OK, let's get this out of the way: For better or worse, I am not a fan of any team.
Maybe the fan in me died when I interviewed Nolan Richardson, still the angriest, most unpleasant man I have ever met. Or maybe it was when I was threatened by — let's see, what was his name? — Bonzi Wells. Or endured the condescension of John Thompson. Or witnessed a meltdown by Bob Knight, the second angriest man I have ever met (what is it with basketball coaches?).
Or waited for John Stockton to come out of his training room hideout. Or watched the blood-sucking leeches from the BCS take over college football. Or read about a procession of athletes breaking the law and thumping their chests every time they get a first down. Or maybe it was when I got stonewalled by Norm Chow.
Maybe it was Dennis Rodman. Or Tony Samaranch and the IOC. Or a terrible interview I had with in-your-face Billy Jean King.
Maybe it was watching a pumped-up grump like Barry Bonds break the home run record or watching athlete after athlete deny the accuracy of failed drug tests with ridiculous lies. Or maybe it was simply watching too many games.
Maybe it was hearing a coach or athlete say, for the 12,000th time, that they needed to "focus," until I couldn't tell if they were talking about the game or the team photo. Maybe it was indoor football fields and synthetic turf and athletes built with pharmaceuticals.
Anyway, it all took its toll.
Trust me, keeping a professional distance is a healthy thing in this profession, although most fans don't trust me. I have been accused in the same week of being a BYU fan (by Ute fans) and a Utah fan (by BYU fans). So have most writers around here.
Actually, the machine has yet to be invented that could measure my indifference to the outcome of games.
So I am not a fan. But I was once — as a boy in the '60s.
I lived in Europe for several years, and when I returned to the U.S. I had some catching up to do. I hadn't watched TV for years. I was unfamiliar with American culture. I wore the wrong clothes and wrong haircut and didn't know the music or the vernacular, a situation I rectified by growing out my buzz cut, slipping my feet into some "Vans," adopting the Beach Boys as my band and learning to drop "cool" into as many sentences as possible.
There was another more serious shortcoming. I knew nothing about sports. Didn't know about the Yankees or Celtics. Never heard of someone named Mickey Mantle, whose name the boys wanted to adopt during playground ballgames. I had never picked up a basketball or football.
Somewhere along the way I discovered the Green Bay Packers. This would be my only experience as a real fan. It was wonderful and awful. When the Packers won, life was good. When they lost, it was like getting dumped by a girl.
To this day I can name the starting lineup of those Packer teams and their jersey numbers. I could name most of their reserves. I could tell you Bart Starr is an Air Force kid, like me, and his birthday is Jan. 9.
The Packers were Dave Robinson, Lee Roy Caffey, Willie Wood, Forrest Gregg, Elijah Pitts, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung (and later Donny Anderson). They were Herb Adderley and Ray Nitschke and Bob Skoronski and Willie Davis and Vince Lombardi and Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston and Boyd Dowler. They were Ray Scott on play by play (I can still here his voice). They were the tundra of Lambeau Field. They were a quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl, which is still my all-time favorite game. They were green and gold and they won championships.4 comments on this story
I read the newspaper and magazines for news of the team. The Packers were my first exposure to sportswriting, which became my profession. The Packers drew me into competitive athletics, which paid for my college education.
The Packers were bigger than life. They were gods or at least folk heroes. I was almost shocked when I saw photos of the Packers decades later. You mean they age like the rest of us? There was a certain mystique about them. They played in snow and ice and mud in the far north. They won five championships in seven years. They were men, instead of the man-children we are stuck with today. They returned to the team year after year, unlike today's mercenaries.
I thought about all this on Sunday when the Packers clinched a Super Bowl berth. For a moment, I felt the old pull again. It's a different time and a different game, but I recalled the good old Packers of my youth. I kind of miss those days when I felt that way about something as simple as a sports team.