Ray Rice of the Ravens made some harsh but not startling comments about the host city after his team lost to the Packers Monday night, saying, “To be honest with you, it was just Lambeau Field. I didn’t see anything special. They put us in the middle of nowhere and it’s not a real exciting place. Everything about this place is terrible, to be honest with you.”
First, let’s get this out of the way: Never trust anyone who says “to be honest with you” twice in the same paragraph. Now, let’s deal with the rest of his comments.
Cold weather, warm people
As someone who was a resident of the Green Bay area and an employee of the Packers for nine years, that comment was unfair but certainly not surprising for an opposing player, especially one bitten by the cold and a loss. Having represented the league’s smallest and coldest market, I know the challenges in attracting players, although once there, most embrace the football-frenzied atmosphere.
When the Packers’ general manager at the time, Ron Wolf, called me 10 years ago and asked if I wanted to “switch sides” and move from representing players to joining the team, I was flattered but had the same reaction to Green Bay as everyone does: “Brrrr!”
I looked up the area up on a map and figured out where this slice of the country was located. I flew into tiny Austin Straubel Airport and noticed a couple of things right away: snow-covered ground as far as the eye could see and half the populace wearing Packers gear.
I looked Ron in the eye and asked, “Please don’t take offense at this question, but do I have to move here to do this job?” He didn’t blink an eye and said, “No offense taken, and yes.” Two weeks later, I was working for him and living in the Best Western Midway Motel across the parking lot from the stadium, with new coach Ray Rhodes in the room on one side of me and eventually Donald Driver on the other.
Coming from the East Coast, Green Bay took some getting used to, but it became a nice haven to live and raise children. Life is full of pros and cons, and there were certainly both living in Green Bay. I heard many players and team executives ask, “How do you live there?” — incredulous about a place without curb appeal and, of course, the weather (as I write this, the area is dealing with an intense blizzard).
As the hundreds of coaches, players and other employees of the team will attest, the area is truly a unique place, where time stands still from the Lombardi era. There is probably no professional sports community that wraps itself around its team like Green Bay, and an element of Midwestern kindness permeates the area. There are truly no fans like Packer fans, as I still know from the many emails I receive from them daily.
Of the countless stories to illustrate this, here’s one: Coming home after a game with the Giants one night, I noticed my neighbors hosting several people wearing Giants gear. My neighbors met them at the game and invited them over to have dinner and drinks. Although the Giants fans couldn’t believe the hospitality, it happened all the time.
The hard sell
Recruiting players who had other options was a challenge. When free agency came to the NFL in 1993, the fear was that a place like Green Bay would never sign a marquee player because of the more geographically desirable options. Of course, that very year, the biggest trophy of all in free agency, Reggie White, joined the Packers (White loved the tradition of the franchise and didn’t mind the fact the Packers were paying more than anyone else).
While other teams treat players to first-class travel, fancy steakhouses and five-star hotels, Packers recruits wedge themselves into regional aircraft – no first-class seats – from Detroit, Chicago or Milwaukee; dine at the Prime Quarter, cooking their own steaks; and stay at the Airport Radisson attached to a small casino. If a player cared about amenities, he was not signing with the Packers. But if he was about football, football and more football, the Packers were the best option.
I will never forget the recruitment of Charles Woodson in 2006. We were coming off a disastrous 4-12 season, Brett Favre had not decided whether he was going to play again and Woodson’s visit coincided with a nasty snowstorm in bitter cold. Convincing him to join the Packers was a tall order.
Even though we were the highest bidders for his services, I felt like the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce trying to convince Charles and his agent, Carl Poston, that it would be a perfect fit for the former Michigan star. When we finally got to the point where the biggest question Charles had was whether we wore black cleats, I knew we had a shot. He was all about football. It took a while, but Charles has grown to enjoy the area and its uncomplicated life, staying pretty much to his close circle of friends and taking his piano lessons.
Green Bay is certainly not for everyone. We had a few players who wanted out and were not going to be placated even by a new contract. Mike McKenzie and Javon Walker were two who never gave specific reasons but were very clear in wanting to leave, regardless of what we did contractually. Those players, however, were more the exception than the rule. Many who left for one reason or another told me how much they missed the place.
Rice gets nice
I now live on the East Coast, where I’m from, and am not far from Ray Rice. There are some things I miss about Green Bay and some I do not, but Rice’s remarks after spending a day in Titletown were certainly off base.
Rice, as per the Damage Control 101 handbook, has apologized for his remarks (through Twitter, no less). It was not in his best interests to leave those comments out there.
Who knows, maybe even Rice will hope the Packers are an option if and when he hits the free-agent market in a couple years. “To be honest with you….”
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