '89 Packers sure provided "Cheesehead Nation" with many lasting memories—good and bad.
Let's dispense with the bad news first: The drafting of Michigan State tackle Tony Mandarich as their No. 1 pick.
Looking back, I can't blame the Packers for picking Mandarich. He was a flat-out beast at East Lansing. In college, he steadfastly protected the quarterback, created gaping holes for the running game and, in general, made life miserable for the defensive linemen that had to face him. He produced more pancakes than IHOP.
Above all else, his bulging physique and freakish athleticism were too tempting for the Packers to pass up. Despite three Hall of Fame caliber players (Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders) still on the draft board, the Packers chose Mandarich. After four forgettable seasons, the Packers released Mandarich in 1993. He recently confessed to abusing steroids at MSU and during his time with the Packers.
While the '89 Draft may have proved disappointing for the Packers, the team did receive stellar performances from several unlikely sources. Remember quarterback Don Majkowski? The bleach-blond gunslinger from Virginia joined the Pack in 1987, but it wasn't until '89 when he started to flourish as Green Bay's starting signal caller.
The "Majik Man" had one of the greatest single-season stints in franchise history. He led the NFL with 4,318 passing yards. Majkowski completed 353 passes (out of 599 attempts) for 27 touchdowns. His breakout season was rewarded with an invitation to the Pro Bowl.
One of Majkowski's most memorable games came against the hated Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Nov. 5. He threw the winning touchdown pass to his favorite target, wideout Sterling Sharpe, in a play where it appeared that "Majik" was over the line of scrimmage. However, instant replay overturned the ruling, and the Packers defeated their longtime rivals for the first time in five years.
Ron Hallstrom, who played 11 seasons in Green Bay, grew up a Bears fan in Moline, Ill. He was an offensive lineman on the '89 team and took a little extra pleasure in sweeping Chicago that year.
"It was fun for me, because I lived in Illinois in the offseason and all my friends were Bear fans," Hallstrom said. "Every time we played the Bears, they would say, 'We want you to win, but we don't want you to beat our team.' It was always a battle."
The Packers also raised a few eyebrows when they went into San Francisco on Nov. 19 and upset the powerhouse 49ers. That was the last game San Francisco lost that season, as they rolled off eight straight wins en route to another Super Bowl title.
Speaking of Sharpe, the media-shy playmaker did most of his talking on the field. He led the NFL with 90 receptions and placed second in yards receiving (1,423). Sharpe was also selected to the Pro Bowl. Green Bay's other 1989 Pro Bowlers were running back Brent Fullwood (821 yards rushing) and outside linebacker Tim Harris, who terrorized opposing QBs and finished with an eye-popping 19.5 sacks.
The '89 Packers were guided by head coach Lindy Infante. The mild-mannered Infante enjoyed his best season in '89 and was named NFL Coach of the Year.
While the Packers played only one overtime game that season (a 23-20 win over Detroit), most of their games were very close. Green Bay won four games by one point and three others by four points or less. On the other hand, the Packers lost three games by three points or less.
The hair-raising excitement that the 1989 Packers produced provided ample entertainment for a bored nine-year-old living on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin. The "Cardiac Pack" fostered my love for not just the Green and Gold, but for football, and will forever be dear to my heart.