|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
Even now, there's nothing green and gold in my closet, no green and gold in my entire house that I can think of. Those colors, to anybody who grew up in the Midwest, belong to the Green Bay Packers. And as a Chicago kid, born and raised, I learned early on to despise the Packers and everything associated with them.
It was pretty easy to hate them when I began following pro football as a little kid in the mid-to-late 1960s because the Chicago Bears were in the midst of a barren period of 16 years out of the playoffs while the Packers were winning everything in sight, including the first two Super Bowls.
|It's hard to despise the enemy Packers when you get to know players such as Ray Nitschke.|
And so it went for close to 30 years, until, as a sportswriter, I actually began to encounter real-life Green Bay Packers.
It was awful, even worse than I expected because I liked one former Packer after another, especially the all-timers, the guys who made Green Bay "Titletown." As a member of ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" rotation, I'd get invited to Dick Schaap's Super Bowl parties. And Schaap was tight with ex-Packers, particularly Jerry Kramer, with whom he had written the best-selling book "Instant Replay."
Kramer was a bear of a man, always seemed to be fabulously dressed and had the greatest voice this side of NFL Films' John Facenda. Schaap's dinners were always on the Saturday night before Super Bowl Sunday, and every year the football writers had failed to vote Kramer into the Pro Football Hall of Fame that Saturday morning, which was inexplicable then and is even more inexplicable to me now, having been a member of the selection committee for 10 years myself. Anyway, Kramer had every reason to be a raging SOB on Saturday night, but was a prince instead.
And because of Kramer, I met Paul Hornung, the original "Golden Boy" himself, the man who ran the Packer sweep in the alley, and Max McGee, the hero of Super Bowl I even though he was playing with a hangover and had to borrow a teammate's helmet because he had left his own in the locker room. They weren't just charming, they were irresistible.
They told one great story after another, about Vince Lombardi, about Bart Starr, about the Ice Bowl and the blood feud with the Bears. They even spoke glowingly of my heroes, Sayers and Butkus and Ditka.
I was embarrassed that I had developed a man-crush on, well, a couple of Packers. And it got worse. My first trip to Lambeau, I was somehow seated in the press box next to Fuzzy Thurston, who, along with Kramer, led for my money the most devastatingly beautiful play in football history, Lombardi's Packer sweep. Thurston, even after I told him how I'd grown up a Bears fan and hated everything Green Bay, invited me to his bar that (if I recall correctly) was not too bad a walk even in the cold from Lambeau Field. And I went.
It got worse. I'm fairly certain it was 1997, Super Bowl morning. I went to the media breakfast and sat at an empty table, but only for a minute or so before a most familiar figure showed up and asked whether he and his wife could sit. It was Ray Nitschke, the Packers' Hall of Fame middle linebacker for 14 years. If I were sculpting a Mount Rushmore of the scariest men in NFL history, it would have to include Night Train Lane, Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
Of all the Packers, I hated Nitschke the most, even though he was a Chicago boy, born and raised. I recall him mangling Gale Sayers a time or two. And it wasn't just me; in "Brian's Song," James Caan, as Brian Piccolo, is in the hospital when he utters the line, "The only thing I'm allergic to is Nitschke."
I had to laugh when Nitschke, a West Sider, said I had grown up "soft" on the South Side, like Butkus. By the end of breakfast with the meanest man in the world and his wife, Nitschke had given me his phone number and told me I could call him if I ever needed help with my football perspective. Nitschke died about a year later of a heart attack at just 61 years of age, but had lived long enough to see Brett Favre and Reggie White lead the Packers out of a long dry spell of nearly 20 years back to championship form.
I found it increasingly difficult to work up any kind of real hatred for the Packers. It wasn't so bad if they won, especially when they played teams based on either coast. They were, after all, a Midwest team, a team with pretty much the same values as the Bears (although the Packers never had disdain for the position of QB as the Bears did). The two clubs seemed to have the same DNA, as if George Halas and Curly Lambeau had come from the same great-great-great-great-great grandfather or something.
Yes, I was rationalizing. But it wasn't just fun covering games at Lambeau, it was an honor to cover games there, when Reggie White was wrecking offenses and before Favre became the star of his own one-man drama. I came to grips a long time ago with the fact that there's no place in the NFL better than Lambeau to see a football game. Watching Favre play in Lambeau was like watching Jordan play in the old Chicago Stadium or Bobby Orr play in Boston Garden or Mickey Mantle play in Yankee Stadium.
Don't get me wrong, I have no trouble finding my hatred for the Packers when the Bears are involved. I can still remember Alan Page blocking a field goal attempt back into the arms of kicker Chester Marcol, who raced into the end zone, resulting in a 12-6 Packers victory in 1980. I remember Don Majkowski crossing the line of scrimmage, in Lambeau of course, and throwing a touchdown pass that shouldn't have counted but did in a Packers victory in 1989. Mike Ditka, for years, wouldn't let the game be listed as a Packers victory in the Bears' media guide, which is exactly the spirit of the feud.
And there was that idiot, Charles (Too Stupid) Martin slamming Jim McMahon to the ground about 10 seconds after the end of a play, ruining the Bears' chances for a serious Super Bowl run in 1986. Seems I merely enjoy the victories, but obsess over every loss to the Packers, even the one this December in a game the Bears didn't need but the Packers had to have to reach the playoffs.
I'm not sure which result I'd rather have: eliminating the Packers from the playoffs in Lambeau on the final Sunday of the NFL season, or going to the Super Bowl at their expense in Soldier Field.
I'm long past the point of hating the Packers 24/7, but the idea of losing to the Cheeseheads, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line for the very first time, is as revolting now as ever.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.