Well, this column is devoted to the most influential Packer fan and sports fan in my life -- my dad -- Doug Roerdink. And he will get to read it, or at the very least hear me read it to him. You see, Dad is nearing the end of one helluva battle. The Packers' schedule looks like a cakewalk compared to the opponents he's faced the last two years: Wegener's disease, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, pneumonia, heart attacks, burst aortic aneurysms, back surgery, two completely torn rotator cuffs and open heart surgery. I'm sure I've missed some things. Dad's also been on Flight for Life. Twice.
Remember the old Timex watch slogan: "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking"? Well, Dad missed out on some serious sponsorship money there. He's got a pain threshold and a fighting spirit that would've made Vince Lombardi proud. But as every player knows, there comes a time when the body simply can't go on. That's where Dad is at.
When he was younger, Dad's biggest health concern was a bum right shoulder from years of working in a factory. But that never stopped him from taking time to throw a baseball or football whenever I'd ask to go out in front of the house or in the big field next to the Kmart at the end of our dead-end street. After about 20 minutes, I could see the grimace on his face, but he'd always find a few more throws for me. My dad worked a lot, usually second shift, and had a part-time house painting business, too, so our time together meant a lot. I'm not sure I've ever told Dad before how memorable those times throwing the ball were and still are.
I went out for football and track and field in high school in large part because I remembered stories about my dad doing the same when he was in high school. That's what young boys do, I guess. Dad did it, so I'm going to do it, too. Though I was entirely average at both, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And Dad was pretty average when he played to hear him tell it, so that seemed OK to me.
But it wasn't the playing so much as it was the watching and talking about sports that was such a great connection with me and Dad throughout the years. No matter what was going on, we could always talk about the Packers, Brewers or Bucks. In good times, or in bad. And there were times we'd talk for hours.
Growing up in Sheboygan, Wis., we were a short drive down Interstate 43 from Milwaukee Bucks basketball games and Milwaukee Brewers baseball games. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, that meant steady doses of Sydney Moncrief, Junior Bridgeman and Paul Pressey at the old Mecca Arena, and Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper at the old County Stadium. Like every kid, I'd ask Dad why everyone booed Cooper when he got up to bat. Like every Dad, he'd tell me, "They're yelling, 'Coop.'" But even the losing seasons didn't keep us away. Really, what's better than sitting out in the sun and eating peanuts at a ballgame with your dad? And despite all the times he said it, I still eat them with the shell on.
Keith and his dad from their first game at Lambeau Field in 2001.
But I fondly recall Dad taking me to Kindt Lumber to meet Packers quarterback and fan favorite David Whitehurst when I was 7. Whitehurst led Green Bay to an 8-7-1 record and a share of the NFC Central crown in 1978. It was the best finish by one of Starr's teams. Fortunately, the older I got, the better Green Bay got, which made watching infinitely more enjoyable.
By the time I interned with the Green Bay Packers' public relations department after college, I finally had the chance to return the favor for all the games Dad took me to as a kid. I scored him seats at midfield and playoff tickets during a Super Bowl season. One of my best memories in the world was looking up from the sideline during the 1994 Green Bay home opener and spotting Mom and Dad in the crowd, holding a Game Day program with an article I wrote on former defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.
Later that season, I'd call Dad from a phone in the press box at Texas Stadium prior to the divisional playoff game, just because I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather share that moment with. I remember telling him excitedly that I was the youngest guy in the press box. Sometimes I felt like I snuck my way in and somebody was going to take my credential. It just seemed too cool to be 23 and doing what I was doing. But Dad was even more excited.
I also surprised Dad that year with an autographed football signed by nearly everyone on that 1994 squad ... except Sterling Sharpe, who wouldn't sign anything. But Brett Favre, Reggie White and Gilbert Brown's signature was on there. Speaking of Brown, I remember Dad sitting on a chair in the corner of the living room looking through the sports page back in 1993 and mentioning that Green Bay signed some big defensive tackle that the Vikings waived. "He's 6-2, 330 pounds. Can you imagine if he turned into something?" Dad would say. Who knew he'd be right. Anyway, Dad choked up when he opened the signed ball and took it out. They're right about giving being better than receiving, because that's up there on the list of best holiday memories.
With our love of the Packers and the NFL, it made sense that college football was big for us, too. Dad was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma back in the 1960s and would always talk about the Sooners' rivalry with Texas. Someday, I'll get around to reading "The Undefeated," a Jim Dent book about Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak. I got it for Dad as a gift one year and he raved about it.
Somewhere around the time my second son was born and my mom passed away, Dad officially became the college football expert of the family. But he had more time to watch and I had less. Turns out that just meant we had more reason to talk leading up to the NFL Draft every year, which was practically a holiday in my book.
It was six years after the Packers stopped playing games at County Stadium that we finally moved off the Gold Package waiting list and into our seats in the North End Zone, Section 102, Row 40. Our first game was a rainy one versus Miami during the 2001 preseason. I actually had the chance to get us in a luxury suite that day but insisted that we had to sit in the stands for our first game at Lambeau. We had gone to Packer games in Milwaukee, but this was something special.
Turns out we'd never got the opportunity to sit in a suite again, but I wouldn't trade that preseason game in the rain for anything. We had some great times and great conversations sitting in those seats. We'd go on about current players, past players, other teams' players. Dad would always talk about Paul Hornung and John Brockington and he was practically giddy the time he walked from our seats to get something to eat and ran into Hall of Famer Willie Wood.
And if Dad was there for a Gold Package game and I was in the press box, I'd always find him with my binoculars, just so I felt like we were watching it together. Our last game in the stands was the Dallas game last season. After I proclaimed that the flyover would be the highlight of the afternoon, Green Bay rebounded from their loss the previous week at Tampa Bay and dished out a beatdown led by Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews. Shows what I know.
I've been doubly fortunate in that my other gig at Eastbay, the sports shoe and apparel company in Wausau, Wis., has given us some pretty special opportunities, too. There were tickets to the All-Star Game at Miller Park in 2002, and something we never thought we'd see -- a Brewers playoff victory in 2007. Dad was so sick that day after dialysis that he almost didn't make it to the game. And he didn't feel much better once he got there. This was a little more serious than Dad grimacing through shoulder pain in the front yard. But it wouldn't have meant as much without him there.
There were Bucks games where we were center court and could hear the players jawwing as they went up and down the court. If you've never seen an NBA game that close, pay whatever you need to and do it at least once. It is a different game. But what sticks with me is how tickled Dad always was that our seats were in front of former senator and team owner Herb Kohl. I'm pretty sure Mr. Kohl sat higher up because he liked it, but I didn't want to spoil it for Dad.
So many great memories. Too many to confine to a single column. But enough. I hope to ignite a few more conversations between me and Dad. All the rest are a lifetime's worth that I'll cherish, and be able to share with my own sons, Hayden and Cole, as they grow up.
Sports, after all, has never just been about touchdowns and home runs or scores and stats. It's about memories and moments, and shared experiences between fathers and sons that last a lifetime. And even beyond.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.