My Heroes Keep Dying

Coping With Losing Lombardi's Packers

Willie Davis thanking the Green Bay crowd as he plays his final NFL game. (YouTube/NFL Films)

My heroes keep dying.

 

It’s inevitable, I suppose. No one can live forever.

Though I thought maybe they would.

But one by one the legends that built the impenetrable castle storing our earliest semblance of pride and rooting interest and tribal self-esteem are passing away. These men, Vince Lombardi’s Packers, have earned and are increasingly meeting their eternal rest.

This twinge of New York Times Obituary-induced nostalgia is not over. In truth, it’ll never really end.

Yes, the term “heroes” is perpetually overused for athletes. No, I do not care that I’m adding to that dramatic, if not misguided, trend. You can enforce your own standard for the term; these are my heroes.

I do not think I could look back, as a young child, and find a time when I was not keenly aware that something was different about this team, these Packers of Green Bay.

It’s impossible to explain. But as a Packer fan, long before you’re able to critically think, there’s a detectable feeling present. An aura about the men in green and gold and the rare community they represent.

That feeling, like a summer breeze off the bay or a home-cooked meal surrounded by family. You can experience it, you can be encompassed by it, but you sure as hell cannot explain it. You cannot contain it.

I went to grade school in another Midwestern state. Oh the pride I had in my Packers as my classmates attempted to hurl football-related insults. Oh my pride, my team, my understanding that this feeling I had was different from their feeling about their professional football team.

They liked their team on most days. I’d be sure to wear a Packers jersey to school on a Monday following a Green Bay loss.

I was not forced into Packer fandom. My father bought me a Minnesota Vikings Randy Moss jersey when I asked for one. OK, maybe it was on the second ask. But one of the first players from NFL history he taught me about was Walter Payton, the greatest Chicago Bear there ever was.

Still, there was never a choice in which team was mine. It was just alway there, perhaps literally in my blood. I do not have a better explanation than that.

This Packers pride, that I could not explain, fueled me. When nothing else seemed easy, my fandom always was.

This self-esteem, not unique to me, was pieced together long before my birth chiefly through every hard-fought win of the canonized Lombardi Era.

When I was very young, I couldn’t name all of America’s Founding Fathers. I wasn’t great at tying my shoes.

But I knew Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke. I knew Jim Taylor and Willie Davis.

Starr’s sneak to win The Ice Bowl was spoken about in our house no differently than Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. Except only one story was steadfastly-sacred.

Because of those legendary names that reverberated around my boyhood-mind, I could somehow understand the weight of Brett Favre and Reggie White on my adolescent Packers.

Before I could explain to you why Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein mattered, I knew that Brett Favre and Reggie White would be those similar, binding myths for Packers fans born decades later.

I think of my great-grandfather.

When Curly Lambeau and Verne Lewellen passed away, did it give him pause?

I think of my grandfather.

What must he have thought when Arnie Herber and Don Hutson left this world?

I think of my father.

These heroes I’m losing, they were out on that field he watched as a young child. They were more than myth to him.

I think of children today.

Aaron Rodgers is their Herber, their Starr, their Favre. This Packers pride and associated myths is a continuum. It stretches further into the future than I can imagine. What future Packer greats have not even been born yet? Will I be fortunate to celebrate them in my old age?

I shudder to gaze too far ahead.

The future is bound, or should I say rooted, to the past; this franchise’s most glorious past is more and more relegated to story by the bitterness of our collective impermanence.

Even so, football heaven has been particularly greedy with Green Bay Packers Lombardi Era alumni in the last year.

My heroes are dying and there’s nothing I can do.

My heroes. Our heroes. Fine, our NFL heroes.

I never got to watch them play live, but I’ve never loved watching any players more. Eulogies, stories, highlights. I am foolishly finding myself angry at the sole condition mortality promises.

Blessed be the memories and the sacredness of past tense.

The exploits of my aging heroes are thankfully more eloquently documented than most through ample books, stories and film, often poetically narrated. But that does not make their gradual passings easier.

Lombardi’s Packers, now fewer and fewer around to be honored, ensured our little town of Green Bay, Wisconsin would forever remain “Titletown USA”. Forever. They weren’t the first champions in Green Bay and they weren’t the last, but they were the most dominant team the NFL will ever see.

I have not gotten better at handling the news of their passing, in fact I’ve gotten worse.

From April 2019 to April 2020 alone:

Forrest Gregg left us. He’s immortalized caked in victorious mud; perhaps the best to ever play his position.

Bart Starr left us. This one was particularly hard. If you’ve read any of the books about him, the man, you’ll know the world has become less kind, less brave in his passing. Or it would have, had he, the selfless humanitarian, not influenced countless souls.

Of all the legends that I was raised on, Starr is the man I’d most wish to share a meal with. A happenstance smile and nod exchanged inside Lambeau Field’s atrium over a decade ago between him, myself and my parents will have to suffice — a memory we’ll always cherish.

The castle may have eroded from the inside had Starr not led his team to such success.

Bobby Dillon left us. A godsend in the 1950s and the best of his era. His underrated tenure in Green Bay overlapped with Lombardi, a surprise to some.

Willie Wood left us. He spent the entirety of his unprecedented career as a Packer. His interception sealed victory in the first ever Super Bowl.

Surely that’s enough Packers with busts in Canton to leave us for one year. As they join the dozens of all-time great Green Bay footballers that were awaiting them on that transcendental gridiron.

But enough it was not. I supposed they needed a captain.

Willie Davis has left us. His passing was the impetus to pick up this pen. Something about his death triggered an emotional earthquake, a reckoning.

Of all of Lombardi’s Packers, Davis always seemed like the most natural leader. The man I’d follow into battle. The heartbeat of the team. The father. The most confident in what he did, with good reason.

For his brilliance, Lombardi named him defensive captain. He parlayed that same brilliance into an extraordinary business career after football.

Of all the black future Hall of Fame inductees that turned the Packers into a dynasty in the 1960s, he was the oldest. The proudest. The most relentless. The cultural change in Green Bay was spearheaded by his stoicism. And that is said with reverence for the other legends on that defense.

His contributions to the psyche of “Titletown USA” cannot be explained solely using football terminology. He died on MLB’s Jackie Robinson Day, the first time ever games weren’t able to be played in celebration of the color barrier being broken in America’s pastime. Interestingly, Lombardi’s Packers helped build football into America’s new pastime as their dynasty was broadcast on television to millions.

Davis’ legacy was ultimately picked up by Reggie White, another legend that we lost far too soon. Now Za’Darius Smith aims to continue their story that further fortifies the castle. As he sacks the quarterback, my mind flashes back to Davis, to Reggie. The same is true of every position and its storied lineage.

However, all lineages either point toward, or back to, the 1960s. I could watch the highlights of these gentlemen every morning with coffee for the rest of my life and never get bored.

But they are far more than their highlights.

They are that feeling I had as a child, before I even understood what they accomplished with Lombardi. Before I knew what winning three straight championships meant. Before I could grasp the impossibility of winning five rings in seven years.

Yet that is not their legacy; their legacy is the intrinsic bond they wove from player to fan. When it comes to that feeling, if you don’t know, you just don’t know.

They are that pride I feel, that you feel. They are that pride children born in ten years will feel and their children after them. Those children won’t know all of their names, but they’ll feel their impact nonetheless.

They, Lombardi’s Packers, gave me self-esteem before I knew what those words meant. They gave me a place to call home. They give me that feeling of closeness even today, even though I don’t require nearly as much, as I’m no longer the only Packers fan in my middle school.

With each passing year I learn that looking back is more valuable than we could ever know. I continue to learn more about my heroes and the uniqueness of this heritage they bestowed upon us. And always, I continue to learn it’s too late to say “thank you,” so all we can do to show our admiration is continue to tell their stories.

My heroes keep dying, dammit.

It’s inevitable, I know. And it’s not going to end.

But I think as long as that indescribable, tiny feeling a child gets in their belly (knowing that these Packers and this community is somehow different) still exists — so too will my heroes.

 

And it’s never actually too late. Thank you.

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