While the ongoing pandemic is preventing the Packers from taking a full-fledged Tailgate Tour, the team still hit the road today to do a modified version of the trip: the Packers Road Trip. The itinerary is full of surprise visits to greet Packers fans in northeast, southeast and southwest Wisconsin. Plans call for the group to stop at numerous senior communities, hospitals, community centers and a variety of restaurants and businesses along the way.
After boarding the bus at Lambeau Field, Packers alumni James Jones, Ryan Grant, Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett got the Road Trip off to an exciting start with a stop at ASPIRO, where they were greeted with a warm welcome by several dozen ASPIRO clients and staff.
ASPIRO helps individuals with disabilities live their best lives, offering center-based employment and day services in a specialized setting with the necessary supports for success.
The group from ASPIRO was dressed head to toe in Packers gear, lining the driveway and waving as the bus pulled up. Nicole Hoffmann, ASPIRO's vice president of development, was happy to see the joyful reactions.
"We told them we were going to have a Packers day but we didn't tell them why, so this morning, they showed up in their Packer clothes," she said. "As they saw the Packers Road trip bus coming down the road, there were screams, hoots, hollers and a lot of emotion, so this is probably the best way they could start their day.
"There's no bigger Packers fans than the clients at ASPIRO, every Packers game they're decked out. They know everything that happened the next day and everybody watches. So Green Bay is ASPIRO's team!"
The second stop on the trip was not far away: Brookview Meadows in Howard. It was a treat for both the alumni and the senior residents living at Brookview. The players led the group in a game of bingo and several residents were big winners, receiving Packers hats, socks, pins and pennants as their prizes.
One bingo-player, Ralph, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. He has been a Packers fan since the 1930s, and had a Packers-themed party for his milestone day. He said that after a tough last year due to the pandemic, it's been wonderful to see family, friends, visitors and, of course, the Green Bay Packers, in person again. Consider it a special, belated birthday gift, Ralph!
Next, the group visited Bellin Hospital, where the alumni visited with healthcare workers and patients. One Bellin staff member who is new to the Bellin team was eager to meet the guys to let them know that he happens to be from Minnesota, so his NFL allegiances lay elsewhere. Of course, Morgan Burnett was quick to tell him it's never too late to convert to be a fan of the Green and Gold, and they negotiated for a while to figure out just what it would take to make him a Packers fan.
Having the opportunity to visit patients in person instead of over video chat was special for everyone at Bellin, especially one patient named Tony. A particularly avid fan, Tony told the alumni about his special G tattoo that he got during the preseason in 1996. He considered it "a prediction" and it paid off with the Packers' Super Bowl XXXI victory. "The Packers are the greatest," Tony added. "I always think G stands for greatness."
Of course, talk of championships led to chatter about the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, celebrating their Finals victory Thursday with a parade in Milwaukee. Several healthcare workers mentioned to the alumni that while the Brewers will be the next Wisconsin sports team in line for a championship in October, the Packers will be right behind in February. The entire group gathered agreed that the Bucks set the stage, and now the Brewers and the Packers should make it a trifecta.
After stopping in Manitowoc for a well-deserved lunch at the Courthouse Pub, followed by a quick ice cream break, the bus continued to Camp Anokijig in Plymouth. A youth summer camp on the banks of Little Elkhart Lake, Camp Anokijig gave the alumni a fun taste of the camp experience. Morgan went canoeing, helping paddle a 14-person boat around the bay, before hitting the basketball court, and James took his wide receiver skills to the "gaga ball" and "nine-square" courts. Nick and Ryan spent time at the archery and riflery range, as well as in arts and crafts. They both left with handmade friendship bracelets and new woodworking skills.
The visit at camp ended with a Q&A at the campfire, led by camp director Darin Holden. The questions ranged from silly ("why are you so tall?") and personal ("have you ever cried after a football game?") to poignant ("what was your proudest moment as a player?"). Nick shared the pride he felt when he got a phone call from former Packers GM Ted Thompson on NFL Draft day and learned he was being selected by Green Bay. Morgan talked about the way he felt when his teammates voted him captain in 2014 and how much it meant to him to have the respect of his teammates.
The visit ended with a presentation of a $5,000 check from the Packers to Camp Anokijig.
"This pandemic has been tough on (the kids) and we had to learn how to do camp in a whole new way to keep everybody safe," said Holder. "This was incredible, having the connection with the Packers and the support of the Packers. This kind of special stuff goes a long way."
The first day of the Road Trip wrapped up with a drive to Milwaukee, where the group will stay the night before continuing the journey on Friday.