Friday, January 13, 2012

Confessions of a Packer Fan

I try not to mention it too often on this blog, but I am a Green Bay Packers fan.

I have been a Cheesehead since I was a child — when I lived in central Arkansas, the only TV my family had was a rather small black–and–white number that my grandparents gave us and a guy named Lombardi was on the Green Bay sideline.

Through most of my life, a statement like "I am a Green Bay Packers fan" was kind of like one of those confessions people make at 12–step meetings. But not really. I mean, such meetings usually are about some kind of addiction over which a person is powerless, like an addiction to alcohol or tobacco. Other times, they are about an addiction to some other kind of destructive behavior, like kleptomania.

In the early years of my life, being a Packer fan was rarely about gratification — although I guess a case could be made for the cumulative destructive impact on one's psyche and self–esteem from all those losing seasons.

("My name is David, and I'm a Packerholic ...")

For awhile, I wore it as a badge of honor. When I was about 12 or 13, I had a Packers jacket — designed like those letterman jackets that jocks have been wearing since the dawn of time — that I wore almost defiantly everywhere I went.

It was a small club. I had a few friends who liked the Packers, too, and most of my friends wore similar NFL jackets, but the logos on their jackets were for the winners. I tended to see most of my peers as either fair–weather fans who followed whichever team was winning (they were the ones who liked Don Shula's Dolphins or Chuck Noll's Steelers) or were susceptible to regional influences (mostly Cowboys fans).

I considered myself special because my allegiance was not based on either factor.

Green Bay must be several hundred miles from my hometown, and the Packers rarely had winning seasons when I was growing up. It's hard to make a convincing case that someone jumped on a team's bandwagon when the team in question routinely loses at least two–thirds of its games — unless the fan is a glutton for punishment, which I am not.

(At least, I don't think I am.)

But, as I got older, I started to think that being a Packer fan was something shameful so I stopped sharing it with new acquaintances, and I became selective about the old friends with whom I would discuss it. In that sense, perhaps I was sort of like an alcoholic, indulging in my addiction within a select circle of friends — or (shudder!) when I was by myself.

Most of the time, it was easier just to not say anything when I was with a group of Cowboys fans or fans of the latest powerhouse.

Drinking alone would have been far more satisfying than sitting through the Packers' often lopsided losses. Fortunately, I guess, I rarely saw a Packers game on TV in those days. They weren't winning so there was little interest in them outside their home region.

Occasionally, I might get to see them on a Sunday (if they were playing someone in my region, like the Cowboys or the Chiefs or the Cardinals when they were still in St. Louis) or in a Monday night game. But, most of the time, I was spared the pain of watching them being subjected to a severe beating — which, inevitably, they were.

In spite of it all, I remained loyal to the Packers — through all those 2–, 3– and 4–win seasons. I assured myself that things would turn around eventually. I just didn't know if I would live to see it.

But I did.

I guess all those losing seasons really conditioned me because, even after the Packers turned things around, I still kept expecting them to revert to their old ways. In my formative years — after Lombardi left Green Bay — success was fleeting. Winning seasons didn't come in bunches.

I must admit, I was often envious of the people I knew whose favorite teams were always in the playoffs. For me, if my favorite team was in the playoffs, that alone was cause for celebration. Who knew when it might happen again?

Because of that mindset, it's kind of like an out–of–body experience — or maybe an alternate reality experience — to read Richard Rothschild's suggestion in Sports Illustrated that today's Packers might be better than Lombardi's teams of the 1960s.

Well, actually, Rothschild didn't suggest it — members of the 1961 team that won the first of five NFL championships in seven years suggested it — but Rothschild made a good statistical case supporting it.

God help me, I think I'm starting to believe it.

In my experience, things started to turn around in the 1990s, when Brett Favre came to Green Bay and started leading the Packers to the playoffs on a regular basis. Before he left Green Bay, Favre set all kinds of records and took the Packers to two consecutive Super Bowls, matching Bart Starr's achievement in my childhood, but he couldn't win both.

But even with all his success, even with three consecutive MVPs in the 1990s, Favre didn't take the Packers to the dizzying heights that were reached in the 1960s. Starr is still the only quarterback to lead the Packers to two straight Super Bowl victories.

But Aaron Rodgers, Favre's successor, has the opportunity to match Starr in that category if he wins this year's Super Bowl, and the Packers appear to be talented enough to turn this decade into a repeat of the decade of Starr and Lombardi.

But who should be standing in their way this weekend but the New York Giants ... the very team that came to Lambeau Field four years ago and beat Favre in his final game in a Packer uniform, the NFC Championship game that most observers thought would propel him to his third Super Bowl.

That would have been a first for a Packer signal caller. Instead, it was the end of an era, and I am sure I wasn't the only Packer fan who worried that the team might slip back into mediocrity.

The Packers did slump to that all–too–familiar sub–.500 territory in Rodgers' first season as Green Bay's starting quarterback, but he had them back in the playoffs the next year. And he won the Super Bowl the year after that.

The NFC Championship is not on the line this weekend. It won't be the first time these teams have played each other since that game in January 2008. They've met twice, both times in Green Bay, and the Packers have won both.

But those were regular–season games. There's an appealing symmetry to the idea that Rodgers — who launched a 19–game winning streak with a lopsided victory over the Giants in December 2010 — can avenge that playoff loss Sunday.

Wanna talk symmetry? The Giants were the first team the Packers of the 1960s beat in an NFL championship game back in December 1961. On Sunday afternoon, they will be back at Lambeau Field.

In spite of myself, I'm starting to think pro football history might be about to repeat itself.

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