I have literally been in love with the Green Bay Packers for as long as I can remember. I am not sure I can recite the starting line ups from the Lombardi Era; however, I know I can come darn close. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I became a devout fan of the Yankees and the Knicks. I liked the New York Football Giants, but never truly fell in love. It was nothing against the franchise, I was simply mesmerized by the Green and Gold. Sure, they were perennial winners in the 60’s. However, it went way beyond that. It was the Legend of Lombardi, the personality of Hornung, the grit and guts of Nitschke and Taylor, the cool calm leadership of Starr. It was Lambeau Field, the small town, and the wicked winter weather. I vividly remember the TV shots of the town of Green Bay during a game. Completely deserted. Not a soul to be seen. Every self-respecting citizen of this tiny Wisconsin town was either at the game, in a bar watching or at home with the family, glued to the TV. It was so unique, especially to a kid growing up in the shadow of the Empire State Building. I couldn’t get enough of it.
At the age of 13 I got to experience an event that is permanently filed in my brain and imbedded in my heart. It was special because I got to share it with my Dad. We watched in what we referred to as the recreation room at our home on Appletree Lane. It was me, him, The Green Bay Packers, The Dallas Cowboys and Ray Scott. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that Ray Scott did the play-by-play in the first half and Jack Buck called the second half. Frank Gifford was the color guy, in the booth. Pat Summerall, and Tom Brookshier were the sideline reporters (not an ideal assignment in the elements that day). It was the NFL Championship Game played on the Frozen Tundra (before the Frozen Tundra was even a thing) in front of a packed Lambeau Field. It was -16 at kickoff and the field conditions were basically “ice rink”.
No need to chronicle the entire game. Anyone who is a fan of the NFL knows what transpired that day. My Dad and I were so into it. With 4:50 left in the game the Pack started what would be their final drive from their own 32-yard line. Down 17-14, it was early evening by then as the temperature continued to drop. It was still anyone’s game. Bart (Starr) was now playing against 2 foes – the Cowboys defense and the clock. Bart and the offense chipped away at the yardage with Donnie Anderson and little-known Chuck Mercein carrying the bulk of the load on short passes and smashmouth running plays. It was nothing short of a miracle when the Pack arrived at the Colts 3-yard line, first and goal with under a minute to play. On their first attempt, Donnie Anderson ran off tackle for 2 yards leaving them less than a yard from pay dirt. They called the same play on second down. Anderson slipped on a patch of ice – no gain. Bart called a time out with 16 seconds remaining. He ran to the sideline to confer with Coach Lombardi. Bart mentioned a QB sneak and Lombardi responded, “Run whatever you want and let’s get the hell outta here”.
Bart, behind Jerry Kramer, executed the perfect QB sneak and got in for the touchdown. I leaped in the air and slapped the ceiling in utter jubilation. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. Another NFL Championship for the legendary Green Bay Packers.
After Lombardi left, it was like the Packers organization fell into a dark hole. From 1968 – 1991 there was little to get excited about. It was 23 years of futility. The head coach position became a revolving door. Between Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Ray Rhodes and Lindy Infante they could only manage one winning record and 3 (1 and done) playoff appearances over 24 seasons.
In 91, Packers president, Bob Harlan brought in Ron Wolf to take over football operations. At the time I had no clue Wolf would be our “Knight in Shining Armor!” He operated with an extreme sense of urgency. His first move, prior to the 92 season was to hire Mike Holmgren as head coach. Mike had made a name for himself as the offensive coordinator for the very successful San Francisco 49ers. His next move was as risky as it gets. Wolf traded a #1 pick for Atlanta’s backup quarterback. A kid from Kiln, Mississippi with a last name nobody could pronounce. There were many reasons this was a bold move. The Packers already had a QB by the name of Don Majkowski who, despite injuries, had shown enough promise to earn a nickname, The Majik Man. The kid from Kiln was a wildcard of sorts. He was not getting along with Atlanta’s head coach, Jerry Glanville. Glanville was never in favor of using the 33rd pick in 2 round of the draft on a virtual unknown. Before coming to Green Bay, Ron Wolf was Assistant GM for the New York Jets that year and they had the 34th pick. He had convinced the Jets brass to draft the Mississippi State grad, just to get derailed by the Falcons.
Glanville never referred to this kid by name. He called him “Mississippi” and mocked him constantly. He used the rookie as a sideshow of sorts, making him throw balls into the upper deck at Fulton County Stadium, during training camp. While it was impressive, Glanville made it seem like it was this guy’s only talent. It was borderline abusive. Ron Wolf had an incredible eye for talent. He had done his homework and now, as the Packers GM, he was determined to make a deal for Brett Favre.
While Brett was a bit of renegade, Mike Holmgren was just the guy to get him to straighten up and fly right, without totally clipping his wings. For any of you millennials out there you have Ron Wolf to thank for the last two decades of championship football in Green Bay.
During the Favre and Rodgers eras we had so many special seasons filled with highlights and special players. The Packers won early and often, winning two Super Bowls in the process. I could dedicate an entire book to this time in Packer football history; but I want to fast forward to January 2021.
As I sit here, less than 48 hours from kick-off, I like our chances. Take away all the hype, all the build-up, all the talk about Aaron’s MVP season and the other Aaron’s damaged ribs. Forget about the pins in Goff’s thumb, and the intrigue of the match-up between two of the NFL’s best and brightest coaches. None of that has anything to do with why I believe the trophy is comin home to Green Bay.
I just think it is our time. It has been less than a year since we were annihilated at Levi Stadium by the one-year-wonder 49ers. Let’s face it. You pick the descriptive word – devastating, humiliating, embarrassing, depressing, frustrating. It was all of that to me as a fan, just imagine how the players feel.
We have what I believe to be the best group of coaches since the Holmgren era. It starts with LeFleur. He is a leader. Sure, he inherited a talented group, but you don’t go 26-6 your first two seasons without being an outstanding leader. The players genuinely enjoy playing for the guy and truly believe he can take them to the promise land.
Then there’s the GOAT. He made the short-term sacrifice (mastering LeFleur’s offense), for the long-term gain. He and the young head coach meshed. Going 13-3 last year was remarkable considering the circumstances. This year the Packers are a significantly better team playing their best football at the right time of the year.
The team has the perfect balance. There is a nice mix of veteran leaders and high energy younger players. They are extremely talented and dedicated. Each man knows his role and is focused on doing his 1/11th. One game at time, one play at a time. To a man they live, eat and breathe the team philosophy. It appears, even the young guys, are enjoying the ride, having fun along the way, while staying focused on the mission.
Above all, this team believes. They are a closely knit “band of brothers” who legitimately care about each other. They believe in their coaches. They believe they can win. Regardless of how they fare in the playoffs, this is a team to remember. Barring any unforeseen circumstance, they will be in Tampa under the bright lights in February. Cherish every moment.