A Super Bowl season was on the verge of implosion. So adding a potentially combustible element to the mix hardly seemed like the right move. Count the great Reggie White among those who held this belief to be true.
The square Green Bay Packers locker room in the pre-2003 version of Lambeau Field was about half the size of the current football-shaped configuration. When a large media contingent was allowed in, it could become cramped with little room for private conversation.
On this day, the huddled masses waited with nervous anticipation around the locker of the newest and in some ways riskiest Packer to arrive for his meet-the-press moment. After a couple minutes, he appeared from a hallway, smiling, as he approached. But before he could even begin to field queries, he was stopped. The “Minister of Defense” wanted to have a word with him.
White, as the legend goes, commanded a locker room in a way that made Mike Holmgren, Ron Wolf or even Brett Favre seem clout-less. The scratchy, authoritative voice. A God-fearing faith. Hall of Fame accomplishments. And yes, that sheer size. All 6-foot-5, 300-plus pounds of it.
This was one of those pivotal, behind-closed-door moments. Yet it was all in plain sight. White asked for a minute, pulled the subject aside and delivered his plea. Only two were privy to the conversation, but the message assumed by witnesses seemed pretty clear.
In essence, White was saying, “Don’t mess this up.”
In some ways, it already was.
Taking a chance
The Packers’ 1996 season was at a crossroads. A touch of panic was setting in amongst the fans if not the coach. The Packers were everyone’s favorite to win the Super Bowl, but they hit a snag in November with a troublesome two-game losing skid. The Packers had started the season 8-1, including an opening stretch when they outscored opponents 115-26 over three games.
After losses at Kansas City and Dallas, the Packers realized they needed more — on offense, specifically. Top wide receiver Robert Brooks had been lost for the season with a knee injury and fellow passing targets Antonio Freeman and tight end Mark Chmura were hurting. The Packers had been starting eight-year veteran Don Beebe and Terry Mickens, essentially their No. 3 and 4 receivers, for three games. Backup Desmond Howard was primarily a return specialist and rookie Derrick Mayes had yet to earn the trust of the coaches to assume a larger role. With only three garbage-time touchdowns in the last two games, the Packers needed a spark.
Just then, Wolf, the Packers’ general manager, had a shaky proposition for his coach — put in a waiver claim on recently released Andre Rison. Knowing Rison’s past as a “wild child,” as Holmgren puts it, there was hesitation at first.
“Oh, boy,” said Holmgren when Rison’s name came up at a speaking event in Green Bay in September.
The Packers needed to swing the momentum of the season, however, which Holmgren fully realized. In the end, they took the chance on a talented player who had a history of domestic issues off the field and a reputation as an outspoken malcontent on it.
The 29-year-old Rison had been on four teams in eight NFL seasons. His most recent stop, Jacksonville, saw him clash with coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Mark Brunell before the team released him. “I think it was more personal,” said Rison to the Green Bay media regarding his fallout with the Jaguars.
The Packers had done their homework on Rison. Following the 1994 season, they pursued him in free agency but Rison chose to sign with the Cleveland Browns, who put up more money.
This move, however, was more about desperation for the Packers. Favre, who played with Rison during his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons, and Holmgren agreed to give Rison a clean slate.
The “wild child” would test the coach almost immediately.
No shirt, no shoes, no service?
Holmgren ran a tight ship. Or in this case, a tight plane. On team charters to road games, he always told the flight attendants to alert him if any of the players were causing trouble. He would take care of it.
As Holmgren recalls, it was the flight to St. Louis, where the Packers were looking to turn around their season after two losses, when he got the proverbial tap on the shoulder. It was the flight attendant. She said there was an issue with one of the players. It was Rison.
Holmgren never asked what the issue was. Instead, he got up and walked toward the back of the plane to talk to the newest Packer. There, he saw an image he will never forget. Amongst a sea of teammates wearing suits and ties, there was Rison eating his in-flight dinner with a napkin, but without a shirt.
“I said, ‘Andre, how are you doing?’ recalled Holmgren. “He said, ‘Good. This is really good food.’ I said, ‘OK. Listen. Let me ask you something. Do me a favor and look around the plane and see if there’s anything different about you than everyone else.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean no shirt?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Oh, you want me to put on a shirt?’ I said, ‘Yes. Please.’ So he puts on his shirt and keeps eating.”
Holmgren learned to adapt to Rison like he did all of his other players. Despite coming to Green Bay with baggage and never really grasping the playbook — this was the first time he played in the West Coast offense — Rison was a perfect fit in at least one area. He was a strong personality on a team full of them. There was the aforementioned White and purebred southern Favre. Chatty LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson. Free-spirited military muscleman Travis Jervey. Intimidator Wayne Simmons. Climate-challenged Keith Jackson. Towering Sean Jones. And 15-year veteran Jim McMahon. Yes, that Jim McMahon.
As unlikely as it would be to see McMahon show up for a Packers alumni event these days, it was of similar strangeness to see Rison invited back for the Nov. 6 game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lambeau Field. After all, his career in Green Bay lasted just eight games (including the postseason). With Brooks returning in 1997, he became expendable and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs before finishing his career in Oakland and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
Rison caught 20 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns with the Packers. One of those touchdowns will be forever etched in Packers history.
Super Bowl paydirt
The play is right up there with some the greatest and most memorable in Packers history. While maybe not as profound as Bart Starr’s Ice Bowl sneak or Al Harris’ pick-six to win a playoff game in overtime, it no less captures one of the iconic moments.
If Lambeau Field ever added a player statue next to those of Curly and Vince just outside the Atrium at 1265 Lombardi Ave., it might be one of a joyous Favre running off the field with his helmet raised high in one hand after the first touchdown of Super Bowl XXXI. The 54-yard pass play was caught by Rison at the 21-yard line before he duck-walked his way across the goal line. On their second offensive play of the game with just 3:32 elapsed, the Packers made a resounding statement.
Even in his fifth year as the Packers starter, Favre had a tendency to get over-amped at the beginning of games, sometimes leading to errant throws. This one, however, could not have been more on the money. Favre changed the play at the line of scrimmage to a combination route between the wide and slot receiver to the left. Rison, who had a difficult time remembering the plays according to Holmgren, got the message this time. With the New England Patriots blitzing on a second-and-9 from the Packers’ 46, Chmura stayed in to block and running back Edgar Bennett picked up linebacker Ted Johnson. That gave Favre a clean pocket and plenty of time to lob a rainbow over the middle to Rison, who easily beat cornerback Otis Smith for the score.
By the Super Bowl — the first in 29 years for the Packers — the injured weapons on offense (besides Brooks) had long returned. Though Rison’s statistics with the Packers turned out to be pedestrian, his speed opened up the field for Freeman and Chmura down the stretch. The Packers scored at least 30 points in each of their last six games (including the postseason).
Rison caught a season-high five passes in his Packers debut at St. Louis on Nov. 24, days after White held the one-on-one conversation with him. The Packers came back in the second half of that game to win, 24-9. They never lost a game the rest of the season.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org