Monday, January 01, 2007

Meeting Mr. Nitschke

In the 1990’s I used to watch Green Bay Packer games at a great sports bar in Phoenix, Arizona, The Red Onion Lounge. The bar was owned by a family from Wisconsin, and it became one of the most popular gathering spots for Packer fans in Phoenix. To say this bar had “regulars” was a major understatement. The same people were at the bar each Sunday, year after year. In fact, you could reserve your favorite table, and you would see the same faces at the adjacent tables—season after season. Many friendships were formed in the bar; even a romance or two blossomed.

A game I will never forget happened on September 17, 1995, not because of the action on the field, but what occurred in the sports bar. This was a brutally hot summer day, the temperature well over 100 degrees. The bar was packed. It was stuffy and hot in the low-ceilinged room as we waited for the Packers to take the field against the New York Giants. Only the ice cold pitchers of beer kept us alive.

Then, the door to the bar opened and bright sunshine streamed in, the kind that hurts your eyes. We saw a familiar—and formidable--figure in the doorway. It turned out the owners of the bar had invited a special guest to join us.

Ray Nitschke.

What happened next was remarkable enough that I included a fictionalized account of it in my novel OVER TIME. The theme of the novel is that for Packer fans, the Glory Years will never end, and the memories of our favorite games, and favorite players, remain powerful forces in our lives--always. We can draw upon this inspiration whenever we need it, like an everlasting bank account.

A character in my novel, an attorney named Mike Thornton, really needed inspiration that day. He believes he has seriously screwed up at work and is in imminent danger of being fired. He's worried, dejected, and almost ready to give up. So, we’ll pick up the story with Mr. Nitschke appearing in the doorway…

An Excerpt from the novel, OVER TIME © 2005

He was a man who earned his place in the sun by playing football with an intensity and authority that could be perceived by the fans in the highest rows of the stadium. He came to symbolize the toughness required to be a Green Bay Packer on Vince Lombardi's teams of the 1960's, and remained one of the most beloved of all the players who wore the green and gold, many years after his retirement, and he stayed close to the team through great years, good years, bad years, and awful years. He even kept his name in the local telephone directory so the fans could reach him, should they need him.

In Scottsdale for a celebrity golf tournament, Ray Nitschke had been invited to visit the Central Division Bar & Grill by the owners, two brothers who grew up in Green Bay. The Green Bay Packers were playing their first exhibition game of the season, a night game that was carried on the satellite, which meant that the bar was filled with Packer fans who survived the long spring and summer without football, and the kickoff that evening was welcomed like the first beer on a Friday night after a long week at a dead-end job.

When Ray walked into the bar, there were no introductions required. First there was a ghostly quiet. Then the fans stood and applauded. Perhaps it was his unlikely and memorable appearance: a serious, professorial face on a massive body, or simply the power of enduring excellence, but the bar rocked with cheers, a salute not just to him individually, but to a dynasty of long ago, by eternally thankful fans for whom the football seasons of the 1960’s remained much more alive than a memory.

Even Ray was somewhat taken aback by the instant adulation in the Central Division Bar, though he had felt it many times before.

As Mike reflected on his imminent doom, Ray Nitschke took a seat a table near the front of the room and obliged the fans who wanted his autograph. People went out to their cars and brought back all sorts of strange things for him to sign--game programs, footballs, even winter jackets with the team's logo on it. It was a hot night in August in the desert Southwest, and no one in the bar knew that Ray was coming except the owners. The true sports fan is prepared for all the wonderful possibilities of life.

The game was about to start, and the bar owner asked over the loud speaker to give Ray a round of applause for being gracious enough to give them the autographs and visiting the humble pub to watch the game. This round was louder than the first one, punctuated by a chant of, "Ray, Ray, Ray," which used to occur on crisp autumn Sunday afternoons after he caused a running back to eat the turf, especially one who had briefly entertained the unrealistic intention of scoring on the Green Bay Packers.

As the scene continues, Mike Thornton waits his turn in line and gets Ray’s autograph—even gets to talk to him. After he meets this hero from his youth, he realizes the game of life may not be over after all…and leaves the sports bar with his will to win restored.


Coby DuBose said...

That's pretty inspiring. Ray really is as impressive a guy off of the field as he is on the field from what I hear. It has to be pretty awe-inspiring to meet a legend like that in an informal setting.

Mike said...

That must have been pretty exciting, to have such a great person walk through the door completely unexpected, you must be pretty lucky to have met him :)

Casey said...

Wow. Lucky you! It sounds like it was a great experience, if something like that happened to me I know I would definitely remember it, and write it down somewhere.