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Books | Sports

December 2, 2009

A Sports Nation Without Its Icon

Phil Hanrahan arrived in Green Bay after Brett Favre left. He found a rudderless Packers fan base. And that was before the Vikings signed the veteran QB.

Joseph Ax

Joe Montana in Kansas City red. Michael Jordan in a Wizards jersey. Even (most painfully to this long-suffering Knicks fan) Patrick Ewing shuffling around the court in Orlando.

Phil Hanrahan. Photo by Mary June Hanrahan,
"We're not letting ourselves think about Favre winning a Super Bowl. Check back with me if that happens."

Phil Hanrahan. Photo by Mary June Hanrahan,

It's always difficult to watch a legend depart your team for the pastures of another—even when they turn out to be fallow. But it's hard to fathom a player meaning more to a fan base and to a community than Brett Favre, and unless you keep a giant foam block of cheddar cheese on your hat rack, it's probably nigh on impossible to imagine what it must feel like for Green Bay Packers fans to witness Favre this season flinging touchdown passes and jumping into his linemen's arms for the hated Minnesota Vikings.

That emotional experience forms the basis for Phil Hanrahan's new book, Life After Favre: A Season of Change with the Green Bay Packers and their Fans, which follows the Pack in 2008, as new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passionate Packers fan base struggles to accept the end of an era. For those of you who are suffering from what Hanrahan calls "Favre fatigue," fear not—the Wisconsin native spends far more time examining the unique connection between the team and its fans than he does dwelling on Favre and the seemingly never-ending melodrama that surrounds him.

A host of characters from Packer Nation across the country, and the world, populate the book, as Hanrahan moves from Los Angeles back to his native Wisconsin for the season, renting an apartment in the same building that once housed Vince Lombardi's office. In addition to the vibrant Packers fans who lend color to the narrative, Hanrahan profiles a number of players, including Rodgers, a thoughtful, talented quarterback tasked with an impossible job. The author travels frequently, visiting a Packers bar in Arizona; another bar owned by wide receiver Jordy Nelson's parents in Kansas; and Kiln, Mississippi, the small town where Favre was raised.

In the following interview, which has been edited for space and clarity, Hanrahan tells Gelf how Packers fans feel about Favre now, why Wisconsinites like bars, and which Packers player's favorite drink is Sex on the Beach.

Gelf Magazine: Your book concludes just as training camp for the 2009 season starts, and Brett Favre has apparently decided not to join the Vikings. Of course, we know what happened next. How have fans reacted to the season he's having in Minnesota? Has their attitude changed since last year, when he played for the Jets?

Phil Hanrahan: It has changed. It remains complicated. Last year was easier for Packers fans like me, because he was playing in another conference, and we weren't going to be playing them. So you could have fans who were simultaneously Packers fans and Favre fans. You had maybe a 25 percent population that was anti-Favre as soon as he asked for his release. Very quickly, you started hearing words like "traitor" thrown around. Another quarter of the group probably stayed with Brett. The first preseason game, I went to the Stadium View, which is Green Bay's biggest and best sports bar, and that day it seemed there were 80 percent Brett supporters cheering him on as he came out in his Jets uniform. Anyway, that takes care of half of the fan base. The other 50 percent last year had some mixed feelings. But there wasn't this total cognitive dissonance in the minds of Packers fans, because he was at a distance.
It did definitely change when he went to the Vikings. We know we're playing them twice, he's coming to Lambeau. As a team, they're a threat to us. The Favre diehard population probably dwindled down to 10 percent. The surprising thing for me is I still meet these people. At a book signing, I had one woman have me write, above the title, "There Is No," so it read, "There Is No Life After Favre." Another fan, I went to write "Go Pack," and she grabbed my arm and said, "No, no, I'm not a Packer fan right now. I will be a Packer fan after [Packers general manager] Ted Thompson is gone."
The rest of the population is not happy with Brett. That said, it's complicated, because of a certain amount of residual pride in his performance. I liken it to the parents of an alienated adult child. All of a sudden, the son or daughter does something impressive. You haven't spoken to this child for a while, and there's some bad blood, but you can't help feeling a little bit of pride. I was actually in New York City, at the great Packers bar Kettle of Fish, watching a Packers game in late September. After the Packers beat the Rams, they flipped on the Vikings, and it was that miracle pass against the 49ers that Favre threw with two seconds left. When they flipped on the game, it's a minute and a half to go, no timeouts, 80 yards. I'm with all cheeseheads, and we all start cheering. We all thought the Vikings had lost. When he threw that pass, the whole place went silent, but you also sensed a little bit of pride: "Gosh darnit, that was our guy."
Things have shifted three or four times. They may shift again, if he goes into a late-season swoon again like last year—that's obviously the best scenario for Packers management. But right now, let's say he doesn't suffer any kind of injury and he keeps playing at this level. The Packers management just has to hope Rodgers continues playing at a high level, as well, and that the Packers get in the playoffs.

Gelf Magazine: And what happens if he wins a Super Bowl?

Phil Hanrahan: It's going to be a punch to the gut for sure—at minimum. I do think the anti-Thompson, anti-management pitchforks will come out in greater force. I don't know that it will reach the heights of July and August 2008, but the haters will come out in greater numbers. As Packers fans, we don't even want to contemplate that. It was hard enough seeing him come into Lambeau and play so well. At this point, just because the Packers look like they're in the playoff hunt, things are good. We're not letting ourselves think about Favre winning a Super Bowl. Check back with me if that happens.

Gelf Magazine: But most analysts would probably say that Rodgers is not the problem. I mean, would Favre fix the Packers' line problems? Maybe he wouldn't be doing any better.

Phil Hanrahan: That's the debate that goes on all the time. I would say the greater percentage of Packers fans are clear-thinking fans. They make the case that we still have at least a Top 10 quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and there's an argument that he's a Top 5 QB. The offensive line was obviously our biggest problem in the first half of the season. Rodgers is a lot more mobile than Favre—Favre would have been getting sacked all the time, too.
But then on the other hand, they'll say, Favre has the quicker release and doesn't hold onto the ball as long. And you also have some people who are not on board with Rodgers yet. I quote a woman in the book who's a big Favre fan who says, "Well, [Rodgers] could be a hero or he could be a zero." The pro-Favre Packers fans still point out that Rodgers still hasn't accomplished anything yet. He has great statistics. He seems to be a quick learner. But he still hasn't really pulled one out in the clutch, unless you count that first game against the Bears. We saw last season so many of those close games. You don't want to put it all on him, but he did have a few chances. We still haven't seen him throw that pass that we saw Favre throw earlier this season against the 49ers, and obviously Favre has thrown a lot of those. We're going to need Rodgers to win a playoff game, or beat the Steelers in clutch fashion and get them into the playoffs. It remains to be seen.

Gelf Magazine: You spent some time with Rodgers. How do you think he feels about Favre joining the Vikings? Does he just wish that Favre would disappear?

Phil Hanrahan: Aaron is a wonderful interview because he's very articulate, very funny, very thoughtful—he's an extremely smart guy. He's not going to let you know whether he is thinking about Brett Favre and whether it's weighing on him, but given his thoughtful, reflective nature, I would speculate, yes, that not only does he wish that Favre would go away, but he wishes he wouldn't have to think about him at all. I recall his answer when I asked if there are things he can do to "get his mind off something." He said, "There's not a lot I can distract myself with. Talk to friends, family. Music helps a little. Playing guitar."
After Favre had his retirement press conference in March 2008, a couple of days later they flew Rodgers back from San Diego for his own press conference at Lambeau. About half the statements out of his mouth in those 20 minutes acknowledged, "I'm my own man, and I'm going to go about this my own way, but I know I'm always going to be compared to Brett Favre for my entire career." So he went into this with his eyes wide open. But when he uttered that statement, he believed he had inherited the mantle. He gets to Green Bay for the start of training camp, and all this stuff pukes up. It was like Groundhog Day. "Am I going to be back on the bench watching Favre?" They traded him, and I'm sure Aaron was happy Favre got out of the NFC and the Packers weren't going to play against him.
But again, it's the thing that won't leave—Favre ended up in Minnesota. Just in terms of Aaron's head, that was not a good development. To his credit, he's such a strong person that it doesn't seem to affect him. But who looked calmer in Lambeau? I thought Favre was going to be the rattled one. But Aaron looked more rattled. I think it's unavoidable for Rodgers. He has a philosophical side, and I don't think he can turn that off. There's so much potency in this Favre stuff—a thoughtful person like Aaron is going to chew over it.

Gelf Magazine: The book was initially conceived right after Favre retired from the Packers in 2008.

Phil Hanrahan: I thought it was over. I thought my book was set in a post-Favre world. I really believed that.

Gelf Magazine: How different do you think the book would have been had he stayed retired?

Phil Hanrahan: It would have been markedly different, I think, in two senses. Just in terms of the structure—it's not a post-Favre world yet, so I have to set aside one track in the narrative for the Favre story. I was conscious throughout of not turning it into a Favre book. I didn't want to write a Favre book. My core story was, how do you replace a legend? How do you replace the face of the franchise? That's the story I was interested in.
The Packers' task was almost one destined to fail. And yet I let myself believe that coming off a 13-3 season, the Packers had a chance to have a Hollywood movie-type season, where the young guy replaces the legend and reaches the same heights. Obviously that didn't happen. And I'll be honest with you, I wasn't quite prepared for retooling my narrative, and I had a dark, dark week after they lost their eighth or ninth game, thinking how to reposition this book where it's not a gloomy, dreary reading experience for Packers fans.
Once Favre joined the Jets, the danger was letting Favre take over too much of the book. So, strategically, I did not speak to him. If I did, he was going to give me some useless banalities, and I might feel compelled to put them into the book just because they came out of his mouth. Or let's say he talks about some stuff his agent doesn't want him to, and it's radioactive stuff. All of a sudden, he takes over the book. It might give me a nice media bump, but it's no longer a Packers book, it's a Favre book. So I'm comfortable with the choices I made. But every day in planning and writing this book, I was wrestling with how much attention to give to Favre, and it was a moving target. The trick was to have Favre shadow the book without overshadowing it.
There was a fair amount of scrambling going on, all the way to the end. I had to turn in the manuscript the week before he joined Vikings. Training camp had just started, and I was holding out for every single day. My editor and I would wake up, and wonder if today was the day that he would join the Vikings.
The other thing was the marketing of and the reception for the book. Obviously it was a good thing for the book that Favre stayed in the picture. They did add to the print run the second he joined the Vikings. When that happened, we thought, "Wow. We suddenly have a national book." We assumed the endless media coverage would translate to a lot of focus on this book. That didn't happen.
I have a couple of explanations for that: One, some media consider it a Packers fan book only. In order words, it's too narrowly cast. There also is an element of Favre fatigue. It's too late at this point, but I have rethought the titling of it, the cover, how we pitched it. On balance, I think it's a good thing that Favre is still in the picture and that my book took on that second layer. But who knows? If Favre had stayed retired, maybe Aaron Rodgers is on the cover, and the focus is solely on replacing a legend. Would that have had more appeal? I don't know.

Gelf Magazine: So do you ever wish you had done the book this year instead, with Favre in Minnesota?

Phil Hanrahan: Every book event I do, somebody asks a variation of that question. But no, I don't. I still think last season was a more interesting story. I may change my tune if we meet the Vikings in the playoffs. I still think last season is the better story—the struggle, the drama, the heartbreaking losses, the roller coaster of Packer fans' emotions. And you still have that story of how do you replace a legend. It might not be the most exciting story, the one that gets the blood of Packers fans racing, but I still think 2008 is the better book story. But let's say Rodgers beats Favre and goes to the Super Bowl and wins it. OK—then maybe I'll want to write a sequel.

Gelf Magazine: As you said, some people have assumed the book is all about Brett.

Phil Hanrahan: Absolutely, they have.

Gelf Magazine: But the book focuses much more on Packers fandom. What makes Packer Nation unique? How is it different than the fan base of any other team with a national following, like the Cowboys or the Yankees?

Phil Hanrahan: As a Packers fan, my inclination is to say we're a special breed. Steelers fans will tell you they have the greatest national fan base. The Cowboys obviously are a national team. And then you have Red Sox and Yankees fans. They all have good arguments that they have the deepest, broadest fan bases. It may be an irresolvable question, but I love the question, because it raises so many issues. As a Packers fan, I'm willing to go out there and say we have the deepest, broadest fan base.
I do think it must be partly the power of story: the Green Bay story, a place where town and football are one and the same, a town whose small size makes it something of a miracle that a franchise still exists there. The power of its story helps explains the Packers passion of fans who didn't grow up in Packer Land (like Santiago Gardner of Tijuana/San Diego and Wayne Scullino of Sydney, Australia). Lombardi more or less saving the team. Then long years of further struggle. Then Favre. The Yankees, Red Sox, Steelers, and Cowboys have great stories in terms of star players and championships, but the Green Bay narrative goes beyond theirs to include nearly every dimension of a town and its culture. As I say in the book, I arrived in Green Bay prepared to be cynical about this stuff, but my cynicism vanished after a couple of weeks of immersion.
If pressed to defend it? Well, let me see. One litmus test is sports bars devoted to the Packers. You have bars all over country that are regular gathering spots for transplanted cheeseheads. You could probably get empirical about this and see which team has the greatest number of these bars devoted to their fans, but as far as I can tell, the Packers are going to come out ahead. There are five or six Web sites just devoted to telling you where Packers bars are around the country. In California, for example, over 60 bars turned up in one of these searches. There's one in every state.
I've lived in eight different places around the country, and you have one Steelers bar in some of these cities, and a couple of Cowboys bars, but I don't think there is another team that has the bar presence around the country. That's probably the strongest leg of my argument.

Gelf Magazine: Maybe Wisconsin people just like to drink.

Phil Hanrahan: Yes—that was going to be my second point. Wisconsin culture is drinking, Packers, bratwurst. And I say this as a proud Wisconsinite. The Packers are a religion, and our favorite things to do are to watch the Packers, drink beer, and eat bratwurst—and cheese curds, if we can get them. That is exportable. You now have all you need for a bar experience: football, drinking, and food. My tongue is not in my cheek as I say this. Just add Packers, beer, and brats to a bar anywhere and…Insta-Wisconsin. No other sports team has that bar culture so tightly woven with its sports-team experience.
The other thing I would mention is the international appeal. Anecdotally, I'm running into people like Santiago Gardner, who grew up in Tijuana. He hadn't even heard of the NFL growing up. I asked him, "How did you become a Packers fan?" I'll never forget his answer. Very solemnly, he said: "By investigating their history." I said, "You became a Packer fan by reading books?" The Yankees have that history, the Red Sox do, but there's something about the appeal of this small town that speaks to people like Santiago Gardner. There's a universal appeal in the intimacy that the town and the team have. No offense to Green Bay, but Green Bay really is the Packers. The town and the team are so closely intertwined. And that can speak to anyone around the world, whether they've ever stepped foot in Wisconsin or not.

Gelf Magazine: Did anything that you learned while writing the book surprise you?

Phil Hanrahan: Maybe it shouldn't have, but I honestly didn't know these Packers-bar websites existed. That was very useful for me. I had lived in New York City from 1995-2001, and I had lived in LA. I ran into Packers fans in New York and LA, but I did not realize you had Packers bars in every major American city.
The other thing that surprised me was that this was my first experience in an NFL locker room, and I expected to be hit with a blast wave of macho energy. I was surprised by how civil the locker room was. I expected loud banter, strutting around, literal and metaphorical towel snapping, a little bit of hazing for the new guy, and some attitude. And I found none of it. It's just a civil place. Maybe they're a little tired after practice. But the Packers are a bunch of nice guys. I was looking for a jerk or an asshole, and I didn't really run into one.
There was one little surprising moment. I'm sitting with Donald Driver. Donald starts telling me about his children's book, Quickie Makes the Team. Packers president Mark Murphy had just given the book to his niece. Driver is sitting there in his towel, imitating the niece, doing the little girl's voice. All his football colleagues are looking over, and at that exact moment Will Blackmon walks up, hands an envelope to Donald and says, "Thanks, Donald." I say, "Oh, what's that?" Donald says, "It's a thank-you card." I'm in a pro-football locker room, I've got this 12-year veteran or whatever he is talking about his children's book, and then this D-back hands him a thank-you card. It's not what you would see in an Oliver Stone movie.

"The trick was to have Favre shadow the book without overshadowing it."
Gelf Magazine: You're not a sportswriter by trade. How did that affect the way the book came out?

Phil Hanrahan: I think it was on balance an advantage. I was seeing everything with fresh eyes. If you're in a locker room every day, you're in there with your two or three questions for your story you're filing the next day, and a lot of the environmental stuff just fades into the background. Every little detail of that locker room was new to me and interesting to me.
Beyond the locker-room environment, the Packers are a team that has been written about in 50 books by now. There's all this mythology wrapped around Lambeau and the Packers and Lombardi. Coming in after six years in New York and six years in LA, I hadn't even lived in Wisconsin for any length of time since 1994, and I hadn't been following the Packers religiously for four or five hours a day, like you can easily do up here. I was outside that saturation. I hadn't been to Lambeau since I was a teenager. So even the tailgating, the sight of the stadium—all that was new to me.
The disadvantage was that I had a little bit of catching up to do in terms of sportswriting craft. I already had a very high regard for sportswriters. And we have some very good ones in Wisconsin. Having to do that stuff myself, especially the game recaps—there's a craft to it. Bob McGinn is a master at it. I had the luxury of four or five months to pore over them and put together my own game stories. He had a couple of hours to file each story.
If you're a football fan in Wisconsin, it's a bit of a paradise in terms of the coverage, and I wanted to get that stuff in the book. Bob McGinn published an 1,800-word treatise on Aaron Kampman's techniques and philosophy as a defensive end, and that's showing up in your morning newspaper. If you're a football fan, what a treat. My editor got to that section of the manuscript, and he said, "The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel sends five writers to every road game, not to mention every home game?" And then the Green Bay Press Gazette sends four writers. And then for two days after each game, you have close to 15 pages of stories in both newspapers.

Gelf Magazine: Was there anything you left out of the book that you wish you hadn't?

Phil Hanrahan: I put almost everything in that I wanted to put in. Not being a sportswriter, I had the freedom to digress when I wanted—using pretty much anything I thought that was interesting, amusing, fresh. I left very, very little on the cutting-room floor. When I found out Aaron Rodgers's favorite movie is The Princess Bride, I rented the movie again and studied it, took notes, and turned out a five-page analysis of the movie and why I thought the movie appealed to Rodgers. I get the notes back from my editor, and when he gets to that section, he says, "Do we really need five effing pages about The Princess Bride?" I tell that story to show how uncensored I was in putting this together. I always erred on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.
One tiny little detail I left out, after I deliberated for three or four days, was something that happened during the Atari Bigby dinner. He's a super guy. I talk about how complicated he is—on the field he's the hardest hitter on the team, but off the field he's quiet and low-key. He ordered a couple of drinks with his salmon and his greens. He goes to Tony Roma's every Friday, but he's doesn't order the ribs—he's a Rastafarian, so he doesn't eat meat. The drink was a Sex on the Beach, and this big old glass, with a cherry and a straw sticking out showed up with his plate of salmon and greens. And then he ordered another. I didn't include that. I thought it would be the only thing you would remember about Atari Bigby. I have a feeling he wouldn't have wanted me to mention that. Maybe I also didn't want this information to get into enemy hands. It might have been turned into an on-field taunt.

Gelf Magazine: It's kind of a girly drink.

Phil Hanrahan: Absolutely. It looked very girly. It was the kind of thing a bunch of college girls would order when they're out for a girls' night. But it also might have made my point, that he's a man of many facets and angles. He's as tough a mofo as you can get on the field, as manly as you can get, but then there are these other dimensions to him—including his favorite drink.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Article by Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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