WITTENBERG, Wis. — Mark Murphy gained a greater appreciation for the unique nature of the Packers' franchise through his years as both an NFL player and NFLPA executive.
However, it wasn't until the Packers President/CEO began participating in the team's annual Tailgate Tour 10 years ago that Murphy truly realized how special the organization and its fan base is.
As has been customary, Murphy joined several current and former Packers on Tuesday for the 12th annual Tailgate Tour, a five-day trek across Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula featuring stops at schools, hospitals, businesses, parks, community recreation facilities, and military locations.
While many NFL teams host events to help sell season tickets, the Packers have used the Tailgate Tour as a way to give back to the communities and fans who support them. The event has raised more than $2 million for charity in its 11 years.
"Going on a tour like this and seeing the kind of fan support we get, it's pretty amazing when you see it," said Murphy on Tuesday morning. "They travel on the road with us, but seeing them in their communities and the support they have for the team is pretty remarkable."
In addition to Murphy, Packers all-time leading rusher Ahman Green, former kicker Ryan Longwell, former receiver Robert Ferguson, and current Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski, linebacker Jake Ryan, and quarterback Brett Hundley are all participating on this year's tour.
It's the first time for three current Packers to participate in the event, but they were fully aware of the its significance and the importance of giving back.
"We're going to do our best to get out there and talk to everybody and hear everybody's stories and share ours," Ripkowski said. "The fans come see us all the time and now it's our turn to turn around and go see them, and give back a little bit."
This year's tour was meaningful for Green, who was supposed to participate back in the event's early days in 2007. However, Green wasn't able to after signing with Houston as an unrestricted free agent during that same offseason.
The 2017 Packers Tailgate Tour made its first stop at Wittenberg Birnamwood High School. The Packers spoke to the students and presented a $2,000 Play 60 donation. Photos by Matt Haberkamp and Aaron Popkey, packers.com.
During the bus's first surprise stop at Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, Green spoke to the students about setting goals and pursuing dreams.
Seeing the outpouring of support the team receives everywhere it travels comes as no surprise to Green, who maintains a year-round residence in the area.
"I'd be shocked if like only 10 people showed up because I know how the Packer faithful are," Green said. "When we show up in an area for an event, big or small, they always show up in droves."
Wittenberg-Birnamwood principal Jill Sharp and superintendent Garrett Rogowski were sworn to secrecy about the tour coming to the school. To get the students together, the school coupled the Packers' surprise with girls basketball coach Mike Balliett receiving a coach of the year award.
Once the students were brought together into the auditorium, Sharp playfully told them they might want to consider moving closer to the front. Those who did were soon treated to the ultimate of surprises when the Packers burst through the doors.
The Wittenberg-Birnamwood student body enjoyed a Q&A session with Murphy and the players, which included Ryan receiving a prom invitation from junior Victoria Donbeck.
"To have the Packers come is pretty special for any community, so we're really grateful for that opportunity," Sharp said. "Just to have them talk about what it really means to preserve to the end and chase a dream, and sometimes those hardships come in the way and kids need to understand that's the human factor. That's going to happen and it's really good to see where these guys have come from and all the work they've put into their careers."
In spirit with the NFL's Play 60 initiative, the school district received a donation from the Packers, which Sharp said will be used to fund the construction of a disc-golf course the school has been planning.
The players also heaved mini-footballs to the students before leaving for the next stop in Wausau, but their advice about how dedication to academics translates to every facet of life was a message Rogowski felt was important for students to hear.
"The connect to life after football and making sure you've set yourself up for success during that educational window of opportunity, that reinforcement was really nice to see," Rogowski said. "Because people's playing careers end and they need to fall back onto a passion and those things that they've prepared themselves for the long term, so that was great to see."
Longwell, who had been the franchise's all-time leading scorer until Mason Crosby reset the record this past season, has worked with the Packers on alumni events since officially retiring with the team in 2013.
Getting a chance to embrace the fans who embraced him during his nine years in Green Bay is what makes it so worthwhile for Longwell. As the bus continues its voyage north, that sentiment will be relayed at every stop across the state.
"It's great to come back to Lambeau and get up to the U.P., and hang out with former teammates and current guys and see the fans," Longwell said. "I was fortunate enough to play for a few organizations and these are the best fans in the world. It's fun to see how rabid they are and how excited they get in April."