By Sandy Tolan
There’s probably no better time to confess it: I’ve built a good part of my life around the Green Bay Packers. I like to think it doesn’t get out of control. I try to do good work and be a reasonably reliable teacher, colleague, friend, uncle, brother and son.
Just don’t let anyone get in the way of my full-throated Packer passion.
“That is odd,” a USC colleague told me the other day, when I described taping Packer helmet lights to my television in anticipation of Sunday’s Super Bowl. His fixed smile told me he wasn’t joking. Just as well that I didn’t tell him of the Packer Russian dolls I have laid out on game days, one talisman after another, next to the Packer insignia drawn up on construction paper by my 12-year-old friend Gabe, a fellow Packer zealot. Or how I have been known to delay work trips to the Middle East in part because of the Packers’ possible playoff schedule. Or how I sometimes arise at dawn on late fall Sundays, so I can get in a hike and a trip to the Hollywood farmer’s market before the familiar men in green and gold kick it off at 10 a.m. Or how I faithfully read the “Packer Insider” in my hometown Milwaukee paper, and click incessantly on the Packer blog there, even when the posting is about whether you’d rather have sex or watch the Super Bowl. (Yes, I voted. No, I’m not telling.)
“My goodness, Mr. Tolan,” my friend Raul laughed when I visited him in Berkeley a few weeks ago, and we watched the Packers battle the New England Patriots. “I had no idea.” I had leaped off the couch and roared at a short pass completion in the first quarter. Raul and I have been friends for maybe 15 years, but this was the first he had seen of my faith in action.
For faith is what it is. I was never a very good Catholic. Try as I would not to nod off on the hard wooden pews of SS Peter and Paul in Milwaukee, Monsignor Grasser put me to sleep. In Sunday School I didn’t find the road map to heaven—little chalk gas pumps signaling confession and Communion—very convincing.
My real faith was born on fall Sundays, sitting next to my dad in his wheelchair, watching the Packers on TV. This was our common link to a world of physically strong, graceful men; it was the best that he could do.
A couple of years earlier, when he wasn’t quite as sick, Dad had managed to take me to a game. It was December. We walked through endless parking lots, the wind stinging our faces, as he lurched forward on his crutches, seeking the dry spots on the icy asphalt. The game was in Milwaukee, back in the days when the Packers played a few games each year at old County Stadium. I could hear the distant roars erupting from the hometown Packers crowd, still a mile away. Was that a touchdown?
By the time we got to the game, it was halfway through the first quarter. I remember hot chocolate; stomping our feet when the Packers scored; the thump-thump of our clapping mittens and the clouds of breath rising above our heads; my dad’s fur earflaps; and the stubble on his face as he leaned toward me to discuss offensive strategy. If only I could recall who they played that day, or even what year it was. I do remember this: We witnessed victory. I was thrilled by our ice bowl adventure.
But when we got home, after dark, Dad told Mom it was just too hard; he couldn’t do this any more.
I said nothing, and went up to my room.
After that we watched the games at home. On late fall days, when our big maple tree turned red and gold, or on the long-underwear days that followed, I’d slip into the green jersey with the number 15 my mom had sewn on. Alone in my room, I’d play Packers quarterback Bart Starr, sending Marv Fleming over the middle, Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler on fly patterns down the sidelines. OK, Boyd, I’ll fake it to Marv and throw deep. Blue, 52, Blue, 52, Hut, hut! Then I’d go downstairs to join my dad, and we’d watch the Pack on the old RCA. My mom would offer us “nice juicy pears,” topped with slabs of Wisconsin cheddar. My dad would sip his Miller High Life from a long, tall glass.
In 1967, on my 11th birthday, the Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl. For my father, it was the last great season. By this time he was going downhill too. He’d been diagnosed with MS. He would live for another seven years, but not long enough to see the return of the glory days.
Man, how Dad would love these Packers of Super Bowl XLV. Strong, swift, graceful men in green and gold: Rodgers, Matthews, Woodson, Jennings. The game in a dome in Dallas – nothing like our little ice bowl in the swirling winds of Wisconsin, some 45 years ago.
On Sunday afternoon, my friends and I will gather in my living room for Miller High Life, Wisconsin cheddar and nice juicy pears. (Truth be told, we’ll probably throw in some jambalaya, fresh guacamole and microbrews.) Then, just before game time, we’ll crank up “Green and Yellow,” Lil Wayne’s new pro-Pack rap, even though it’s not the kind of fight song my dad would ever recognize:
We knocked the Eagles and the Falcons and the Bears off … Now we ’bout to cut Troy Polamalu’s hair off.
When the song fades, the shrine will be ready. The faith will be renewed. The men from Green Bay will line up for the kickoff. And my Packer lights will burn gold.
Sandy Tolan is an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication at USC, author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East,” and a lifelong cheesehead.
AP / Mike Roemer
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 19 in Green Bay, Wis.