On the eve of Armageddon, my grandma sat on the living-room sofa and considered this theological conundrum: Was it right to pray for the Green Bay Packers to win?
Was it right to beg divine intervention on behalf of the more virtuous, if less talented, team?
If Jesus were here on earth today, would He wear a cheesehead?
She thought about these things for a while in her South-Side Milwaukee home, then settled on a doctrinally acceptable solution. She decided to offer a prayer for hobbled defensive star Reggie White, patron saint of Packers fans. "I prayed that God would give Reggie strength to continue on, so that he could do the best he could," she said.
By the end of the day, she'd even gone downtown and tried on a cheesehead at the Grand Avenue Mall.
"I think you should pray that God will put down the evil and raise up righteousness," she added.
Well, if you put it that way, I've got no choice. I gotta pray for the Packers to win.
Good vs. evil.
Us Packer fans, we all knew this is what was really at stake in the NFC championship game.
"That guy who owns the Cowboys, he just doesn't give a crap about anybody," my 73-year-old grandma said to me before the game. "The Packers represent what's right about pro football. The Cowboys stand for everything that's wrong with the sport. They got the glitz, the glamour, and the power, and those horrible egos, but I think they're out of touch with reality.
"Like that one guy who does the dance--he doesn't care about the other players. The Cowboys act like they're condescending to play the Packers. They're a bunch of prima donnas. That Deion Sanders thinks he's God, and the Cowboys think they walk on water.
"I've even got a Bible verse for them: 'Pride goes [sic] before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.' Proverbs 16:18. And there was another verse that made me laugh--'Pride in the hands of a fool is something else,' or something like that...heh, heh, heh."
There's even more to it than that, though. Everyone in Wisconsin knows that Jerry Jones' brand of football business could ultimately destroy a small-market team like the Green Bay Packers. Without the NFL's revenue-sharing plan, Green Bay would cease to exist competitively.
The Pack, because of its location in a frozen factory town of 100,000, has always had trouble luring top players. Deion Sanders made some small-minded squawk about how he'd never play there when he was still searching for the highest bidder early in the season, and tight end Keith Jackson, traded from Miami, initially refused to play there because it was "too cold."
We refrained from calling him a wuss, and eventually forgave him. Jackson showed his gratitude by turning in some big games in the playoffs.
As a lifetime Packer fan, I used to hate the Cowboys because my mother hated the Cowboys. During the dispassionate coaching reign of Tom Landry, she likened them to a "machine." On every third down, there was Roger Staubach in the shotgun, pulling the same tired scheme every time. Sure, they won. But it was so boring. And we never swallowed any of that junk about "God's Team."
As for me, I was born in Milwaukee, where, until this season, the Packers played half their home games. One of my vivid childhood memories is sitting at Milwaukee County Stadium one winter night, freezing my patootie off as the Cowboys whipped the Packers during the wretched Bart Starr-as-coach era. It was so cold; my grandfather and I had to leave when I could no longer feel my feet. I stamped them until I sensed a tingle, then we walked stiff-legged to our car and drove home to Milwaukee's German-Polish South Side. "Grandpa, he was such an avid fan you couldn't flush the toilet during the game," my grandma recalls.
Well, nine excruciating years with Bart Starr as head coach would drive that out of just about any Packers fan, and until Brett Favre really hit his stride last season, Grandpa had pretty much lost interest in the Pack.
Favre and the saintly Reggie White are what really rekindled our interest in Green Bay's team. Favre reminds me of former Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer, who would play with that single protective bar covering his beat-up face. Favre has that same kind of attitude. During the Atlanta Falcons playoff game, he got crunched into the frozen turf at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, crawled over to the sideline, barfed in the grass, then returned to lead his team to victory.
Green Bay was a real football team, in a real football town. I guess it comes down to the difference between the Midwest and the South. Like every time I see a southern college team, with the players' tearaway jerseys and bare midriffs and barbarian coaches, I think of kids who never graduate from college, then go to the NFL for a couple seasons until they're knocked out with debilitating, lifelong injuries. Behind the scenes, Texas college boosters wheel and deal and fuel this cycle like they're plantation owners, and this is some kind of slave auction. They're usually talking about God and America at the same time.
Which leads me, in a very roundabout way, to the Dallas Cowboys of the Jerry Jones era.
Speak of the Devil.
An hour before The Game, I leaned over the railing on the Green Bay side of the 50-yard line and spotted the stubby profile of the man himself. Dangling high above him was Texas Stadium's massive sound system, emblazoned with the Nike symbol--its sinister swoosh representing the mark of the beast.
All around the stadium was evidence of Jerry's many sales of his own soul--signs for Pepsi, Kroger, Haggar, J.C. Penney, and Columbia Healthcare Network. (What's this--the official HMO of the Cowboys?)
A few Packers and Cowboys were warming up around us. Particularly close was halfback Edgar Bennett, the Green Bay beast of burden, who pounds out a workmanlike 3.4 yards per carry, never fumbles, and does pretty much anything he's asked to do, including catching a lot of short passes. He's a Green Bay kind of guy, with a blue-collar ethic that's earned him respect in a hard-working town.
In fact, I've never seen fans sporting the jerseys of so many different players on a team--I saw lots of Brett Favres and even more Reggie Whites, but also LeRoy Butlers (a veteran safety), Edgar Bennetts, and even John Jurkovics. When's the last time you saw someone wearing the jersey of a 300-pound nose tackle?
I turned my thoughts back to the evil Jerry, whose hair was shellacked into that familiar gray poof. He slapped the Cowboys' Darren Woodson on the shoulder pad. Darren looked down at him, shook his head, and smiled, giving that poop-eating grin you only give the boss man when he's standing right in front of you. Jerry grinned back, hovering around his 'Boys like a groupie.
Meanwhile, a gaggle of cheeseheads hooted in derision. One woman waved a hand-lettered sign: "Jerry You Can Buy Your Cowboys But You Can Never Buy Our Packers."
This, of course, is literally true, since the Packers are owned by about 2,000 shareholders, and their $25 shares are practically worthless because the team is run not-for-profit.
As groups of Packers emerged from the locker room for warm-ups, the cheeseheads picked out their favorites and screamed encouragement. Favre got a lot of cheers, and so did receiver Robert Brooks, but Reggie White's arrival was greeted like the Second Coming. He got the most applause by far, as he rumbled down the sideline, pot belly bobbing, punching the air with his fist.
My grandma tells me that when, just before the San Francisco game, skinheads torched the Tennessee church where Reggie serves as associate pastor, Green Bay folks poured out money and sympathy to him and his family. Thousands of dollars were raised, and no one had even asked. You just wouldn't understand it in Dallas, but Green Bay is that kind of town.
Reggie White is held in such extraordinarily high esteem in Green Bay and Milwaukee that I don't think I'd be surprised if he were assumed into Heaven after the Packers won the game. Heaven would surely be a pleasant place if White were up there, strumming a harp.
After the warm-ups, I followed my grandma's advice and looked for the cheeseheads, making my way high into the stands where they were gathered, having been allotted what were, by far, the worst seats in Texas Stadium. I made my seat in the concrete aisle just in front of the very top row, avoiding the wet spot caused when the girl behind me kicked over her 32-ounce Dr Pepper.
Up in the stands with the cheeseheads, it smelled like hell.
The triple stinks of beer, barf, and body odor swooshed about in ever-circulating air currents, and were trapped forever in the cavern formed by the top rows of seats and the steel floor of the press boxes.
Cheeseheads have this weakness for cheap beer, and I can't tell you how many times I was dribbled on as pot-bellied dudes with milky-white skin pushed by into the back row, clutching twin brews. There were also numerous versions of this one overheard dialogue:
"God, I gotta pee."
When I strained my eyes or focused my cheap, rented binoculars, I had an OK view of one end zone. But if the players were past the 50-yard line, I couldn't make out their numbers anymore. The public-address system couldn't be heard up here, so we never really knew what all those penalties were for.
Fortunately, I sat next to a guy who could spot a clip from 300 yards. Ron Dauplaise of Green Bay had come in with the first planeload of cheeseheads. He and his wife Ellen spent the night before in the West End, which, to his mild puzzlement, was overrun with fellow cheeseheads. (I didn't want to go into that whole explanation about the death of Dallas' downtown, and how none of the locals goes there anymore.)
Ron and Ellen made me feel right at home. Ron could have been any elderly man in my hometown, and Ellen had that round, friendly face I associate with Wisconsinites of Polish descent.
Ron and Ellen have been Packer fans for their entire lives. They told me how Lambeau Field, the Packers' 1950s-era outdoor stadium, literally rocked and rumbled throughout the game when the Packers beat the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of this season's playoffs.
Everyone, including Ron and Ellen, screamed when Reggie White sacked Troy Aikman just a few plays into the game. Afterward, Ron explained the Reggie phenomenon. "Everybody just thinks he's the most respected human being in every way," he said. "We look at the Packers as the people with the nice-guy attitude, especially through Reggie White's influence."
"As a person, he is so great," Ellen said.
"Not saying anything against the other players," Ron quickly added.
"He brings out the best in all the Packers," Ellen continued. "He's made it acceptable to pray and do those kinds of things."
"I think if you polled all the players in the NFL," Ron said, "he might be the most respected player. He's not like Deion Sanders."
Then, changing the subject, Ellen divulged a secret she'd learned in Dallas. "We found a surprising number of people who don't care for Jerry Jones any more than we do," she said, putting that little curl at the end of her voice that indicated she was surprised.
I did my best, in turn, to feign surprise.
Our conversation turned quite naturally from there to the subject of arrogance. "It's hard to say how much of that attitude is Jones and how much is the Cowboys," Ellen said.
"We know about the arrogance of Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin," Ron added. "But the rest of the team doesn't seem to project that negativeness."
Thoughts of The Triplets passed through my mind. There is Irvin, who is not funny. During all those after-the-game television interviews, he's always holding court with several microphones stuck in his face. He talks out of the side of his mouth in a droll voice, and you keep expecting him to say something funny. You know, anyway, that he thinks he's going to say something funny. So you keep waiting for the punch line, waiting for the punch line, peering at those goofy sunglasses he wears that make his eyes look like "two pee-holes in the snow," as my grandma would say. You keep waiting for the punch line, waiting for the punch line...
After a while, the Dallas press corps simply pretends there's a punch line, and you hear titters of obsequious laughter in the background.
Then there's Aikman, the world's most boring interview, determinedly wooden in all situations; and sweet Emmitt Smith, who has become increasingly snippy with fans and the press lately.
Oh, and the others: Barry Switzer, the un-coach; Charles Haley, the big whining baby; and Sanders, of course, dressed like a colorblind Mack Daddy, always blathering nonsense.
Someone please tell Irvin he's not funny, and someone please tell Sanders he's a terrible dancer. I think that's why the other players laugh so much when he does his end-zone thing. He jerks and jigs like a country cracker, kicking his knees up in that bowlegged geek-dance.
"I'll tell you one thing," Ellen said, apropos of nothing, in a sudden, spontaneous outburst of moral indignation. "Green Bay will never have cheerleaders like Dallas."
Just then, Brett Favre completed his first pass, a 73-yarder to Green Bay receiver Brooks, who bounded like a gazelle into our end zone. A skinny guy jumped out of the back row to wave his Green Bay flag, something he did whenever the Packers scored. Each time he'd run by me and hit me.
It wasn't long after that when the Packers' Jurkovic went down. "Did you see that?" Ron said. "He got cut from behind right on the back of the knee [by Erik Williams]. Oh man, this is gonna get brutal before it's over."
We all snickered a few plays later when Emmitt got shoved out of bounds and tangled up in the kicker's practice cage.
"They'll call this a classic some day," Ron said.
Dennis Klarkowski of Green Bay sidled up to me just before halftime. He'd had a lot of beers.
"We're gonna win by more than 10," he said. "See, this is a victory cigar. I'll smoke it halfway through the third quarter. It comes all the way from Tijuana. I only smoke it in championship games--so it's 27 years old, ha ha.
"We're even up with two minutes to go in the first half. Who'd have thought we could be here six weeks ago? Or even three weeks ago?"
Klarkowski pulled out a tiny sketch pad, and presented it to me: a gift. "Our thoughts on the way down," he said. In it were sketches of football helmets, foxes, and Favres, and numerous wordplays on the initials "F.O.X.," for the Fox network.
"Favre orders eXplosion," he'd scribbled.
"Favre opponents eXpire."
Then I found my favorite: "Feed on eXcrement."
Our conversation turned quite naturally from there to the subject of Jerry Jones. During that bizarre halftime show, we pondered the ascent of his 'Boys.
"It's not football," Klarkowski sniffed. "It's not. It's the corporate world of...something," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "It's a world of dollars and cents for the Cowboys. It's not like that for Green Bay. It's fun.
"Professional football has got to go back to football. Packer football is the small-town country spirit, kids looking up to the players--that's what the U.S. sports world should be about."
Beth Zeise of DePere, Wisconsin, who was sitting in the last row, leaned over and said, "I guess I'm from the old school--not that I was around way back when--but that was when people played the game not for the love of money but for the love of the game. Some of the Green Bay players make the big bucks, but they're all down to earth."
After another round of beers, and after another Robert Brooks touchdown in the third quarter, Klarkowski got excited, though he wasn't quite ready to pull out the cigar.
"We're going to Tampa in two weeks," he hollered.
"No, Tempe," said Bart Finnel, his godson, the guy with the flag.
"Oops. Screwed up again."
I guess we all knew it was over when Larry Brown intercepted a Brett Favre pass early in the fourth quarter, but I'd had a sense of foreboding that things weren't gonna go our way earlier on, especially after the Pack's receivers coach got plowed over and fractured his skull.
"Dallas got 14 men on the field--three of them are in black and white," said a guy in front of me, articulating my own sentiments.
Deion did his herky-jerky geek-dance at one point, and got a lot of boos from the cheesehead section. Leon Lett slugged a Packer in the face and got called for unnecessary roughness.
Then it was over, with three consecutive sacks of Favre in obvious passing situations.
The Packer fans began to straggle out of Texas Stadium, foam-rubber cheeseheads tucked under their arms. Klarkowski handed me the cigar. "Here," he said. "You live in Dallas. It's yours."
On the field, Reggie White gathered for prayer with several Cowboys and Packers, then stomped around in frustration and ranted at a Milwaukee cameraman. I guess he's not ready to be assumed into Heaven just yet.
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I'd called my grandma as soon as I got home. She'd taken defeat in stride, and was frying up some Klements Polish sausage for dinner.
"And Diet Coke," she said. "We will never let Pepsi in our house, and Nike shoes will never cross our threshold.
"I got a new title for your article," she added. "'Dallas and the referees beat the Green Bay Packers.' And have you heard anything so ridiculous as calling the Cowboys 'America's Team?'
"Why, the Packers are America's Team."
For a few of us anyway.