Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Keeping Up with Our Shadow 

The Green Bay Packers were always an embarrassment to me. I associated them with one image: my father on the floor of the living room, slapping the carpeting with his hand, lamenting our awful predicament. Because for nearly 25 years it was almost always an awful predicament.

That all changed in 1992, my sophomore year of high school. The newspapers were excited about the new GM and Coach. And they thought that the team might finally have a real quarterback.

I began seriously watching games then, and reading the paper during the week. I watched games in the living room of our new house with my dad and grandpa. The Packers began playing well for the first time in my life. I remember the excitement of Chris Berman on the postgame shows. My dad stayed up late to watch those shows even though he knew exactly what had happened during each play of the game.

I graduated high school and entered college, and continued watching games, this time in my dorm room with my roommate. It was my first introduction to aggressive rival fans from the other side of the state. I had never had any thought of that team until that first year. As years passed, I watched games at our college house with friends. I remember an older friend of ours who had graduated, but was still in town, would come by on game days. I always thought that made it a little better when he just showed up unannounced and watched with us. I probably haven't seen him since the '98 season, but I still miss him not showing up for games. Win or lose, it was communal. And we all had something worth cheering for again. And behind the whole team, there was someone to believe in, making it all happen. After the team won the Super Bowl, I walked outside and kissed the cold, Wisconsin ground. Everyone should be a winner once in life.

There was a coaching change in '99, and I began watching games in my new apartment with a friend. It was a tougher year, but worthwhile. I graduated, moved back to Milwaukee, and started a job.

My grandpa was no longer with us to watch games. There was another coaching change, and I watched with my sister and my dog at her house, back in Milwaukee, and occasionally at my dad's. I lost my job, then watched at our new house with my girlfriend wondering why I spent so much time watching football, reading about football, and wasting my life on football. We got married, and we watched as the team came so close, then missed.

We moved again and I watched at my new house. There was another career change for me and another coaching change for the Packers. I had been back in town a half-decade by then. My kid was born, we got a new dog, and I watched with my boy and the new dog. I still liked going to my dad's house and watching with him every once in a while. There was no more carpeting to slap; they'd gotten an addition with hard tile heated floors.

But it wasn't just living rooms and family or friends. Each year I would make two or four trips to Lambeau and sit in our seats next to strangers, watching the team play. I saw the great games, and some bad ones too. I slapped hands and screamed with strangers. I heard all sorts of debate over whether they had a chance, whether he still had it, or whether they should move on.

Throughout this entire period, I had picked up running, gotten good at it, just missed my chance at the State meet, began college racing, raced the fastest I would race in my life, began writing, slowed down, finished three manuscripts, stopped running, gained weight, lost it, began running again, got my consistency (and some of my speed) back, and put writing on the back burner.

And finally, this year, he did it -- he had the greatest season any 17-year veteran had ever put together, proving time can be beaten back.

Some people say that it's a good thing, or that we're making too much of this. They might be right. It's a game that will keep going along with constantly changing characters. A month or so ago, one of my friends from another state berated a group of us Wisconsinites for devoting so much of our time to football. He derided us for wasting our lives on a game.

I didn't say this to him, but I pitied him for that comment. This whole time he thought it was just a game. This whole time he just saw what happened out there on the field, not believing it was tied to anything outside of it, or anyone watching it. To him it was only rules and numbers; not tradition, community or symbolism. Maybe you have to grow up in Wisconsin to appreciate it.

The season will start again. Brett will move on to something else. And we'll continue to watch. But everyone who has followed it together for all these years from place to place, through tough times and great times, will know that something important has passed. This one person -- who throughout this entire time has never stopped -- has tied so many improbable events, experiences and people together into an era that is over.

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