If you know anything about me – well, other than my affinity for pink shirts and the fact that I talk about my kids entirely too much – then you know that I’m not really a fan of any teams. While I cheer for certain people (Dick and Tony Bennett, Mike Sherman, Joe Philbin, etc.) and against certain people (I’m looking at you, Roy Williams, in your Carolina blue), I don’t cheer for teams. My affection for the University of Oregon, for instance, is rooted more in my friendship with people from there than any real emotional investment in whether the Ducks win or lose.
This mentality confuses some folks to no end, as they wonder how I can cover the Green Bay Packers but not cheer for the Green Bay Packers. I could try to explain, but I’ll end up with a headache and you’ll still think I’m weird.
Instead, I have a much more important story I’d like to share.
As you probably read here on ESPNWisconsin.com or elsewhere, former Packers backup quarterback Blair Kiel died Sunday at age 50. I had never met nor covered Kiel, but I was saddened when I learned of his passing. And the reason is, I think, illustrative of why sports is so important and why I believe it’s such vital fabric woven through each of our lives. (Those of you who follow me on Twitter already read this story late Sunday night in 140-character increments. I apologize for the repetition.)
On Dec. 9, 1990, at Milwaukee County Stadium, Kiel rallied the Packers in the game I remember most vividly of any I ever attended, watched on television or covered as a reporter. The rally was ultimately meaningless – the Packers would lose, 20-14, to the Seattle Seahawks that day – but it means a lot to me.
The reason I remember Kiel's comeback against the Seahawks is I was there at County Stadium with my best friend Steve. Well, we were there until shortly after halftime.
I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin at the time, and Steve had been my best friend throughout high school. We’d actually met in fifth grade at Vacation Bible School at Oklahoma Avenue Lutheran Church – he was the kid who brought the Nerf football every day to play catch -- and then reconnected at Martin Luther High School four years later.
I remember it being reasonably warm for early December – the official NFL game book says the temperature at kickoff was 45 degrees – but it was windy, making it feel colder than it should have been in our seats behind home plate.
After watching Lindy Infante’s team bumble to a 20-0 third-quarter deficit, we bailed and went back to Steve’s parents' house on 77th and Oklahoma on Milwaukee’s southwest side to thaw out and watch the last part of the game on TV. We got to their house just in time to see Kiel throw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Perry Kemp and Ed West, pulling the Packers to within six points with about 3 minutes left in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff following West's TD, Seattle fumbles and the Packers recover at the Seahawks’ 24-yard line. Steve and I curse leaving.
On fourth-and-6 from inside Seattle’s 10-yard line, Kiel, who had replaced Anthony Dilweg in the third quarter, drops back with a chance to win the game with a touchdown pass and the extra point. Instead, he misses Jeff Query, the ball is incomplete, Seattle runs out the clock and the Packers lose. We laugh about nearly missing one of the greatest comebacks (in our minds, anyway) in Packers history. I never leave another Packers game early again.
Steve gives me a ride back to Madison, drops me off at my dorm.
Why do I remember all this?
Three weeks later, Steve is killed by a drunk driver.
That wasn’t the last time I saw Steve – I got to spend time with him at our high school’s annual alumni basketball tournament a few days before he died – but it remains one of my enduring memories of him. And, in large part, I have Blair Kiel to thank for that.
See, that’s the thing about sports. Certainly, it’s about wins and losses. It’s about championships. It’s about figuring out who’s going to play right outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews next season and if Nick Collins is going to be able to resume his career and who’s going to play left tackle in 2012.
But what makes sports such a special part of our lives is the emotional connection we have to teams, or players, or games. And that’s why, while I'm not a "fan" anymore, I understand why the Packers mean so much to so many. It's the memories they create for us.
As for me, losing Steve certainly shaped the person I am now. It’s the reason I don’t drink alcohol, it’s why I am as a dad and as a husband an over-the-top kisser, hugger and I-love-you’er.
It’s also why I still have those Packers-Seahawks ticket stubs on my bulletin board, more than 20 years later.
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