Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Reward is in the Journey

There were times when I thought that a moment like this would never happen again. But here we stand, and the Green Bay Packers are once again Super Bowl Champions. It's a moment that as a fan I've only experienced once in my life, and back then I was too young to appreciate it. But now, my goodness is this ever sweet. You see, it wasn't that we can just won the one game that made Super Bowl XLV so special. It wasn't just how fun these last six weeks have been that made this game worth celebrating. It wasn't even the rollercoaster ride that we've experienced this season that brought tears to my eyes upon the final whistle. Instead, it was the entire journey in between Super Bowl's thirty-one and forty five that made Sunday night the best night that I've had as a Packers fan, and quite possibly, my life.

Hear me out. I was thirteen years old when the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, and when you're that young you have no idea about the magnitude, really, of anything, the Super Bowl being no exception. You know it's a big game, and you know that you want to be the champions, but you don't know just how rare that accomplishment is. How rare it is not only to get to win the game, but to get there in the first place. The victory after the 1996 was definitely something I took for granted, in large part because I figured it was a moment we'd experience over and over and over again. Hey, the Packers had a great team back then. They went 13-3 that season, dominated in the playoffs, they had a young Brett Favre, a great coach in Mike Holmgren, and a team full of talented veterans. Winning the Super Bowl appeared so easy for that team in 1996, and as a child I just figured that kind of success could be easily duplicated. But oh how I was wrong.

Since that day in January of 1997, Packers fans have gone through more heartache than possibly any other franchise in sports. There are clubs that can lay a stake in that claim, but it'd be close. Since 1997, the Packers and their fans have experienced being on the losing end of John Elway's helicopter dive in Super Bowl XXXII, the last second catch by Terrell Owens in the '98 Wild Card round, the dreadful Ray Rhodes experiment, the six interceptions in St. Louis, Michael Vick beating us in the snow, the death of Reggie White, 4th and 26, Randy Moss mooning us, losing the NFC Championship Game in the bitter cold to Eli Manning, the annual retirement drama from Brett Favre that led to him being traded to the Jets only before becoming a member of the rival Vikings and beating us twice, the overtime loss in Arizona, and then this year with the constant stream of injuries including to two of our most respected leaders that kept them out of the second half of the Super Bowl.

That's quite a stretch of heartbreaking moments, not to mention that for the last three years this fanbase had been divided to a point because of the way that Favre left the Packers.

Whereas three days ago that list of moments would have brought me to my knees in sadness, reflecting on those moments now only makes me smile, You hear it all the time, but it really is the journey that makes any moment of success feel so wonderful. And it's been one hell of a journey. The faces are different since we last experienced Super Bowl glory - the coaches, the players, the management, they've all changed. But the fans are the same. Throughout the last thirteen years of agony, the fans have remained the one constant, even though there were times when rooting for success seemed futile.

But none of that matters anymore.

Let's welcome Brett Favre back to Green Bay, I don't really care. That demon has been exercised, the guy can do whatever he pleases. No longer does this franchise feel shadowed by his legacy. The terrible luck the Packers have had in the playoffs as of late? Those just made us more aware of how impressive the 2010 playoffs really were. How about this for new list of Packers moments - Matt Flynn playing like an all-star in New England. DeSean Jackson completing a comeback against the Giants that put the Packers in control of their own destiny. The raucous atmosphere at Lambeau for the game against New York. The Nick Collins interception to seal the game against Chicago and put the Packers in the playoffs. Tramon Williams interception of Michael Vick, and his touchdown the following week in Atlanta. Aaron Rodgers virtuoso performance against those same Falcons. The championship belt. Teach Me How to Raji. Rodgers' tackle of Brian Urlacher. Sam Shields with a game sealing pick to send the Packers to the Super Bowl. Greg Jennings' two touchdowns in Dallas. Clay Matthews forcing the Mendenhall fumble. The final kneel down to win Super Bowl XLV.

Now that's a list I'm willing to talk about for the next thirteen years.

For Packers fans, this was about more than one single game, or even one single season. This was about us needing to have the last thirteen years of heartbreak rectified. This was about having the journey that we've been on given a purpose. We needed this victory more than the Steelers, or more than any other NFL franchise ever could have that day. This was about knowing that all the struggle we've gone through as fans was worth it.

I'll admit, Sunday wasn't easy. I was two thousand miles away from the actual game but I'm willing to think that a victory in that Super Bowl means as much to me, and as much to many of us, as it does to any man in that locker room. I woke up on Sunday morning and basically was in tears from the start as I realized that this day and this opportunity had actually once again come. I got misty-eyed after the Packers scored two touchdowns in about thirty seconds when the game appeared as if it could be a rout. I became angry when James Jones dropped a pass on a route that was sure to be a touchdown, as I felt like that was going to be just another devastating moment in the last decade and a half of failures. When you let yourself become vulnerable so often, you become more heartbroken with each passing disappointment. It's hard not to think the worst in those moments. But this Packers team wasn't going to let the struggles of the last thirteen years define them. They went to Dallas to create their own moment, to atone for every miserable one since 1996. And when their dream was realized, and when we as Packer fans could finally celebrate again, the emotions became overwhelming.

For thirteen years, I have had a depository of tears in my eyes that I've been waiting to cry out in joy. Each year that passed, the bigger the depository grew. But let me tell you, once it was realized that the Packers were once again Super Bowl champs, once it was realized that the demons of the last thirteen years now could be released, I released enough tears to cover me for a lifetime. And I cherished every last drop.

Somewhere out there right now, there is a young boy who really likes the Packers. He watches every game with his dad, and he'll wear his Aaron Rodgers jersey to school proudly this week. He's happy right now, he certainly is and deservedly so. What he doesn't yet realize is how much he should be cherishing this Super Bowl victory. The young boy probably sees how young and loaded this current team is, and thinks that it will be more common to make the Super Bowl than it will be not to. He will think how the 2010 Packers made winning three playoff games on the road and then the Super Bowl look so easy.

But before we hoist Lombardi again, he'll find that there will be heartbreak. There will be devastating moments where he questions why he invests so much time in something of which he has no control. There will be more soul-crushing losses that will be given monikers such as "4th and 26", where he will be filled with anger just upon mention. But then, there will be a season where everything works out just right. Where the plays that need to be made are made, and where the moments that once seemed impossible will come to fruition. And he will relish the moment, but he will also look back at the journey. Not only of what the Packers have been through but what he has gone through. The changes that he has made in his life, and how the Packers were the steady constant for him. He won't just be happy because the Packers were the better team across a sixty minute timespan. He'll be overjoyed because of the journey that got them to that point, and how we was with them every step of the way.

And when he looks back on the championship that the Packers won when he was a boy compared to the one that they someday will win again, he'll look back on every moment. Every joyous high, every crushing low. He'll look back on the journey, smile, and a tear will come to his eye. He'll see that the journey was worth it, and even though at times it seemed like investment would go unrequited, he knows that he wouldn't change a single damn thing.

Thank you Packers.

This win means more to me than you will ever know.


Tony Brown said...

I'm with you on the journey, man. Even though I was only 13 when the Packers last won the Super Bowl, I do vividly remember the game. As far as the season goes, there is very little I can pick out as a memory. I even had to look up who we played in the first playoff game. This year I was in for the long haul. There are countless plays I will recall for years to come, the little moments which make the big, pretty picture. This was the culmination of the season and the saga. Super Bowl Champs! Love it.

rory said...

Really nice reflective piece, Winkler. It was really easy to read myself into those memories, and it made me think of the last Packer blog post I did, wherein I ranked the devastating Packer playoff losses over the last 17 years. Here's the link, if you're interested: http://btgreenandgold.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/where-does-this-playoff-loss-rank/

So yeah: this one was worth the long, long, long wait.

Let's hope the next one comes in a mere 365 days.

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