Hall of Fame Friendly
To anybody who’s a sports fan, meeting one of your heroes in person is a bona fide thrill.
My first “face-to-face” with professional athletes came at a Packer game back when they still played in Milwaukee. There was a spiral staircase enclosed in a metal “cage” that the players descended on their way to the locker room. I was perhaps thirteen years old when my father brought me there to get a better look at the players after some game back at the tail end of the sixties. The packers had just lost, and in fact, had freshly dedicated a three decade sabbatical from the championship football they’d enjoyed only the year before.
I had a prime view, nose pressed to the screen, so that the players’ faces were only inches from mine. One by one, there they were in the living flesh — Bart Starr, Willie Wood, Carroll Dale, Forrest Gregg, Herb Adderley. I’ll never forget the startled and almost hunted looks in those athletes’ eyes as they braved in dismal silence the gauntlet of staring faces.
Years later when I was granted the opportunity to cover a Packer game in Lambeau Field, little had changed for me the fan — I was still star struck. This was September 3rd, 1995, opening day. The Packers would lose to the St. Louis Rams 17-14, but it would be the last time the Packers lost at Lambeau for more than two dozen home games and two Super Bowls. Standing on the field itself, surrounded by the cheering mob, I felt like I’d died and gone to green-and-gold heaven.
The realities of the job soon brought me back down to “turf” however. Videographers back then were restricted to staying between the goal line and thirty yard lines, and required to kneel. The players were so big that for all practical purposes they blocked the view of the action. When I tried to take a shot of Tony Mandarich on the sidelines he saluted me with a finger. Later in the locker room Reggie White stepped out of the shower wrapped in a towel, caught the “deer in a headlight “ gloss to my eyes (I’m certain this is how many offensive linemen looked at him as well) and frowned.
However I did get to join in a locker room interview with a young Brett Favre. He was sitting naked at his locker surrounded by what must have been thirty people or more – men and women. I poked the camera through a gap in the crowd while the “reporter” – my neighbor Tim Carlson (also his first visit to Lambeau) tried to reach the mike closer. I never covered a second Packer game.
The truth is, many of my favorite Packer moments didn’t happen at Lambeau.
I met Bart Starr a couple of times – once when he was signing autographs at a store at the Oakwood Mall. I got to exchange a few light words with him before the wall of fans hit. I still think he’s one of the nicest people who ever played the game.
When Ray Nitschke came to Eau Claire during the 1990’s, — only a few years before he died — and agreed to a one-on-one sit-down interview, I was able to personally meet him. I said little more than “How do you do, I’m Steve” before the lengthy interview commenced, but Ray had also agreed to stick around for a live shot. While I was setting up the shot, I asked him to “please, take one big step up,” and he looked at me rather anxiously and asked “Is this where you want me, Steve?”
I want you to think about that for just a second. Perhaps that fact that a football Hall-of-Famer and Packer Legend would remember a name recited once forty-five minutes earlier doesn’t strike you as impressive, but it does me. Not many athletes – not many people – could have managed that. It told me that Nitschke was a different kind of person. A real kind of person. I was so startled by it that I had to tell everyone I knew how Ray and I were on a “first name basis.”
Bart and Ray were not the only Packer Hall of Famers I’ve ever met. Boyd Dowler visited the UWEC campus once, and again I was asked to set up a live shot. While we waited and he lounged on a sofa in the back lobby of Davies he dialed someone on the phone and unapologetically trashed “Hicksville” Eau Claire.
For some people fame goes to their heads. For others, fame is no more than a uniform — something they wear on game day at Lambeau, then shed for more comfortable clothing when the game is done.
Posted under Artist? Scientist? Philosopher? Camera Guy?
This post was written by sbetchkal on February 24, 2011