Dorsey Levens' first reaction was all wrong.
"Oh, no," Levens described of his reaction when he was selected by the Packers in the fifth round of the 1994 NFL draft. "I thought I would go a lot earlier. So, on top of not going as early as I thought I'd go, I had to go to the coldest place in the NFL."
What Levens would discover is that he was going to a place so warm with affection for its football heroes that, all these years later, he can return to Green Bay and feel a kind of rebirth.
Levens, a star running back during the glory years of the Mike Holmgren era, has experienced that rebirth this week as he and a contingent of current and former Packers have made various stops in Wisconsin and Michigan on this year's "Tailgate Tour," a team charity event.
"The biggest benefit is the love," Levens said of what he has gotten out of the week-long bus ride. "You can see it in their eyes and in the way they talk that the Packers are very important to them; the Packers mean the world to them."
On Friday, the nine-man contingent made a surprise visit to the Luther Midelfort-Albert J. and Judith A. Dunlap Cancer Center in Eau Claire, Wisc. Levens and his "Tour" mates visited patients in four treatment rooms.
"When we visit the cancer patients and disabled vets, that's when you realize how important it is to them and how we can make a positive impact on their lives. It's life or death in most cases. If you can brighten their day or give them some hope, that's the best thing you get out of this trip," Levens said.
Levens is joined by Antonio Freeman and Gilbert Brown; the three were members of the Packers' Super Bowl XXXI championship team. Also on the "Tour" are current Packers players Matt Flynn, Desmond Bishop and Josh Sitton, 1960s Packers alumni Jim Taylor and Forrest Gregg, and Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy.
"I don't miss playing. My body was so torn down. I miss the camaraderie. I miss game day, but I know you can't show up on game day and play. I miss the fun stuff; I don't miss the not-so-fun stuff," Levens said.
He lives in Atlanta, where he starred as a collegian for Georgia Tech. He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was recruited to Notre Dame. Two disappointing years at Notre Dame caused him to transfer to Tech.
"I decided I'm going south of the Mason-Dixon Line, so at least if it didn't work out I'd be warm," he said.
As a member of the Packers, Levens taught himself how to overcome the cold. He rushed for 1,435 yards in 1997; it was the fourth-best total in the league that year.
"It's mindset. You just have to accept it. Once you accept it, it's a lot easier. I don't know what day it was that I had the epiphany but I said get over it, and then it became easier," Levens said of overcoming the cold.
These days, Levens is developing a career in theater. He has co-written, produced and will star in the stage play "Stripped," which is scheduled to run from July 27-31 this summer on the Georgia Tech campus. Levens plays the lead role in a production about football players that lose everything. The play deals with sensitive issues, such as bankruptcy, concussions, failed marriages, substance-abuse problems and more.
"It's a bunch of different true stories. Everything is based on true stories; nothing fictional. It's an inside look at pro athletes," he said. "We deal with everything. We leave no stone unturned."
Also starring in the production are former NFL players Karon Joseph Riley and Ryan Stewart. The play's two leading women are and were married to former NFL players.
"I've been acting for 10 years. I did a stage play last year. It went very well and I thought there was an opportunity for another stage play. I just ran with it," Levens said.
"Stripped" was previewed recently for sponsors of the play and "they loved it. It tugs at the heart a little bit. Hopefully, we'll bring it through Wisconsin. That's the plan," Levens said.
"I don't get back to Wisconsin a whole lot. I'm always open to new opportunities. This has been like being a rock star. Everywhere we go, we're treated like rock stars."
The "Tailgate Tour" was to conclude day five of its journey with a "Tailgate Party" on Friday night in Wausau, Wisc., before returning to Green Bay on Saturday for the final "Tailgate Party" of the tour, at Green Bay's East High School from 6-8:30 p.m. on Saturday.