One topic has reached a heightened awareness and the other never gets old.
The second “Sport & Society in America” conference concluded on Thursday at Lambeau Field with a pair of panel discussions that sparked lively storytelling on the fourth floor of the Atrium.
First, former Packers players Ahman Green and Bryce Paup talked about the transition to life after football, a timely topic in the wake of media attention surrounding post-career physical and mental health issues for retired players.
Then, former team president Bob Harlan and former general manager Ron Wolf re-lived the resurrection of the Packers from their quarter-century malaise following the Vince Lombardi era.
Both topics captured plenty of audience attention and prompted thoughtful inquiries of the panelists.
Green and Paup are at different stages of their post-playing transitions, so their perspectives were valuable. The last of Green’s 12 years in the NFL was 2009, when he came back to Green Bay after an original seven-year stint (2000-06) with the Packers and set the team’s all-time rushing yardage record.
He admitted that watching the Packers go on to win a championship the following year without him, as he hoped every day for one more phone call, was a difficult beginning to “retirement.”
“That was a rough patch, seeing the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl,” he said. “I could have been right there if they had called at any point.”
Since then for Green it’s been a matter of keeping busy. He has dabbled in television work, attended a Hollywood boot camp for players who aspire to get into show business, and he’s currently working on bringing a specialized workout facility to Green Bay.
Still, he confessed that he’d take one last shot at the game if somebody were to give him one.
“I’ve been a football player since I was six years old, and I’ll be a football player when I’m 80,” he said. “Even when I can’t do it, I’ll think I still can.”
That’s hard for veteran players to come to grips with in a young man’s game, Paup said. A linebacker for 11 seasons, the first five in Green Bay (1990-94), Paup retired following the 2000 season, and he said the mental challenge of being pushed to perform or risk being replaced was what eventually wore him down.
“They were always parading people through there to keep you on your toes,” Paup said, referring to a team’s personnel department constantly scouting young players who might take others’ jobs. “If everyone in the real world had to go through that every day at their jobs, you’d have been in the loony bin a long time ago.”
Yet, it’s the daily competition, structure and purpose to their lives, no matter how demanding and exhausting, that players struggle to find when they’re done with the game. Paup called it a “blessing and a curse” to have enough money to not be forced to do anything on any given day.
“You need to have a passion to get you out of bed in the morning,” said Paup, who also had to overcome dyslexia during his transition, a condition he never knew he had until after he retired. He now teaches a life skills class for teens and adults in the Green Bay community and is a local high school football coach. His “search for an identity” took him 3-5 years.
“There’s a grieving process,” he said. “You’ve lost something you’ll never get back.”
The suicides of former players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau have generated national debate over whether the depression that is suspected to have led to the suicides was a result of concussion-related brain trauma or post-career life struggles, or a combination of the two or more.
Panel moderator and Packers radio announcer Wayne Larrivee suggested the NFL and the players’ union share a responsibility to provide counseling and other education, both during and after players’ careers. Green and Paup agreed a “tag-team” approach might improve the situation.
“We think we’re invincible. We’re never going to come to the end of our careers,” Paup said. “We’re afraid to ask for help because our egos are too big. No one can see us as depressed.”
The second panel discussion also included depression – of an entire franchise and its fan base. Following Lombardi’s fifth and final NFL title in 1967, the Packers went 24 years with just four winning seasons and two playoff appearances.
Panel moderator Cliff Christl, a longtime Wisconsin sportswriter and Packers historian, quoted a piece by writer Frank Deford in which he discussed “widespread belief the Packers may never win again.”
“The fans were losing faith in us,” said Harlan, who took over as team president in 1989. “They said the Lombardi era was the last great football era we were ever going to have.”
That was until Harlan made the bold move to fire GM Tom Braatz late in the 1991 season and hire Wolf. Harlan decided the franchise’s primary need was a single authority over the football operations with no interference, and he offered Wolf that to lure him away from the Jets.
“In two days, he changed the face of the franchise,” Harlan said. The first day he told Harlan he wanted to trade for a backup quarterback in Atlanta named Brett Favre. The second day he watched the team practice and said he was putting an end to the “country-club atmosphere,” signaling a coaching change was coming at season’s end.
“Once Ron Wolf walked in the door, those calls from the fans stopped,” Harlan said.
Wolf went on to hire Mike Holmgren as head coach, trade for Favre, and sign Reggie White in free agency. All the while he was also changing the culture around the team, getting players to understand the history and tradition of the franchise without letting the organization live in the past.
“I told the players there’s something about putting on this uniform and running out onto Lambeau Field,” Wolf said. “This was not just any other city and any other stadium.”
One title and another Super Bowl appearance over the 1996-97 seasons followed. Both Harlan and Wolf credited current Packers GM Ted Thompson with maintaining the high level of success, and it’s no coincidence he has the same type of authority over the football operations that Harlan initially gave Wolf.
“You need that to succeed,” Wolf said. “It’s got to be your ship.”