This woman walked into Zeke’s, a divey San Francisco bar catering to, among other people, Packers fans. It was Dec. 8, 10 a.m. Not my first visit to Zeke’s, but it’s always a little odd to watch that 1 p.m. game in the morning. This woman had a rendezvous with two lady friends in the Packer ghetto at the back of the bar. As she entered she announced that her water had broken at 3 a.m. No contractions yet, so why not go watch the Pack?
That game was the first of a series of implausible comebacks and impossibly tight games down the home stretch of the season. By the following weekend, I was back in Connecticut. The Son (also a Packers fan despite the fact that neither of us have an actual Wisconsin connection) watched that Dallas game standing up, three feet away from our own TV screen, yelling and gasping as the Packers erased the Cowboys’ 26-3 halftime lead and won in the waning minutes.
“What do you think Bob is doing right now?” The Son asked.
“Gail is giving him oxygen,” I said.
We watch a lot of Packers games with Bob and Gail and Hank and Terry and Dan and Suzanne, all actual Wisconsin ex-pats. They are all almost embarrassingly kind and decent people; and none of them ever uses profanity no matter how bad things get. (This has required, of us, considerable amounts of repression.) Hank and Terry are in their eighties, and The Son and I have kind of fallen in love with them.
Last Sunday we were at Hank and Terry’s house as the Packers launched another impossible final drive. Aaron Rodgers was back from his long convalescence after a broken collarbone. The Packers trailed with 4:41 left in the game. The players talked their coach out of punting on 4th and 1 from their own 22. They made it and then launched a long drive that would include two more terrifying fourth down conversions. Each time, all of us in the room — Bob and Gail’s globetrotting saxophone star son Joel was with us too — would say, “This it is. This is the whole season. This play.” And then they’d make it. And that last play, a beautiful broken thing! Kuhn’s block levels Julius Peppers, but Rodgers is forced into an undesirable trit-trot to his left with more pressure coming. He can’t square his shoulders or set his feet, and his “hot read” Jordy Nelson is knocked on his butt by the Bears safety. But another thing happens. The fleet Randall Cobb, also on his first day back from a broken bone, runs a “go” route. The relevant Bears defensive back has misinterpreted his job as hitting Cobb just shy of the first down line, so he’s standing at the platform as Cobb’s train races away down the tracks. And Rodgers flings the ball. And it floats long and high, more like a Frisbee than a football. And it comes down in Cobb’s hands as he tumbles into the end zone.
Most of the time, I lack some kind of fundamental capacity to exult in sports victories. I love sports and root hard for my teams — I’m down to the Red Sox and Packers at this point — but when they win the big ones, I usually don’t jump around and scream and hug bystanders the way I’m supposed to. There have been exceptions. I was in the arena in Tampa-St. Pete in 1999 when the UConn men won it all for the first time, and I went a little nuts. I don’t remember what I did in 2004, but here must have been a few nights when I whooped, probably more during the ALCS than the World Series.
But last Sunday night I screamed and hopped and danced and high-fived and hugged with all those nice people. And then out in the kitchen, with the game over, we heard that Terry’s sister had died back in Wisconsin. She was 93, I think, and this was not unexpected. We had talked about it the previous week, during the wonderful-and-then-horrible Pittsburgh game. And now tears streaked down Terry’s face, and we hugged her.
And you know, this is has been kind of a dark year to be a football fan. But the game has stayed vital because it so closely mirrors the devastation and renewal of life. Birth and death and birth. Life is scary. The only thing that makes it endurable is the chance to gather in groups in the blaze of light and scream at the heavens that on this day the bears didn’t get you. Somewhere down the road, they will. The bears get everybody sooner or later. But not you, not today.