GREEN BAY – As the unmistakable Packers bus departed the Lambeau Field parking lot on a sunny Friday morning, the 11th annual Tailgate Tour was off to do what it always does.
Thank the fans.
"I love the fact that we get a chance to meet some fans that may not make it to Lambeau Field," said former safety LeRoy Butler, one of three alumni players along with three current players participating on this year's tour.
"Seeing there's over a hundred thousand people waiting for (season) tickets, here's a chance for us to basically give back to the fans, because without the fans, we're nobody. I just appreciate that. I really do."
Butler is being joined by Super Bowl XXXI teammates Robert Brooks and Sean Jones, along with current Packers Sam Barrington, Jayrone Elliott and Wisconsin native Jared Abbrederis. All six are on their first Tailgate Tour, while President/CEO Mark Murphy is on his ninth.
Murphy calls this one of his favorite weeks of the year. As the tour makes surprise stops across the state and hosts tailgate parties in various Wisconsin communities over a five-day stretch, proceeds benefit non-profit groups.
Over its first decade, the tour raised nearly $1.8 million for charity, Murphy said. But it's the up-close interaction with the fans that carries the day at each and every stop.
"Our fans are genuine," Brooks said. "They're not conjuring up anything. It's always been the same. It's not a fair-weather deal, where our team is good now and everybody is supporting them. They've been here hell or high water.
"The excitement is always there, whether it's a game or a Tailgate Tour."
Green Bay Packers players, alumni and staff departed Lambeau Field Friday morning for the 11th annual Tailgate Tour. Photos by Ryan Hartwig, Packers.com
Jones added that NFL players can't really appreciate the widespread passion of the Packers' fan base, and all the history behind it, unless they play in Green Bay. Before signing with the Packers in 1994, Jones remembered playing in Green Bay for the Raiders, and owner Al Davis made the players visit the Packer Hall of Fame while the team was in town.
"It was a must. We had to do that, and I didn't get it at the time," Jones said. "When I got back up here, I got it. It made all the sense in the world, with the history and everything. The fans are so engaging, and it's a big deal, it really is."
Among the current players, Barrington was honored last year by the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce with its annual community service award. At the ceremony, he challenged his teammates to get more involved in the community, and that's partly what prompted Elliott to hop on the tour this year.
"I told him I looked up to him for that, and I'm going to try to steal the award from him and try to be better than him if not as good as him," Elliott joked. "He's definitely one of my biggest role models on the team.
"It's not so much for the award, it's about me giving back whenever I can."
Elliott admittedly will be distracted on Sunday night, though, when Game 7 of the NBA Finals is played. An Ohio native and devoted Cleveland Cavaliers fan, Elliott is starting to connect his passion for the Cavs to that of Packers' fans, and there's no way he's missing the game.
"Hopefully they've got ABC in the hotel," he joked. "This is a great time right now. It feels like the playoff vibe around Green Bay."
Elliott added that he might have to watch the game alone, because the outcome will be so emotional for him either way. Abbrederis said he's not letting him get away with that.
"No, I'm going to find him," Abbrederis said. "I'm going to find him and make sure to give him a hard time."
All kidding aside, the players are anticipating some fun times amongst each other and with the fans they meet and surprise along the way. The tour has never disappointed in that respect.
"I'm definitely looking forward to getting out here with these fans today, and I know they're going to be enthused, so I have to bring my enthusiasm," Barrington said.
"All these smiles, I'm just thankful I have an opportunity to be around such positive energy."