By the time I became a Green Bay Packers fan in 1975, at age 9, the glory days of Vince Lombardi had long since passed. The Packers had become perennial cellar dwellers by the time I was an official Packer Backer, the result of playing on a youth team called the Packers. Each Sunday I donned green and white (I guess the league couldn’t afford yellow helmets) and believed that I was, indeed, a Packer.
Even when the “real” Packers began to get more competitive, they nevertheless were the team that seemed to finish 8-8 every year; from 1981-85, they finished at exactly that .500 record during four of those five seasons. The playoffs did not seem forthcoming; but still I kept rooting.
When Forrest Gregg took over as head coach, hope sprang forth. I was in college by this point, still hopeful, and in walked a quarterback who Gregg called his “boy of the future.” His name? Randy Wright.
Now, had I not been so ready to believe and so determined to see only the upside, I might have noticed that Wright, for all his poise and professionalism, really didn’t have the tools to be a championship quarterback. He didn’t have a strong arm or field presence or notable athleticism — he was just a small-ish, if earnest, pocket quarterback.
But I rooted for him like he was the new Bart Starr. I even got my own feelings hurt a little once when Chris Berman announced on NFL Prime Time, “Anyone notice that Randy Wright looks a lot like Bart Starr? Only in the face, of course, but …”
It was funny, but dang, Boomer. Really?
And so it was that on Nov. 8, 1987, with the Packers flailing like a fish on asphalt at 3-4-1 (two of the wins had come courtesy of “scab” players) and the 7-1 Chicago Bears invading Lambeau Field, that Randy Wright played a near-perfect game. It was a game Bart Starr no doubt was proud of. I remember Wright throwing a touchdown pass into the right corner of the end zone that had such gorgeous touch and placement on it that the announcer proclaimed it a “perfect pass.”
And then what happened? They lost. If you’re a long-time fan like I am, you remember the situation: Wright threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, and engineered a late field goal drive that enabled Al Del Greco to kick the Pack to a 24-23 lead with just a minute left on the clock.
Finally, a win over the dreaded Bears, and this just two years removed from the latter’s “Super Bowl Shuffle” arrogance. It was Wright vs. McMahon, with a blow about to be struck for all that was Wright.
And then it all went wrong. The defense collapsed when we needed it most, giving up passes of 35 and 45 yards to set up a (literally) last-second field goal by Kevin Butler. The headline in the next day’s paper, I will always remember, said, “Butler shows Packers the door.”
I wanted to kick something. Hard.
I recorded that game to VHS; I watched it over and over, trying to will the defense to make a sack on that final drive. Trying to will Butler to hook that field goal wide left. Something. Anything. But every time, he made that freaking kick. And it felt the same each time I watched it happen.
That’s when I knew that I had a sickness. Something had to be wrong, if I could be so depressed over one football game. Right? I moped. I seethed. I secretly dreamed of punching Jim McMahon in the neck. To this day, I can’t stand to look at that guy’s face (even when he briefly was a backup QB in Green Bay).
And to this day, I still have that tape. I no longer have a working VCR, and I haven’t watched the replay in years, but I have that tape. All it says on the label I made for it is, “Bears 26, Packers 24 – 1987.” Each time I see it, I feel the stab.
Within the next two years, Don Majkowski would take over for Wright and help make the Packers relevant again. By 1993, a young gunslinger named Brett Favre would make the losing years of the 1970s and ’80s a distant memory. Reggie White would come along thanks to a new management and coaching regime and help to make the Packers champions again. Fans piled onto the Packers bandwagon as if it were the last train out of Armageddon.
But every time I saw a new “fan” wearing a Packers starter jacket, jersey or cap, I always thought, “I wonder if they remember Nov. 8, 1987? If not, they aren’t enjoying this Packers team nearly as much as I am.”
I still have that thought sometimes, and having survived that heartbreaking loss to the Bears two and a half decades ago makes every Packers win today feel that much better.