Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Football is Important

As strange as this may sound, from time to time I’ve encountered people who are critical of my year-round passion (they often use the term obsession) for NFL football and the Green Bay Packers in particular. These individuals find it especially odd that:

--Each year I spend a lovely April weekend sitting in front of the TV watching the NFL Draft for 9 hours at a stretch.

--On Saturday nights in August, I check the score of meaningless preseason games every, oh, ten minutes or so.

--I let the national media’s goofy “Power Rankings” seriously elevate my blood pressure, when the Packers are not given the respect they are due.

--Besides watching every minute of every game the Packers play on Sunday, at my house we stay up until early Monday morning watching game highlights and analysis—over and over and over.

--We have two Christmas trees: a conventional one with colorful ornaments and pretty lights and so forth, and then THE PACKER TREE, with green and gold garlands and ornaments featuring somewhat rude, but festive, holiday greetings for Bears fans.

These skeptics try to tell me that if I cut down the hours I spend devoted to the Packers, I’d free up valuable time for other activities. What fabulous activities do they have in mind, I ask them: Yard work? Going to the opera? Visiting relatives I’ve never really liked?

I feel sorry for these people because they just don’t get it: Football Is Important. And here are a few--out of the hundreds--of reasons why:

Order out of chaos. It’s getting more and more difficult to understand the world around us—politics, the economy, international tensions, climate change. Events sometimes seem to be spinning out of control. And most of the time we can’t tell if we’re winning or not. Football is the opposite. At the end of the game, the scoreboard shows the absolute truth, expressed clearly, and for all time. Nothing vague, nothing uncertain. Total clarity.

Forestalling the bleak wintertime. A popular TV commercial has the tagline: Life Comes At You Fast! In many parts of the country, winter comes at you fast as well. Too fast. It seems as though you’ve just gotten back from the beach on Labor Day and snow flurries start to fall. NFL Football provides a kind of national hearth, where we can warm ourselves with our team’s success and avoid dealing with the grim concept of grey skies and freezing temperatures until after the Super Bowl in February.

Closing the generation gap. Who says parents and kids, or grandparents and kids, don’t have anything to talk about? Packer fans have 80+ years of glorious history to remember and discuss. Packer passion is something that is passed down the generations. It adds spirit and just plain fun to any family gathering. Let’s put it this way: Would you rather spend Thanksgiving dinner talking about complicated playoff scenarios or have a lively discussion about how Aunt Louise keeps that turkey so moist every year?

(continued in next blog)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More...Why Football Is Important

Lessons about teamwork. You can learn important lessons about success in life from observing what succeeds in football. Coaches and players talk all the time about “team chemistry,” but it’s easy to spot the teams that have true chemistry versus those who just talk a good game. There’s a sense that they can overcome any adversity or bad break. Teams without that chemistry tend to splinter apart when they hit a bad stretch in the season. Watching your favorite team successfully deal with adversity can teach you valuable lessons you can apply in your own life and career. For instance, it seldom works to march into your boss’ office and demand to be traded to another company.

Turning total strangers into instant friends. Suppose you are out shopping, wearing your Packers sweatshirt and hat of course, and you encounter other people wearing the green and gold. You would have no problem saluting them with GO PACK GO! And they will undoubtedly respond in kind. You might even strike up a conversation about the upcoming game or the team’s prospects for the season. Contrast this cheerful camaraderie with just walking up to a random stranger and trying to strike up a conversation. They’ll probably run away or summon store security.

A boost of energy to get us through Monday. Think for a moment how different you feel at work on Monday morning after the Packers have won the game the day before. The challenges you face seem somehow less daunting, the co-workers who are normally unbearable seem less obnoxious. Then think of occasions where the Packers lost a playoff game the day before and you show up at the office grumpy and snappish. In such instances, I’ve found it’s more humane to your co-workers if you just call in sick.

A tree house for grown-ups. Human beings have a need to belong to a group, a tribe. And satisfying this need involves finding a tribe that fits your personality. Football addresses this need. And in true American free enterprise spirit, we have freedom of choice: 32 tribes to choose from. There are significant differences among the tribes. In California, for example, contrast the mellow, happy San Diego Chargers fans versus the permanent Halloween that is Raider Nation. Just go to any popular sports bar that has enough TVs to show a number of games at once, and observe how fans of a given team naturally cluster together—just like Neanderthal man seeking out a familiar, safe cave.

Good triumphs over evil. There’s something cathartic about watching a ferocious protagonist/antagonist battle, especially one where they are evenly matched and the outcome is in doubt. This has been true since the ancient Greeks staged the first dramas, right down to modern times and Hollywood movies, Westerns in particular. Look at the frequently used term to describe Brett Favre: gunslinger. He’s simply a modern-day “Shane,” the rare individual with the courage to stand up to any and all bad guys, and save the town—in Brett’s case 150 times thus far. One important difference though is that in the film Shane, the bad guy (Jack Palance) didn’t dress in purple. Somehow, that wouldn’t have been as menacing.

There are many other reasons of course why football is such an important part of our lives, of the very rhythm of our existence. I’ve always liked how F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed this in a wonderful short story he wrote about college football, The Bowl:

“All that is childish? Find us something to fill the niche of victory.”

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lucky Socks

For a football fan, perhaps the biggest thrill you can experience comes from seeing your team win a game in the final seconds, and the biggest letdown is losing a close game. A blowout win or loss doesn’t seem to have the same emotional effect on us—perhaps because most of us have never actually stayed around to see the final seconds of a blowout loss, and we assume all of the Packers' games should be blowout wins, so we aren’t surprised when that actually happens.

But after this intense feeling of elation or depression fades, and the passage of time gives us a chance to look back at the game with at least a certain degree of objectivity, it’s an interesting exercise to ask the question: Why did the Packers win in such thrilling fashion? Or, Why couldn’t the Packers pull the game out at the end?

There are a number of factors that contribute to a team’s ability to win close games, and with the razor thin talent margin between so many NFL teams these days, that ability is critical to staying in the playoff hunt.

With the Packers, for the last decade and a half, it’s been pretty easy to identify one of the chief reasons the Packers win more close games than they lose: Brett Favre’s amazing will to win, or we could also say, his absolute refusal to lose. Having a player like #4 as your leader is bound to make the other players on the team more confident of victory. And in any profession, if you approach your task with confidence you are more likely to succeed.

The other important reason the Packers have been able to win so many close games over the years is:


I don’t know how many hundreds of NFL games I’ve watched, but I’ve seen enough to come to the conclusion that the collective will to win of a team’s fan base is a kind of energy that is transmitted to the players on the field. And I don’t just mean the so-called “12th Man” the media speaks of, the fans attending the games whose raucous enthusiasm creates a hostile atmosphere for the opposing team.

I would include the millions of Packer fans around the world who have never set foot on the Lambeau Field parking lot—or have never even been to Wisconsin. These are the loyal fans who gather in sports bars all around the country and live or die by how the Packers perform on Sunday. And of course the fans who put on their green and gold garb on Sunday morning and stay at home and watch the game on satellite TV.

How, you might ask, can the stay-at-home fan in California or South Carolina contribute to a Packer victory in faraway Lambeau Field? I’ve learned the hard way that for your team to be successful it is extremely important for you, the fan, to have a pregame ritual, and never deviate from it.

The two key aspects of the ritual are: 1) What you eat for breakfast on Sunday; 2) What you wear to watch the game.

The consequences of not sticking to the ritual can be disastrous, as you'll see in the blog that follows.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lucky Socks - Part II

The two key aspects of the ritual are: 1) What you eat for breakfast on Sunday; 2) What you wear to watch the game.

In 1995, I ordered a very nice hunter green polo shirt from Packers Pro Shop. I wore that shirt to watch every game from 1995 through 1998—as you well recall, tremendously successful seasons for The Pack. At that time I watched the games at a sports bar in Phoenix that caters to Packer fans—and serves fabulous hamburgers. Over time my shirt acquired at least one grease stain from each and every burger I consumed. By the end of the 1998 season, that shirt was starting to become an embarrassment, so I

de-commissioned it and bought a brand new gold shirt for 1999.

This turned out to be a bad idea. That season was the first one since 1991 in which the Packers didn’t achieve a winning record. I still wonder what might have happened if I had stuck with my trusty old grease-stained green shirt. Would Carolina have won that late fourth quarter victory against us in game #13? I sincerely doubt it. I blame myself to this day.

The pattern was repeated in this millennium. In 2001-2004, I wore another green shirt, which I again had to replace in 2005. Yes, I switched to a gold shirt and the consequence of that poor decision was enduring a long and torturous 4-12 campaign. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Which brings us to the first game of the 2007 season. At my house, we have a pregame breakfast that never varies: hot cakes and sausage. I’m quite sure that our devotion to this menu has brought the Packers good fortune on numerous occasions, with the added bonus that medical researchers at the Johnsonville Institute have shown that sausage is one of the most important food groups for the maintenance of good health and guaranteeing longevity.

Unfortunately, the Friday before the game vs. the Eagles, we got some really bad news. We found out our Irish Setter had to go in right away for a root canal operation. (yes, a root canal, believe it or not). This was traumatic because you always worry when a dog has to go under anesthesia, and because the operation was going to cost $2,400. When I heard that, I needed anesthetic, too.

So, in all this confusion, we forgot to buy the pancake mix and sausage. And then right before kickoff I realized that my lucky green shirt was in the laundry, and the only clean one was the dreaded, jinxed gold shirt. Friends were coming over to watch the game, so I couldn’t wear a dirty, wrinkled shirt.

It was 1999 and 2005 all over again. I had to act quickly to chase away the bad karma. But I had no time! The teams were warming up on the field…The FOX network pregame team had already said their first 5 really inane things of the season…What could I do...?

I rummaged through every bit of Packer logo clothing I owned until I found a solution:

A pair of white socks with the green “G” above the ankle and green and gold on the bottom of the foot. I’ve always thought these socks were a little tacky, so I’d never worn them, but I was desperate, and I put them on right before our guests arrived to watch the game.

You know what happened. A thrilling last second victory for Green Bay against a perennially stubborn foe. Fresh hopes of reclaiming home field advantage. Visions of making the playoffs this season. The world seemed brand new.

I believe I owe all this good fortune to my LUCKY SOCKS. Now I can relax for the remainder of the season because I know that as long as I have these socks on, I have done everything I can to help the Packers win.

(Postscript: my Irish Setter came out of the operation just fine. However, my VISA card will require several months to heal).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Imagine What It Must Be Like...

Imagine what it must be like for a Head Coach in the National Football League, right before a game. Think of all the emotions that run through him, the mixture of excitement and worry, the thrill of leading a group of men into battle versus the nagging concern that, perhaps, you haven’t done everything you could to get your players ready for the game. This is precisely the situation facing the fictional hero of my novel OVER TIME, the Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, as you will see in the excerpt below.

In this scene, the Packers are about to take the field against a powerful opponent that has beaten them many times before. Green Bay’s Head Coach, Errol “Brick” Denton, is struggling to find the right words to inspire his players to victory. He has a young team this year, untested in battle, but undeniably talented, including a promising rookie quarterback nicknamed “Wildass”.

An Excerpt from the novel, OVER TIME
© 2005 by Brian Hill and Dee Power

Seventeen minutes before kickoff, seven minutes before they had to go through the tunnel to the field. You could feel the vibrations in the massive cement and steel buttresses of the stadium, caused by the roaring crowd. It was not unlike the frighteningly exhilarating feeling the astronauts get when the giant rockets are engaged, and the tremendous forces are released, carrying them into the unknown. Seven minutes was all the time left for Brick Denton to make a difference in the game.

Suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, all of Denton's pregame uncertainty was gone; he felt completely alert, totally calm, totally in control. For the first time since he had accepted the job of Head Coach, he no longer felt alone. "Gentlemen," he began in a voice that was clear and firm.

"For too many years, we have had to take to this field and compete against two teams simultaneously. No one should have asked that of us. We had to play against the Bears some weeks, the Vikings on others. But we also had to compete against our own formidable team--every week--and all of the championships they won. We had to play a memory--one that got more grandiose over time. We were measured against them, and always fell short. We never had the toughness they did. We were paid too much. We didn't have the desire. We were spoiled, just in it for the money. We didn't try."

Now the players listened to his words. The gum was chewed more slowly. The eyes focused on Denton.

"How could we win, carrying that anvil on our shoulders? On this given Sunday, maybe it's time we threw this weight off, looked at things another way. When we take that field today, the tradition of excellence comes with us. It's our armor, our shield, not a heavy burden. We have won eleven championships: no team can match that. We don't have to exceed what those past teams did. The opponent has to try and exceed it. We already hold the titles. The titles belong to us. The nation is waiting for us to come back, they need us to come back. We play for small town America. We dare to do battle against the titans, the big cities, the rich owners. We play for the uncomplaining fellow who goes to work each day and does his damnedest. He doesn't get the recognition or the glory. He lives all that through us. When you win the championship again...and again...and again--which you are destined to do, I am absolutely certain, they won't just be dancing in the streets here....but in places all over the country that none of us has ever been to. People who couldn't find us on the map want a piece of our glory. We stand for something that people need in their lives.

"The media talk about 'America's Team' all the time. Well, what is America's Team? I will tell you. It is a team that plays natural grass, in front of fans who live and die by that team, who feel physical pain when that team loses; the games are sold out fifty years in advance, for America's Team. These games would not be a once a week amusement, they would be cornerstones of people's pride in their community, in themselves. The players, when they looked around them, would see history in all directions. I surely don’t deserve to be the Coach of America's team, I probably never will, but you damn well deserve to be its players. Harness the power of that greatness, gentlemen, of that tradition. It's here in the building. It's alive. It's not a ghost."

"I feel it, Coach," cried out Wildass, forgetting he was supposed to be a frightened rookie.

"I do, too," echoed in the room.

"Then play that way, men. Don't do it for me. Do it for yourselves. Write your names into the history books. The legends never died, gentlemen. You become the legends when you walk on that field. Our game goes on forever. Our season never ends. We never leave the field."

Denton then looked in each face, as though to impress the message permanently into their minds. Then he turned and opened the locker room door, and pointed the way.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Nobody Knows Anything

This pithy little axiom was coined by Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman to describe the motion picture business, where everyone runs around Beverly Hills claiming to know what the next mega-hit movie is going to be, when in fact no one has a clue.

But Mr. Goldman’s observation is equally useful for NFL football fans at this time of year, when seemingly everyone with a word processor publishes their predictions of how teams will finish in the standings. Some of these “experts” in the broadcast and print media are quite confident, even cocky, about their forecasts.

For the past several years, the Packers have not received very much respect from the national media. For Packer fans, reading some of the extremely negative views about the team can cause unpleasant side effects such as irritability at work, elevated blood pressure, and even stomach upset.

I would advise not spending any time whatsoever fretting about what the scribblers and the chatterers in the media think about the Packers. A better strategy is to read their predictions and poke fun at them. Laughter truly is the best medicine.

Here’s an example: ESPN recently placed Green Bay in lowly 24th place in their 2007 preseason Power Rankings behind powerhouses like the Giants, Redskins, Dolphins and yes, Cardinals.

Remarkably, ESPN says their Power Rankings were the combined effort of seven journalists. Did you know at ESPN they have a special committee of four seasoned broadcasters they call upon when a light bulb needs changing in the studio?

You see, Packer Nation (i.e. The United States), there’s really no need to let these people get to you, because THEY HAVE NO CLUE.

And this bold statement is easy to prove by just going back one year and looking at what they predicted for the 2006 Green Bay Packers. Let’s start with a widely read preseason magazine, Lindy’s Pro Football. On page 101, editor Howard Balzer gazes into his crystal ball-zer and comes out with some very curious predictions.

At least they are honest enough to subtitle their Prediction page “Another Chance to Look Foolish.” Here were Lindy’s predictions for the NFC North in 2006, along with Mr. Balzer’s comments:

(First Place) Chicago – If Rex Grossman stays healthy, this could be a special team.

(Second) Minnesota – Brad Johnson brings stability to a team that needs a hug.

(Third) Detroit - Can Mike Martz work wonders with Jon Kitna and Josh McCown?

(Fourth) Green Bay – It won’t be long until Brett Favre wishes he retired.

And now, for comparison purposes, let’s recall what really happened:

(First) Chicago – With a defense as awesome as the Bears’, who cares if Rex Grossman stays healthy?

(Second) Green Bay – By the end of last season, the rest of the league wished Brett Favre had retired, especially after he ruined the Bears’ New Year’s Eve party.

(Third) Minnesota – Brad Johnson was adding tremendous stability to the bench by the end of the season.

(Fourth) Detroit - The “wonder” was the admirable loyalty of the Lions fans who kept showing up for the games during a dismal 3-13 season.

For something even more irritating than the predictions in Lindy’s, let’s visit, where a lad name Adam Schein said this was how the NFC North would look in 2006:

“NFC North

1. Bears 10-6
2. Lions 7-9
3. Vikings 7-9
4. Packers 3-13

Packers: I toyed with 2-14 for the Packers. But I just like Greg Jennings and Abdul Hodge too much. Or something like that.”

Wow. Those are some really putrid predictions. He was in effect saying the Packers would be just about the worst team in the league. I especially enjoyed his lucid analysis: “Or something like that.” These guys should at least include a caveat that their predictions have a margin of error of + or – five games.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Nobody Knows Anything Part II

For more chuckles and grins, now let’s see what the "experts" are saying in 2007.

1) Paul Zimmerman (aka Dr. Z) at Sports Illustrated has the order of finish in the NFC North this way: Bears 11-5, Packers 6-10, Vikings 6-10 and Lions 4-12.

East coast-based Dr. Z seldom has anything nice to say about Green Bay. Possibly he’s bothered by the fact he wouldn’t know how to find the city on a map of the United States, even if you let his lovely swimsuit model pal Brooklyn Decker give him a few hints. (We all know that swimsuit models are much smarter than sports scribes). Interestingly, he’s listed as “Senior Writer” of the magazine. Makes you wonder how silly the Junior Writer’s predictions might look.

2) The Sporting News’ NFL Preview magazine has a much clearer view of the future: Bears 9-7, Packers 8-8, Vikings 6-10, Lions 6-10. This makes some sense. The Bears drift backward a bit, and the Packers improve their personnel but finish at .500 again because of their difficult schedule. The point is, the Packers may be closing the gap on Chicago. Sporting News’ bottom line evaluation: “This team will be better than people think because the defense has a chance to be very good and keep the Packers in every game.”

Now that’s some seriously good sports writing!

3) Returning to the dark side, here’s what Seth Doria of says:

Chicago 10-6, Minnesota 7-9, Green Bay 5-11, Detroit 3-13. He also makes the curious statement that the Packers will be the last NFC team to win a game. He also envisions Washington as his “breakout” team. But he doesn’t say whether they will be breaking out in measles, chicken pox, or just easily treatable acne.

4) Don Banks at believes: “The Packers faced bleak prospects entering last season and wound up overachieving, so you can't rule them out of wild-card competition this year.”

Given some of the gloomy predictions we’ve seen, I guess that not being “ruled out” is a positive thing. Thanks, Mr. Banks!

5) Even Schein sees the light. Remember Adam Schein’s 3-13 prediction for 2006? Well, in 2007 he predicts Green Bay will be 8-8, finishing second in the NFC North. His comments are much more positive as well:

The Packers play incredibly hard for Coach Mike McCarthy. Green Bay's defense has made a lot of progress, and with A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett, Aaron Kampman, plus Al Harris and Charles Woodson at cornerback, it won't be pushed around.”

6) Over on, football contributor Bill Williamson wrote one of those “burning questions” columns, which included his answer to the question of whether Green Bay will be a playoff contender:

“No. Overall, the Packers are not an improved team and there is just isn’t enough offensive firepower to go on a big roll. The defense isn’t strong enough to carry Green Bay to the playoffs, either. The Packers will be lucky if they finish .500 again.”

Sorry, but it’s time to douse this guy’s “burning issues” because over at, Steve Silverman wrote: “The Packers will be better than you think if ...

The young defense that improved so much last season continues to get better. Kampman leads a bunch of hustlers on the defensive line while the linebackers have game-changing potential thanks to the instinctive Hawk.”

And Associated Press Sports writer Chris Jenkins also says our defense will be the key to success:

“Yes, Brett Favre is back for his 17th NFL season. But if the Green Bay Packers are to improve on last year's 8-8 record and make a surprise return to the playoffs, it will likely be because Favre and the offense have taken a back seat to an underrated, deep defense.”

And in the same story, author Jenkins got Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy to address the issue of the team’s perceived offensive weakness:

"I'm very comfortable with the ability of our offense to play whatever way we need to play to score points,'' McCarthy said.

Strangely, that almost makes sense.

As I reflect on the dozens of predictions I’ve read for the 2007 NFL season, the lesson I come away with is:


It’s really that simple.