Some memories are so macabre, so morbid, so diabolically discombobulating that they are best buried and forever spoken of no more.
Fictitious college football coach Hayden Fox put it best when administering advice to one of his subordinates who had knowledge of nefarious activity and was struggling with how he should proceed. Fox said of the memory, “You gotta bury it! Bury it! Bury it with a shovel and bury the shovel!”
To the Green Bay Packers faithful who had the misfortune of joining the bandwagon just as Vince Lombardi stepped down, our repressed memories of professional football ineptitude are as real as they are horrific. For nearly a quarter century, we lived with disappointment as a constant companion.
Between 1968 and 1992, the green and mustard yellow made the playoffs a grand total of two times. To those whose Packer memories begin with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, let that sink in a bit. And if you have a 50-something Packer-backer in your life, give them a supportive elbow-bump the next time you see them.
As difficult as it is for me to revisit this era of Packer football futility that I like to call the “Gory Years,” I don’t have much else to do until our safer-at-home restrictions are lifted.
Who knows, maybe it’ll be cathartic. ... So here goes.
My first recollection of Packers football flickers in the back of my mind like the picture on that old Philco Television my parents had in 1969. It was one of the rare occasions I remember that TV working (I’m sure Mr. Marsden, our trusty TV repair man, spent more time in our living room than his own).
I was an impressionable 6-year-old. It was Willie Davis Day. The legendary Packers defensive lineman was retiring, and there was a big ceremony at halftime. I remember nothing else about the game, but for whatever reason from that point on I was hooked.
Looking back, I wonder how much better my life would have been if the old Philco was on the blink that day. No decades of the Sunday disappointments followed by Monday sadness hangovers.
And although my Packers addiction got consistently less disappointing after 1992, had I invested all the hours I’ve put into the Packers over these past 50 years into something constructive, maybe I would have had a COVID-19 cure in my back pocket to share with Wuhan back in December. I feel like I’ve let humanity down a bit in this sense.
Anyway, the Packers began to lose in earnest in 1970. A 6-8 season cost Phil Bengtson his coaching job and brought Dan Devine to Green Bay in 1971. The Devine coaching era began on an ominous note. During his first game at Lambeau Field, Devine was unceremoniously run over on the sidelines by a New York Giant and spent the fourth quarter in the hospital. A broken leg. Devine finished the year coaching in a cast. Packer fans would have their collective pride in a cast for the next two decades.
Actually, Devine’s second season was exciting. A 10-4 record! A division championship along with a playoff game (Christmas Eve loss to the Redskins)! It gave us all hope for the future. Unfortunately, 1972 was a mirage in the desert of despair. It would be another 23 years before Green Bay won another division championship.
To help put that in perspective, think of today’s Packers not winning another NFC North title until 2042. Scary stuff. This is why the brain represses trauma.
The 1973 season was dismal. By this point there was a big exodus among my elementary school contemporaries from the legion of Packers fandom. Pockets of Dolphin enthusiasts began to take root. Then new Steelers and Cowboys “diehards.” Plenty of good seats on the Packer bandwagon. I guess what Packers fans endured during the “Gory Years” did prepare us for social distancing.
With Devine still in charge, the 1974 season started bad. He was desperate. In a fit of panic, he made the infamous John Hadl trade with the Rams. It was the figurative equivalent of deciding to fire up that cigarette on the Hindenburg.
In return for five draft picks (two firsts, two seconds and a third), the Packers received a balding, doughy 34-year-old who looked (and we were to quickly learn, threw) more like an insurance claims adjuster than an NFL quarterback. Few would argue this was the worst trade in the history of the NFL. The Rams went on to regular playoff participation. The Packers remained stuck in a swirling commode of perpetual mediocrity.
Figuring he had irreparably destroyed a franchise for a generation, Devine jumped ship for Notre Dame after the 1974 season.
With talent lacking and the cupboard devoid of high draft picks, Packers legend and all-time good-guy Bart Starr was anointed with the impossible task of righting a titanic mess. It didn’t go well. Over the next nine seasons, the Starr-led Packers compiled a 52-76-3 record.
Perhaps the worst of the dark Starr (Pun intended; it’s a coping mechanism.) era was the 1980 draft. The Packers had the No. 4 selection and had their eye on Penn State defensive tackle Bruce Clark. At the time Penn State’s coach, Joe Paterno, proclaimed Clark to be the greatest player he’d ever coached (still makes the hair on the back of my next stand up).
As soon as their turn rolled around, the Packers quickly jumped on Clark. And faced with the prospect of going to Green Bay to continue his football career, Clark just as quickly decided to jump the border and take his considerable talents to Canada. He signed a contract with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Ouch. The driver of the Packers bandwagon vacated the steering wheel and jumped out the rear egress door.
It wasn’t all bad. At some point early in the Starr regime my parents upgraded from the Philco to a splendid new 25-inch RCA color TV. I helped my mom pick it out at K-Mart. A sturdy, high-gloss dark-redwood-stained console with faux drawers on the bottom. More like a piece of art than a TV, really. Mr. Marsden could finally spend some quality time with HIS family. Oh, and the Packers did somehow manage to sneak into the playoffs with a 5-3-1 record during the strike-shortened 1982 season.
A Forrest flyer
The nine-year Starr experiment ended after the 1983 campaign. Former Packers great Forrest Gregg, who actually had some success as head coach of the Bengals, was handed to keys to the sputtering jalopy.
Now up until this point in the “Gory Years,” the only saving grace was that our football neighbors to the south had been equally as inept as the Packers. That all changed in 1984, when the Bears reneged on our mutual mediocrity agreement and turned really good. They got so good, in fact, that they won the Super Bowl in 1985. It suddenly felt like the sprawl of Chicago suburbia had crossed the border and I was living in a navy blue and orange clad occupied state.
“Where were all these avid southern Wisconsin Bears boosters during the Neill Armstrong/Bob Avellini regime?” I’d mumble as I cried myself to sleep each night.
And it turned out Forrest Gregg was no more successful than Bengtson, Devine or Starr. No matter how agitated he became or how much his nose twitched on the sidelines, he couldn’t generate a winning season during his four years in Green Bay.
His animosity toward Bears coach Mike Ditka did turn the rivalry games into nothing short of twice-a-year brawls. The culmination of them occurred at Soldier Field in November 1986, when defensive lineman Charles Martin (who was donning a towel with his “hit list” of the numbers of Bears players he wanted to maim) feloniously body slammed Bears QB Jim McMahon to the turf several seconds after the conclusion of an interception play. If you haven’t seen it, Google it. Also, Google “Kenny Stills & Matt Suhey.” Shenanigans straight out of “The Longest Yard.”
You think this article is long, try living it.
After the 1987 season, Gregg thankfully resigned and took his questionable coaching talents back to his alma mater at SMU. At this point in the Title Town game of head coaching Whack-A-Mole, Lindy Infante’s head popped up. To expedite his sad saga, just reread the Devine portion above and insert Infante (sans the broken leg) and substitute a cataclysmic Tony Mandarich draft for the cataclysmic Hadl trade.
While the Infante years were grim, a surprisingly good teaser of a year in1989 did provide THE all-time highlight of the “Gory Years.”
On Nov. 5th, 1989, the Packers snapped a four-year, eight-game losing streak to the Bears. The game’s outcome hinged upon a controversial last-second touchdown pass from Packers quarterback Don Majkowski to receiver Sterling Sharpe.
The referee initially ruled that Majkowski was beyond the line of scrimmage when he made the throw. Bears win. Then officials in the booth began to examine the replay. After several long minutes where the play was reviewed, re-reviewed, re-re-reviewed and analyzed like the Zapruder Tape, the referee announced, “After further review, we have a reversal.”
Lambeau Field erupted. Nearly 20 years of futility caused an eye allergy I didn’t know I had to let loose. LOOK AWAY!
Holmgren’s new world
Things began to change in 1992 with the arrival of general manager Ron Wolf, head coach Mike Holmgren and, of course, Brett Favre.
It began with a winning season, and then three years of gradual improvement where it felt a bit like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up the NFL’s mountain of supremacy only to have the Cowboys send the boulder bounding back down.
But the “Gory Years” were gloriously gone.
Or so I thought.
The final installment in my collection of repressed Packers memories occurred, ironically enough, on the evening of Jan. 26, 1997.
I still blame the guaifenesin that I had been prescribed for a cold. Others have speculated that it was the copious amounts of fermented beverages I was overserved that day. But as the clock wound down on the Super Bowl victory, and our family room began to erupt in the incandescent excitement of the moment, I could feel myself drifting off. And while family, friends and neighbors rejoiced and celebrated that dark, frigid evening in our cul de sac on Taylor Court, I slept upright in a loveseat.
Guess all those “Gory Years” of fresh air on the sparsely populated bandwagon finally caught up we me.