Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Next time, get through the "boos!" on Halloween

I grew up in Wisconsin, cheering for the Green Bay Packers. I did so before I even knew why, like most kids from that part of the world. To this day I have a hilarious picture of a favorite childhood Packer on my fridge. Below average but lovable running back Eric Torkelson did an afternoon autograph session at a True Value Hardware store in Medford, the "big town" in the county. My dad drove me the 30 miles there and snapped a crappy 110-film shot of Torkelson with his arm around my shoulder. I'm wearing a delightful Shopko-quality Milwaukee Brewers jacket while I'm holding my 9-year-old boy-sized football that Torkelson signed. I continued to play with that ball until his autograph eventually wore off. Which in the late fall months of northern Wisconsin meant about a week worth of games at recess. My younger brother and his family currently live in Green Bay and last year got both Torkelson and Lynn Dickey to sign a postcard for me at Packer Day during the pre-season. In short, I go all the way back. But this past weekend, I rooted for the Vikings.

The rift caused by Brett Favre going to the Vikings is unlike any icon's departure in the history of professional sports. There are deeply entrenched opinions on both sides. Depending on where you stand, Favre is either a traitor or the Packers screwed the pooch by not finding a way to keep him. Regardless of where you stand, though, all Packers fans are by their very nature meant to despise the Vikings. That animosity developed in full during the 70s, when the Packers were running on the fading vapors left from the iconic Lombardi era and the Vikings were making it to and then losing four Super Bowls in the decade. Fran Tarkenton was the devil in my childhood home. One of my earliest lingering memories of the NFL in the 70s was feeling great about the Vikings getting the lutefisk kicked out of them by John Madden's Raiders after the '76 Season. I was in second grade. Yada yada yada.

As an undergraduate I went to the University of Minnesota, like my dad and older brother before me. The rest of the family went to college in Wisconsin. While in the Twin Cities, I met and befriended countless Vikings fans. I came to see their point of view as possibly valid. They, too, had hopes and dreams of a Super Bowl victory in their lifetimes. They too hated. They too loved. And even though their stadium situation has been a major drawback for decades, I saw them as real NFL fans of the highest order. I still hated the Vikings. But I'd come to know them, while still rooting against them to my very core.

Until this year. Favre and I are the same age, and I've identified with him during his career like no other professional athlete. That is why, on some level, when he had trouble finding satisfaction in Green Bay because of a boss that was being a complete prick, I started rooting for him to make it in another uniform. I knew he wanted to be in the NFC North, most obviously in the system he knew best like what they run in Minnesota. Last year's sojourn with the Jets was like a wealthy hayseed dating a brainless supermodel - it sounded like fun as a concept, but it basically never worked for either side of the equation. Even when the Jets were winning and Favre wasn't injured. But then when the chance came for a move to Minnesota, I saw it as a surprisingly obvious chance for Favre to get back to the Super Bowl. Many others have a very different view of Favre's choice to move to the Vikes, usually predicated by some nonsensical claim of his self-centered nature. To those I have one thing to say - Brett Favre is an NFL quarterback. Aside from ballerinas or dictators, I can't think of another line of work more tailor made for people with such a prima donna complex.

So at long last Sunday in Green Bay playing for another team, NFL fans the whole world wide saw just what Favre had left in the tank. The Packers are a team that currently constitute a Wild Card level of competitiveness. The Vikings are a complete team that could compete for the Super Bowl. In a year when there are a hearty handful of darn good teams and an equal portion of just plain awful teams, the Packers are in the upper middle. Favre puts the Vikes up near the very top.

Seeing and hearing the Packers fans boo Favre mercilessly was so abhorrent, so beyond classless that you can't even joke your way to a justification. Even back in Sconnie, a hearty majority of people grew uneasy with events such as the "Funeral 4 Favre" event some moronic radio station staged Friday at a bar in Appleton. On the Coast where I live or just about everywhere else, it looks like sour grapes of the lowest order. You know what, funeral goers? Favre buried you. In his two games against the Vikes this year, he threw seven touchdowns and no interceptions. His field awareness is unparalleled and he still throws the ball hard enough to break fingers from 20 yards away. When the camera was on him, he smiled or winked or just plain ol' got fired up like a player half his age. More intangibly, no one's got his star power. By the end of the game, I was outright rooting against the Packers. Not the team, mind you. The people that for decades I sat next to at Lambeau and in countless bars that are so damn well-versed in terms of football, but so damn mindless in their embrace of the Packers brand. Did Favre handle his retirement gesticulating well? Absolutely not. But to call the guy a traitor, burn his jerseys and boo his return? Face it, Packer fans. The rest of the country is laughing at us right now. Favre has more fans than ever before. And the Vikings are a brand on the rise. For way too long, NFL fans all across the country have tired of the expected genuflecting for the history and tradition of the Packers. In some ways, they are the NFL's Yankees, or the Celtics, or the old Canadiens. People wanted to root against Favre and the Packers when he was still there because they were so ceaselessly told to do so, usually by John Madden or comedians making fun of the man-love directed at Favre in the Green and Gold. But now that equation has been flipped. People want to root against the Packers for what they've done to Favre.

I fear that even if Aaron Rodgers is a very good quarterback the effects of booing Favre's return will damage the Packers brand for years to come. No other franchise could have generated such a big, over-hyped event like yesterday's game because it was the gawddamn Green Bay Packers at frickin' Lambeau Field. Bud Lea for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is the dean of Wisconsin sports writers and he says he's never seen anything like the hype that went into the build-up to yesterday. But here's where it hurts - no other franchise could have so horribly fumbled the snap. Booing Favre may have felt like the rush you could get from throwing a asphalt block through the bay window of your ex-girlfriend's sorority house. But when you sober up and realize what you've done, everyone involved in the prank ends up feeling like a criminal. I hope we can recover. But as any football fan knows, unforced turnovers just kill a team's spirit. Maybe that of its fans, too.

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