Thursday, September 16, 2010

"What's a Packer?"

This was the question posed to me by my 4-year old son recently.  My head whipped around, my eye twitched and after a long pause I gripped him by both shoulders and explained:

"A Packer is the pure, un-adulterated essence of football.  A Packer is what every boy who has ever tossed a pigskin aspires to become.  A Packer is the gridiron guardian of the hallowed halls of Lambeau Field.  A Packer is the embodiment of a proud tradition, carried through generations, that consummated and defined the entire sport of football.  A Packer is inextricably intertwined with the community, not only the city of Green Bay but the entire state of Wisconsin -- nay, the nation!  A Packer walks under the banners of 12 world championships and 3 Super Bowls.  A Packer is the beating heart of a champion with a commitment to excellence that doesn't accept anything less for his dedication than the triumphant placement of the Lombardi Trophy in its namesake's home!  A Packer is FOOTBALL!!!"

Snapping back to reality, I suddenly realized my voice had crescendoed to a decibel level that caused the entire family to stop what they were doing.  A neighbor's dog barked in the distance during the pregnant pause that followed.  Birds took flight in panic.  As I stared into my son's unblinking and slightly terrified eyes, he persisted with his inquiry, "Yeah... but what is a Packer?"

Ahh... the beautiful innocence of youth.  Of course, what he meant was what, physically speaking, is a "Packer."  A perfectly reasonable question, but an answer that requires more than a little explanation.  For a four-year-old, the team names that make most sense are animals.  They know what a Lion or Bear is.  As I pondered his question, it struck me that simply naming your NFL team after some fierce animal (e.g. Bengals, Jaguars, Panthers) or, worse, not-so-fierce animal (Dolphins, Rams) was a cop-out.  Animals are what you go with when you can't think of a better mascot.  Horses (Colts and Broncos) and, for some perplexing reason, birds (Cardinals, Ravens, Falcons, Eagles, Seahawks) are other species in the animal kingdom that somehow portray, at least in the mind of the namers, toughness, speed or determination.  I think they reflect a lack of creativity.

How about thinking outside the fauna box a little?  Large men (Giants and Titans) sound like good mascots.  Better yet, how about large men who beat the crap out of people?!?  Marauders are, in many ways, the perfect metaphor for an NFL team, embraced by the Raiders, Buccaneers and Vikings.  The Norse-ist undertones of the Minnesota mascot aside (c'mon, does every Scandinavian have blond hair and long mustaches?), these names convey a cool, take-no-prisoners, ass-kicking toughness that is exactly the intimidation factor you're looking for on the field and in the stands.  How can you get any cooler than these Raiders fans?  What's not to like about death, dismemberment and stuffed animals?  It's the perfect NFL mascot.

Trying to emulate the Raiders look when the team entered the league in 1976, the Buccaneers' marketing execs were slightly off the mark initially -- not only in their unfortunate choice of tangerine as the primary team color, but also in the off-putting eye wink of their original mascot (top).  After convening a focus group at Disneyland, the front office came up with their current Pirates of the Caribbean emblem (middle), but they recently decided to abandon that look too because players were being asked where the "It's a Small World After All" ride was.  So, unveiled for the first time here at TriggPack is the new Buccaneers logo (bottom) which they will be sporting in the 2011 season.

During a press conference previewing the new logo, team president Malcolm Glazer stated, "We're tired of being out-marauded by Raiders fans.  This new mascot will give meatheads across the state of Florida something they can dress up like on Sunday and feel cool about themselves until they pass out in a pool of their own vomit."

Close cousins of the marauder genre is the time-honored exploitation of Native Americans, with the Chiefs and Redskins.  Let's just say I'd feel a tad awkward wandering into the Oneida Casino up the road from Lambeau Field sporting a Redskins jersey.  Fortunately our game against them this year is away.  Maybe Washington could take a cue from the Buccaneers and revamp their mascot to something a little more contemporary that doesn't look like an artist's rendition of the Trail of Tears.  Leave it to D.C. to be politically incorrect.

Occupations have also been a popular inspiration for NFL teams.  The Steelers (blue collar heroes), Patriots (who doesn't want to fight for their country?), Cowboys (tamed the West), 49ers (opportunistic gold-diggers), and Saints (forgive me, Father) were all named after venerable professions.  And, finally, there are the out-dated and just non-sensical names, including the Bills (what the hell is a "Bill" anyway?), Jets (probably sounded cool when airplane flight was a novel concept), Browns (fortunately for Cleveland fans, Paul Brown's surname wasn't Steamer), Chargers (isn't a lightening bolt a dis-charge?), and Texans (your state really isn't that cool -- we could have been the Green Bay Wisconsinites).

Which brings me back to the Packers.  Fortunately, for the purposes of answering my son's question, I am in the midst of reading a mostly interesting (though at times tiresome) book called The Packer Legend: An Inside Look by John Torinus, who worked for George Calhoun -- the sports editor for the Green Bay Press-Gazette who collaborated with Curly Lambeau to found the team, served as its original manager, and was an ardent publicist for years.

The name "Packers", as any Wisconsin kid knows from countless WPNE Saturday afternoon replays of NFL films from the Lombardi years, is from the Indian Packing Company, a meat-packing company in Green Bay.  Lambeau himself worked there and convinced them to be the original sponsor of the team -- for $250 per month (about the cost of my DirecTV subscription to watch them today).  Why the company didn't insist on the Green Bay Indians (we could have used the Redskins' logo), instead going with the rather generic Green Bay Packers, is not documented.  The Indian Packing Company was acquired by the Acme Packing Company, of Wile E. Coyote fame, in 1921.

Meat packing doesn't exactly spring to mind as a major Northeastern Wisconsin industry these days, apart from bratwurst or venison.  I guess we should consider ourselves fortunate that the original sponsor wasn't a paper mill (the Green Bay Pulpers), insurance company (the Green Bay Auditors), or Hillshire Farms (the Green Bay Kielbasas).  It's also quite fortunate that, in the absence of a logical visual embodiment of a Packer, Green Bay fans adopted the cheesehead.  It's a little known fact that in addition to the now ubiquitous yellow foam cheesehead, early prototypes of fan headgear included the Packer meathead, shown here.  That design was ultimately rejected because fans would barbecue it at their tailgate parties before ever entering the stadium.  Strapping raw meat to your head was also identified as a health risk by the FDA, otherwise these things would be adorning the Packer Pro Shop.

The name Packers, though technically referring to some dude stuffing animal meat into a can, stuck, and over the years lost its connection to its long defunct sponsor and took on the deeper emotional significance every fan feels.  The word Packer doesn't refer to something else.  It has no significance outside of the context Green Bay has given it.  And that is why it is a perfect mascot.

So there you go, son.  That is a Packer.


  1. Trigg - you're really coming into your own! This essay is worthy of a submission to SI. Keep up the good work.

  2. Nice job, but you are wrong about Texas. First, we are a republic that chooses to affiliate with these United States. The more the US looks like the failed state of California, the greater the chance we will exercise our right of independence. Secondly, unless you prefer the state to be your nanny in adulthood, Texas is a great place to live and visit. Being a "Texan" actually means something other than a zip code or area code like you other 48 (I make an exception for Alaska). As Davey Crockett said so well:

    You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.