Football and My Father: January 2021

It’s NFL playoff season, and this weekend, my Green Bay Packers have the chance to win the NFC Championship and qualify for the Super Bowl. Thanks to my father, football is part of my DNA. 

Back in the day when football was televised only on Sundays, we would dash home from church and turn on the Packers game. Our television was a boxy, blonde wood cabinet with doors. Dad settled into the leather recliner; I sat cross-legged on the floor. Together we cheered the Green and Gold in their gyrations to move the ball into the endzone. Lunch was chili and tamales topped with chopped raw onion.

Vince Lombardi, the Packers’ legendary coach, was a hero in our house. While I respected his tough-love coaching (because dad did), it was Golden Boy Paul Hornung who stole my teenage heart. The strapping blonde running back was a bit of a rogue off-field. That’s how he found himself sidelined for illegal betting that crisp September Sunday in 1963 when my dad, uncle, grandfather, and I watched the game from the last row in the upper deck of Milwaukee County Stadium. 

Fueled by cokes and hot dogs and binocular close-ups of my heartthrob, I thrilled to the Packers’ win over NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions. Afterward, we joined the crowds waiting outside the locker room who, like us, hope to snag autographs from their favorite players. Other players came and went but no Paul Hornung. Finally, he strode through the doors, larger than life. I held back shyly, waiting for my turn at the end of the autograph line. 

I clutched the dollar bill that Dad had given me for the star’s signature. The parking lot was nearly empty when at last, it was just Paul, my dad, and me. I was tongue-tied. And out of luck. None of us had a pen.

Now, more than fifty years later, it seems incomprehensible that we didn’t chase someone down to borrow a pen. But we didn’t. A small life sadness.

Paul Hornung died two months ago. My father passed away ten years ago, the last year the Green Bay Packers played in the Super Bowl. 

My parents had made a late-life move across the country and lived down the road from my husband, Joe, and me in Nevada’s Carson Valley. The weekend of the game, they’d taken advantage of timeshare credit to enjoy a luxury lodge at nearby Lake Tahoe. That’s where we gathered to watch the game. We staked our claim to a table in front of a big screen with the other vocal Packer faithful. 

After three-quarters of cheering, beer, and brats, Dad was ready to retreat to their hotel room for the rest of the game. He had a mild case of Parkinson’s and tired quickly. In the final minute of the contest, with a Packer win over the Pittsburgh Steelers imminent, Joe and I dashed to my parents’ room to share a post-victory celebration.

No one was more jubilant than dad. We called family members in other parts of the country to share pride and joy for our team. It makes me teary to think about Dad, pipe in one hand, cell phone to his ear, talking one by one to his other children. It was the highpoint of his year. And mine.

He slowly declined over the following months. By fall, when he chose to go to bed instead of watching the Wisconsin Badgers in overtime, we knew the end was near. Football was his touchstone.

So it’s not surprising that dad appeared so vividly in my dreams last night. I looked in the rearview mirror of my car, and there he was in the back seat, Packers baseball cap on his head, a pipe in his hand. I could smell the pungent sweetness that surrounded him and permeated his clothes, a familiar, comforting fragrance. He looked like he did in our family photo at Lambeau Field, where we gathered for a game to celebrate his eightieth birthday. The Packers put on a show, beating the New Orleans Saints, 52-3, a gift to dad in an otherwise losing season.

Now the Packers are pushing toward a Super Bowl win once again. And dad is with me in spirit to share it.