With their even-keeled leaders, the Packers could very well repeat
By Peter King, Sports Illustrated
~This week, I thought of my conversation with Mike McCarthy on a bench next to the Packers’ practice field Tuesday night in Green Bay. It was around 9:45. The players were gone, the fans were gone, and now it was just me and McCarthy, with a couple of PR people in the wings, on a chilly night that felt more like Oct. 9 than Aug. 9.
McCarthy was telling me a story about the Super Bowl championship banner the Packers had installed at the Hutson Center indoor practice facility, across from Lambeau Field, when no one was looking. The players were back at practice on an inclement day, working indoors at the Hutson Center, when McCarthy elbowed a couple and said, “Hey, look.” And there it was.
Maybe it’s not a big deal that the Packers didn’t have a big ceremony to raise the banner or a ceremony when the fourth Lombardi Trophy was put in a case outside the locker room. And when the Packers play the opener Sept. 8 against New Orleans, there will be a simple “2010” unveiled near the other 12 years the team won a championship. No flags, no banners. Just a year, with, as GM Ted Thompson told me, “sort of a tablecloth over it, and we’ll pull that off, and then we’ll play football. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
The celebrations are Ted Thompson’s responsibility. And so banners are going to be put up when no one is looking — in this case, by stadium workers on a quiet day in June with no attention — and there won’t be any pomp, because in Thompson’s world, this is the Packer Way. Act like you’ve been there before. This is what the Packers are supposed to do.
“It’s funny,” Aaron Rodgers told me. “When I was sitting in that Green Room at the draft in New York, and I was dropping, and no one would pick me, the last thing I was thinking was it was a good thing. But I’m glad I got to fall way down. I should be here. It’s the place for me. The game is bigger than us. The team is more than us. It’s a community team, blue-collar and understated and not at all about self-glorification. Vince Lombardi put it that way: Winning is the only thing that matters. It’s about the team.”
We’re in a me-first era. In most places maybe, but not in Green Bay. Not with Thompson and McCarthy and Rodgers, the leaders of this group. I have no idea if they’ll repeat (a dirty word to McCarthy, who thinks every year is a new year with new players), but I do know they’ve created a model that every youth coach, every high school coach, every college coach and, yes, a whole lot of pro coaches would be smart to emulate. It’s not just something they say in front of the minicams, and then sneak off to New York to make a commercial for Visa. It’s who they are.
There’s such a head-scratching lack of look-at-me in this organization. Then you see where it came from. Thompson, from the bedrock roots of Texas high school and college football. McCarthy, who learned the Pittsburgh way, who got his start in the coaching business by working at Pitt for nothing and collecting tolls at night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to pay his rent. And Rodgers, who rose from no scholarship offers out of high school to a hardscrabble junior college to Cal to Brett Favre’s caddie to the Super Bowl. I told Rodgers I remembered the Dallas Morning News story about his roots during Super Bowl week in February, and his dad, a chiropractor in California, having no shred of evidence in his office — not a photo, trophy or framed ticket stub — that his son was an athlete of any sort.
“We’re not big public-eye people,” Rodgers said.
When he came to Green Bay and sat for three years, he was even less of a public-eye person. Favre was The Man. And when Favre continued to waffle about whether he wanted to play or not, Rodgers said nothing. When the Packers stood behind Rodgers, he said little. When Favre came back to try to regain his job, Rodgers said nothing.
And when it was the biggest story in sports back in 2008 — pick a side: you’re for Favre or for Rodgers, and there’s no middle ground — Rodgers said precious little. Rodgers knew Thompson and McCarthy had his back, and though it was going to be tough, he could trust them to keep their word. Which they did. And in the last three years, despite the mud that landed on all of them after the Favre debacle, every one of them today looks like a genius.
Thompson for sticking to his guns, McCarthy for believing in Rodgers, and Rodgers for shutting up and just playing football. Rodgers’ average season since 2008: 4,130 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. And a Super Bowl win.
Thompson, in a conference room in the team’s refurbished Lambeau Field office, sipped a Diet Coke out of one of those cute tiny bottles and considered what his regime had done. It’s not something he likes to do, because any time you take time to consider the past is time you spend not working on the future.
I thought back to the time I sat with Thompson in the middle of the Favre mayhem. Same voice. I thought back to Super Bowl Sunday night in Dallas, when he could have crowed but didn’t. Same voice. And now. Same voice.
“Honestly,” Thompson said, “it takes your breath away sometimes. When you win a championship in Green Bay, you’re part of a very special fraternity. You’re part of the men from the teams in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’60s and ’90s, the men who won a title. These players now can stand alongside the great ones. When you win in this town, you become a little bit immortal. Just like those before us. That’s the beauty of this place: We didn’t invent it. We’re just continuing it.”
Somewhere in Green Bay, maybe in the house across from Lambeau Field with the fence painted with IN COACH McCARTHY WE TRUST, pride in this franchise is at a level not seen since Vince Lombardi coached. It’s a beautiful thing, a town one-80th the size of New York on top of the football world, with a chance to stay there.