Little did anyone know then that a 12th-round draft choice from a very nondescript draft class and who would play through the darkest days of Packers football since before Vince Lombardi arrived in Green Bay, would become a symbol of what is good about the Packers.
You have to run your finger down from first-round pick Barry Smith and across a field of forgettable names before you come to McCarren’s. These days, you can find his name in the Packers Hall of Fame.
“That’s hard to believe,” McCarren said during a break in the Packers’ “Tailgate Tour,” of which McCarren is one of seven touring members. The others are current Packers players
“I was a 12th-rounder, which would make me an undrafted free agent today. Ten years later, how many guys are still in the league? It’s amazing how many guys are not. The number is scary. It shows what a cold, hard business it can be,” he said.
He spent 12 years in the NFL, all of them with the Packers. He followed his playing career by becoming a long-term member of the team's broadcast crew and a local TV news personality. In the summer of 1973, McCarren headed north from the University of Illinois and his direction has never turned south.
“I can remember we started very early. I drove up on the Fourth of July. The actual season started much later then. You drive up in a 1970 VW bug with a broken window and a lot of hope, dreams and aspirations, but also with a lot of nervousness about being able to make the grade,” McCarren remembered of his first training camp.
Dan Devine was the Packers’ head coach. He was in the third year as coach of a team that would post consecutive losing seasons and result in his dismissal. Bart Starr would replace Devine as coach, but losing had settled on Green Bay for a long stay.
“Ignorance is bliss. Until the bar was re-raised, you didn’t know how dark things really were. You have a job to do. It starts with personal pride. The best thing a guy can do for his team is do his job well. You never got caught in the malaise of thinking I’m playing in a dark time,” McCarren said.
He settled in as that era’s fixture at center, was selected to a couple of Pro Bowls, and nearly 40 years after the Packers spent a 12th-round pick on McCarren, he’s still with the team. More than ever, his name is synonymous with the Packers. McCarren is one of their symbols.
“I covered it before, but I had never seen it from the inside looking out,” he said of the “Tailgate Tour,” which spent Thursday morning at the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison.
“It’s really cool on a number of fronts. At the top of the list is raising money for Ronald McDonald House, things like that, but there’s also the aspect of stopping at schools. The kids listen because those are their football heroes. The guys have done a great job talking about the issues that are confronting the kids nowadays.”
What if he had come along 10 years earlier, during the Lombardi years and the five NFL titles they produced?
“I’m lucky I didn’t,” he said, laughing. “Even though we didn’t enjoy team success, it was still a good ride. You get to live in the fraternity house an extra 10 years. Whatever era you were in, you still get paid well for your time.
“Playing the game is a privilege. Playing in Green Bay? You can’t ask for more than that, even in the dark times.”