I’m a news reporter, which is quite far off from my former dream of being a punt returner, specifically for the Green Bay Packers.
I was raised a Packers fan and haven’t wavered in that loyalty. I wavered in my expectations of my own football capabilities, a process that began when I realized I wanted no part of getting hit by all the dudes joining the football team my freshman year of high school.
I was much better at flagging down athletes with a pen than with any sort of flying tackle. My family would go to Packers training camp every July, and I’d buy a Sharpie and a hat — something bright with a lot of space — and go to town.
The Packers practiced across the street from their stadium, and players would make the trek through the parking lot each day, either on foot or on bicycles of local kids who were lucky enough to live in Green Bay, a veritable Mecca for my family.
Like a 10-year-old paparazzi cluster, kids with their pens would jog alongside bikes, or walk with arms outstretched, flagging an autograph. I was an expert. I used proper names (“Mr. Green!”) instead of the entitled-sounding first-name basis employed by other, witless children. (Like paparazzi, we also were fierce competitors.)
On one hand, it was good exercise. It was a lot of running in the comparatively mild July Wisconsin heat. On the other hand, it was the thrill of the signature — proof that there was this famous athlete and I was there with them and we interacted.
There are a lot of Packers fans around here, due in handsome part to the athletic prowess of Bill Snyder product and Kansas State Wildcat alumnus Jordy Nelson. He’s a Kansas kid, and, years later, a true Packer.
I got his autograph Friday, and I was a child with a Sharpie again.
Nelson holds an annual auction and benefit festival in his hometown of Leonardville, Kansas, population 458. This Friday he was in town, and again agreed to sign autographs in exchange for a donation to his cause: two sick individuals in the Leonardville community.
It wasn’t the authentic hunt I was used to on the grounds of the frozen tundra, as Green Bay’s Lambeau Field is commonly called, but it was the same feeling of anticipation when it came to the autograph.
To his credit, Nelson started signing autographs around 6 p.m., and didn’t stop until 10 p.m. For a guy who gets paid millions to play three-hour games, spending four hours writing his name over and over, all for the benefit of two individuals in need, was admirable — slightly heroic even.
I’m older now, not as quick to ascribe moral values to athletes I like, but the nerves I felt waiting in line to interact with Jordy Nelson were the same as always. I had spent seven years yelling at this guy through my television screen. Now I had a chance to say something to his face. But what?
It was embarrassing, but it was exactly what I had longed for. I waited in line for two hours. I was nervous about what I’d have him sign — my shirt? No, I’m wearing my shirt. My hat? My hat was black, I knew that had been a mistake.
In the end, I got what I wanted — a handshake, a picture, and the satisfaction of watching him sign this big dumb rock on which my fiancée had painted a Packer ‘G.’ I even said all I really needed to: “Thank you.” I also got to have an amazing burger at his parents’ restaurant, Nelson’s Landing.
But one of the greatest values of sports is that our enthusiasm for them is timeless. What I’ll remember most is that all these years later, the autograph still meant something to me. For those few hours, and in the beautiful, grinning aftermath, I was 10 again.
— ELIOT SILL