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Packers, Patriots; They're super // A triumph for old-time values

Published Jul. 6, 2006

It was a simpler time, a simpler place.

Green Bay, Wis., only 30 years ago. But a man could be the most famous football player in the country, and still would not feel free to carry a gun, a stash or at least a chip on his shoulder when he went out in public.

He could also be a part of a medium-size town, respected by people, respecting them.

Times have changed, but perhaps not as completely as some of us believed. Sunday the two babies of professional football _ with only four years of league play between them _ came up against two classic teams with about 100 years' combined experience.

The Jacksonville Jaguars foundered in New England, shortly after the Carolina Panthers turned up their frozen toes in Green Bay. The newcomers haven't found their legends yet. The Green Bay Packers have legends coming out of their ears.

I first saw Bart Starr, quarterback of the Packers and Most Valuable Player of the first two Super Bowls, sitting on the sparsely filled commuter plane between Chicago and Green Bay. A magazine had made an appointment for me to interview Starr in his home.

Having teethed on New York sports and showbiz celebrities, I didn't approach him. We landed and, surprisingly, he came to me. Said he thought I might be the reporter from New York since he knew everyone else on the plane. When I didn't speak, he figured I hadn't wanted to go to work right then.

There was enough tact in this statement for a dozen modern quarterbacks. Then he astonished me. He apologized for not being able to have me stay at his home. Company had come earlier in the week.

He drove me to my motel, insisted on waiting in his car while I went in to make sure of my reservation. I was signing in when I noticed the clerk straighten up in surprise. He was looking over my shoulder, then back at me with new respect.

Bart Starr had come in, carrying my bag.

I was in Green Bay several days, and saw an attitude toward a professional team like nothing in my experience. In New York, they hate the Giants _ love them, too, of course _ but the only thing that makes them happier than a win is seeing a coach fired. Philadelphia is where a player brought his baby to show the crowd during intermission _ and they booed the baby. In Chicago, it's not always safe for a bungling athlete to walk the streets. Even Cincinnatians, though they have passed Red love from generation to generation for a century or more, view the team with tolerant contempt.

But in 1967, I never found anyone with anything but fond pride for their Packers. (Even now, I'm told, most people don't even mind the outlandish salaries.) I kept asking why they seemed to feel such personal affection for the players.

They're such fine young men, people kept telling me. I'd ask about Paul Hornung, world-class tailback and carouser. "Ole Paul," they'd say fondly. Friendliest fellow. Best heart in the world. Never hurt you, only hurts himself.

Few claimed to know players personally, but they knew about them. A man who worked in a hardware store talked of Henry Jordan, the fine tackle. He made sure Henry got his fill of fried pheasant every year, he said.

He comes to your house for dinner? I asked, impressed.

The hardware man looked patient, said he wouldn't force himself on anyone. He brings the birds to a restaurant, and they call Henry and arrange a time and cook them up, and Henry would bring some team mates along.

You don't go at all? I asked. "Why would they want me? I don't play football," he said. But Henry knew his name and sometimes he came into the hardware store to thank him personally.

People kept saying each Packer was like the guy who lives next door. One actually did have a Packer next door _ Boyd Dowler, the all-pro wide receiver. I called him, and he invited me for tea.

Tea! I remembered this huge man catching passes, dragging defenders 10, 15 yards after the catch. Whimsical sense of humor, I thought. But tea is what I got.

He looked like Tom Selleck, only younger, handsomer, in his carefully furnished living room. His wife was as fine-looking as he. Later he was to be an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs.

He was impressed by the magazine I was working for, Readers Digest. But conversation wasn't easy. For some reason I remembered first dates as a teenager, sitting uneasily in the living room before the girl came down the stairs, while her parents "got to know" me.

Later I walked into a plain little bar to meet Jim Wetherwax, a starting defensive tackle. I was early. Only the bartender and a skinny guy drinking a beer were there. After awhile, I told the bartender it looked like I'd been stood up. When he found out whom I was waiting for, he said Green Bay Packers didn't stand people up. He escorted me down the bar.

The skinny guy stood up . . . and . . . up. He was six-eight and had a gentle smile. Narrow shoulders but a lot of chest. Didn't look like the pumped-up specimens now at large. He smiled shyly, said he thought I was the reporter but figured when I was ready to talk I'd come over.

Conversation was easy. He said defensive linemen like himself were supposed to have more fiery dispositions than offensive linemen. He grinned. "Guess I'm fierier than I look," he said.

At the end he thanked me for the interview, said most people wanted to talk to Bart or Paul or to colorful linemen like Fuzzy Thurston. Wetherwax played for another year or two, then hurt his leg and dropped out of football. Last I heard he was in graduate school in California.

Later I was in Starr's home when his wife, Cherry, brought up an awkward incident. During the past season, Elijah Pitts, a running back, had dropped a pass and Starr, quarterback-like, snapped at him.

TV cameras caught the snap, and it got magnified out of all proportion. This was still the 1960s, civil rights battles were going on. Pitts was a black man and Starr was the University of Alabama's best-known graduate.

Cherry Starr brought out a letter from a man who denounced her husband as a bigot. In an Alabama accent, un-thawed by Green Bay winters, she said that "next time Elijah and his wife were over for dinner," she showed them the letter and, "We all had a laugh over it."

Has Green Bay changed over the past 30 years? Not much, from what I hear. People still love the Packers, still fill every seat in the stadium, still register their newborn children on the waiting list for season tickets.

This year, two newborn teams failed to make it all the way to Super Bowl. Maybe it's just as well. Jaguars and Panthers run to corporate sponsors and skyboxes where people watch games on TV.

Green Bay put in the expensive trappings, too. But the sons, daughters, grand- and great-grandchildren of people who watched the team 21-year-old Curly Lambeau founded, 76 years ago, are still out there in the cold and the wind chill, where real Packer-Backers belong.