I’ve watched sports closely for 32 years, since age 7, as a fan and reporter, and likely will for the rest of my life.
But even if I live till 100, I’m certain I’ll never enjoy a sports team more than the 1996 Green Bay Packers.
The connection to that team felt personal.
Every summer but one of coach Mike Holmgren’s tenure in Green Bay (1992-98), my family spent a few days there on vacation. For my sister, Jackie, and me, that meant watching Packers training camp practices twice a day and chasing down players as they walked or rode bikes to and from the locker room and the Oneida Street practice field.
Brett Favre, Reggie White, LeRoy Butler, Mark Chmura, Holmgren, etc. — we got autographs from most of the stars on the ’90s Packers teams at some point.
It all seemed so innocent back then, and not just because we were teenagers looking up to our football idols. The facade of Lambeau Field was corrugated steel — not the brick palace it is today. You could go right up to players as they parked their cars. The Packers didn’t have millions in reserve, as they do now.
And, most importantly, the team was dominating. The ’96 Packers (16-3) led the league in most points scored (456) and fewest points allowed (210). The state was caught up in Packers-are-finally-great-again euphoria.
My mom, two sisters and I watched Super Bowl XXXI on a big-screen TV inside the Brown County Arena in Green Bay, and I’ll never forget the pure joy in the streets after the Packers beat the Patriots 35-21 for their first title in 29 years. People literally went up to and kissed the Lambeau gates.
The next day, I got goose bumps when I turned on AM-620 WTMJ on the car radio and heard, “You’re listening to the home of the World Champion Green Bay Packers.” Then we literally got chilled while waiting inside Lambeau in 20-degree temperatures for three hours for the team’s “Return to Titletown” celebration.
Some of those memories flooded back on Sunday when I interviewed Robert Brooks before the 64th Holy Rosary Sports Night. Brooks tore up his knee midway through the ’96 season, at the peak of his career, but still got a ring.
Aside from the obvious championship, I asked him what made that squad so special.
“In my opinion, I think we were a family,” Brooks said. “Our relationships were just very different from what I see in other sports teams. We had a very close group where the guys would eat dinner at one another’s houses, guys were always together — three, four, five deep.
“The closeness on that team was just something special that I think you can’t really win championships without that type of closeness because you’ll really go to war, you’ll fight for one another and do anything for your guy.”
And those Packers couldn’t have had a better coach than Holmgren, who used to implore fans in news conferences, “I need a little more from you this week,” and, sure enough, the 60,000-plus diehards at Lambeau would obey Holmgren’s request and make the venue a nightmare for visiting teams.
“I personally thought that he was an outstanding coach. I thought he did well to keep Brett harnessed early on because that’s what Brett needed. He was a gunslinger,” Brooks said. “... He needed a stern, father-type figure who was understanding because he saw the great talent in some of the young guys that we had. We were a little loosey goosey early on, but he was able to keep everything focused. I think we needed a guy like that.”
With Favre — Brooks’ next-door neighbor — and Reggie White — whom Brooks called “probably one of the most instrumental people in my life as far as mentoring me as a young person” leading the way, flanked by a solid group of veterans like Santana Dotson, Keith Jackson, Butler, Sean Jones, Eugene Robinson and Desmond Howard, to name a few, the ’96 Packers were virtually unstoppable.
Boy, those were the good, ’ol days.
You almost wonder if the Packers’ then-director of pro personnel, Ted Thompson, was even paying attention.
Contact Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org.