The 1996 Green Bay Packers are my favorite team of all time. This is probably not an unusual statement, as I am sure that there are many who share this sentiment. But for me, the ‘96 Packers hold a special place in my development as a man. There comes a time in every person's life when they become sentient; where they emerge from the half-sleep of childhood and awaken into their own agency and the possibilities offered by the world around them. They realize that they can become; a process that, if they are lucky, lasts the rest of their life. For some, that moment comes when they hear a story or see a film of the "hero's journey" variety. For me, this happened in the fall and winter of 1996-1997. And the 1996 Green Bay Packers were the locus of this development, around which my emergent adulthood swirled. Now that we sit 25 years from that season, I find myself reflecting on that time. I decided to write a few of my musings, and if anyone else wants to read it, that is cool.
In the fall of 1996, I was in 5th grade, about to turn 11, and tottering about in the trivialities of being young. I was a late comer to football in a way. Despite the fact that my paternal grandfather had season tickets for the Packers and I had been to a few games with him, I never took much interest in football. It wasn't until very late in the 1995 season that I started to pay close attention to the Packers. The first game I ever watched in full was the Christmas Eve win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. My father, a police officer, almost always worked holidays, and I can remember running to the door of our living room when he came home to let him know I had watched a Packer game. I was proud, and thought he would be, too. Going into 5th grade, I was ready for my first full season of Packers football. And boy, what a season that would turn out to be.
The Packers started that season 3-0, and everything was as it should have been. But a loss to the Vikings in week 4 shattered my burgeoning worldview. I blamed the loss on the fact that my family had watched the game at my grandparents' house (as it turns out, the Packers/Badgers always seemed to lose when we watched games there). In the next week against the Seattle Seahawks, I piled several of my Packers belongings in front of the TV as some sort of paltry offering to the imagined football gods. It worked. I am both embarrassed and proud to say that I still have a Packers shrine around my TV today.
I wore my green Reggie White jersey to school every Friday and Monday, but only on Monday if the Packers won. Luckily, a jersey bedecked 11-year-old walked the halls of McDill Elementary on many a Monday. Incidentally, the fall of 1996 also saw the Stevens Point Mall host a series of Packers autograph signings on Tuesdays during the season. My friend's stepdad was the head of mall security, so I received signed 8x10s from many of the 1996 team. One of the biggest draws was Don Beebe. After the victory over the 49ers on Monday Night Football, Don Beebe had become my favorite player. He stayed several hours later than scheduled so that he could sign autographs for everyone who was waiting in a line that seemed to stretch to Amherst. That impressed 11-year-old me. It impresses me still.
I had read in a magazine that Brett Favre slept on top of his bed covers. This was done so that he didn't need to make his bed in the morning. I started sleeping on top of my bed covers as well, a habit I would hold until my wife put a stop to it over a decade later.
At school, the day revolved around recess, where the boys in my class would try to recreate plays from the previous Sunday's game. Though this would always degenerate into an "everybody go deep" offense, as if 2018's Mike McCarthy were calling the plays. As the weather got colder, everyone wore those half-zip Starter jackets that were all the rage in the mid-1990's. They HAD to be half-zip. My friend Jimmy's mom bought him a full-zip by mistake and he cried. I myself had a black Packers Starter jacket. Luckily, that jacket crossed the drainpipe that signaled our blacktop endzone a few times that fall. We didn't have a care in the world and loved life the way boys do.
The Packers were 8-1. My practice of piling my boyhood detritus in front of the TV seemed to be helping. On a cold overcast morning in November, I was sitting in our basement family room watching the FOX pregame show when the phone rang. It was my 5th grade teacher. One of my classmates had died in a car accident the day before. For the first time, I experienced the death of someone who wasn't over 80 years old. It seemed so impossible. I had lent her my Calvin and Hobbes book just 48 hours earlier. It was a strange feeling for someone caught between childhood illusion and adult reality. A few hours later, the Packers were getting beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs, and I walked away from the TV. I went outside into the cold of that Wisconsin afternoon. Snowflakes whirled around in a gray sky. I attempted to play with my younger sister for a few minutes, but eventually gave up and contented myself with lying prone on the grass. I watched as the young, pure snowflakes hit the green grass and melted into oblivion. Had I possessed an appreciation for metaphor, I probably would have found this profound.
A few weeks later, the Packers were back on track. My uncle took me to my first Packer game of the season; a 41-6 victory over the Denver Broncos. That score is forever burned into my memory. We sat behind some people who had travelled from North Dakota to see the game. NBC was responsible for the telecast, and they had a sign that read ‘N'orth Dakota's ‘B'eloved Pa'C'kers. These were people I had never met and would never meet again. But as the low, golden December sun cast its shadows over Lambeau Field, we felt a close bond over our Packers as if we were family for a day. The guy in front of me was always sure to give me a high five after a big play. I felt a sense of community with thousands of people I will never know. I have been to many games since, but that game was an experience I will never forget and think about often.
A month later, the Packers sat on the doorstep of the Super Bowl. My parents were going to the NFC Championship Game against the Carolina Panthers. My mother needed to have surgery the week before the game. I was hopeful that, if she did not feel up to going to the game, that I could go in her place. But, come Championship Sunday, I was relegated to the couch at my aunt and uncle's house for the game. Two weeks later, I would find myself on that same couch watching the Super Bowl, as my superstition was in full force. I watched Brett Favre throw a touchdown to Andre Rison. I watched Desmond Howard return a kickoff 99 yards. I watched Reggie White literally pick up a grown-ass man on his way to Drew Bledsoe. I watched my 8-year-old sister throw up into the bowl of an upturned cheesehead. I watched the Packers become champions. But becoming is a process, not an end in itself. The '96 Packers taught me that.
That night, as we made the hour-long drive home from my aunt's house, I sat in the back seat, listening quietly to the post-game coverage on the radio. I had watched a team of men work towards a goal for months; a goal ultimately achieved. Luke Skywalker had blown up the Death Star. The knight had slayed the dragon. The hero's journey had been completed. The world seemed full of promise and opportunities that night. The 1997 Green Bay Packers would teach me a much different lesson almost exactly a year later. In fact, I have only seen one Packers Super Bowl title since then. But you would have had a hard time convincing that 11-year-old sitting in the back of his mother's blue Ford Taurus hurdling down Highway 51 that the Packers would not win every Super Bowl from that day forward.
25 years later, I am now almost 36 years old, have a mortgage, a job, and three children. None of my offspring are old enough to truly care about the Packers, but like I did over 25 years ago, they sometimes drift in and out of the room while Dad watches the game. They know enough to know that when "Bang on the Drum All Day" blasts through my Bluetooth speaker that the Packers scored a touchdown. They'll get there someday, and I look forward to sharing in my love of football and the Green Bay Packers with them. I am also glad to say that I am still becoming. I lost sight of this lesson for a while after college, and only simply was for years. I struggled with myself a lot as a result. Finally, I decided in my early 30's to pursue a dream that I thought had passed me by: earning my PhD and becoming a professor. I work daily on becoming a better person, father, and husband. I'd like to think that the 1996 Green Bay Packers and the lessons learned that fall had something to do with my motivation to once again become. In truth, we never stop becoming. Often unhappy are those who lose sight of this. Our triumphs and tragedies are but brush strokes on life's canvas; a work not fully rendered until we depart this world.